When you finish reading Dr Nicolás Olea’s book about endocrine disruptors “Free yourself of toxins”, you start to look at your furniture, textiles and utensils a little differently.
Your mattress no longer seems so trustworthy, you look at your lipstick suspiciously and your child’s favourite rabbit soft toy doesn’t look so cuddly.
It is similar to when you start reducing your plastic use for the first time: suddenly you realise that it is everywhere you look. But this time, you are worrying about the toxic substances that surround us.
This researcher, doctor and Professor of Radiology and Medicine at Granada University pulls apart an invisible reality in just over 400 pages: we are surrounded by chemical toxins (many of them are present in plastic) and they are altering our hormonal systems and are seriously affecting our health and that of future generations.
This is why we wanted to speak to him, the most reknown expert on endocrine disruptors in the country, so that you can learn first-hand about how the hormonal pollutants affect your health and how to avoid them.
Many people who read this interview will have never heard about hormonal pollutants. So, to start with…what is an endocrine disruptor?
They are chemical compounds that alter hormonal messages. Hormones connect our organs and act as chemical mediators between them. Well, these endocrine disruptors are substances that modify, alter and interfere with these hormonal messages. These substances essentially hack the message that the hormone is looking to give.
As members of society dedicated to the war on plastic, there is one thing that particularly worries us: Is the use of plastic associated with cancer?
Well actually this question is too direct, because if you say yes, people will immediately jump all over you. But if you say no, you are ignoring or forgetting about years of research that associates the components of plastic with cancer.
The answer is yes: some components of plastic have hormonal activity. This hormonal activity can be associated with the growth of tumours, especially hormone-dependent tumours.
An example of one of these components is Bisphenol A (or BPA). It is used in one of the most common plastics – polycarbonate, and is also present in another very common product – Epoxy resins. Bisphenol A has oestrogen hormonal activity and in animal experiments it has been shown to promote breast development. This breast tissue has been found to be predisposed to the appearance of malignant tumours.
What I am telling you is so serious that the EU banned the use of polycarbonate in baby’s bottles on July 30th, 2011. On January 1st, 2020 (a few weeks ago), they also banned thermal receipts containing Bisphenol A. A series of measures related to the hormonal effects of these plastic components.
But the problem is not just Bisphenol A, right? Are there more hormonal components in plastics that can potentially be carcinogenic?
That’s right, there are many hormonal components in plastic. There are for example, the group known as phthalates, some members of which are strictly regulated, and many of which have hormonal activity and therefore can change the environment in which cells develop, this can at a certain point in time result in the cells turning into cancers or malignant tumours.
There are plastic components such as antimony and the ultraviolet filters, that are added to protect the contents from the plastic itself. There are antioxidants such as nonylphenols and alkylphenol that are used as anti-yellowing agents.
There are many compounds, known as endocrine disruptors that are directly related to plastic, either as plastic monomers or as additives used to give plastic its technical characteristics.
In a previous blog article of ours, we talked about the consequences of consuming plastic during childhood and we quote a statistic of yours in which you state that 100% of children’s urine contains plastic. How does this plastic get into their urine?
It is crazy. 100% of the Spanish population has Bisphenol A and phthalates in their urine. Its origin is, amongst other things, due to the exposure of children to plastics: via food, the digestive tract, the skin, cosmetics…. Anything you can imagine, and in the end these plastic monomers and additives end up inside the little bodies of all Spanish children and they are eliminated via their urine.
This is because many of these compounds are not cumulative, but this is still a huge problem. It is a major health issue.
Someone once asked me: “What do you wee, Doctor?”. Well, I too wee or urinate Bisphenol A, but fortunately when I was a boy I didn’t. We are not going to be able to say the same for the younger generation who have been exposed to Bisphenol A and phthalates since before they were even born (when they were just an embryo and a foetus).
And this should not have happened. There are complete generations that have been exposed from before they were born, during their childhood, adolescence and youth. The consequences of this exposure are yet to be seen, because what we have been able to see up until know are the consequences of adult exposure only. Those who have been exposed during the last 30 or 40 years, but were already developed individuals to begin with.
In fact, we are part of this generation, our mothers no doubt used chemical products during their pregnancies…
And without restriction. Every time the European authorities restrict or ban a compound it seems as if it doesn’t matter that we have been using it freely up until now. No further exposure is going to happen, but no one takes responsibility for the exposure that has taken place previously.
In the very same article we wrote “ we are experimenting with plastic not knowing exactly what the consequences are for the younger generations”. Having read your book, we were left with a bitter feeling that we are not only playing with the lives of the younger generations, but also the lives of generations in the distant future, that have not even been born yet. Would you agree?
Absolutely. It’s a problem that geneticists envisaged years ago, and it’s what happens when women are exposed during pregnancy. When exposure to a hormonal substance happens. It not only affects her, but also the embryo and the germ cells that this embryo has in its ovaries, for example.
So, exposure affects the mother’s, daughter’s and granddaughter’s generation. The consequences will be observed in their offspring, without there being a direct genetic cause in the strict sense.
In your book you talk about the “toxic cocktail” concept, can you briefly explain to us what this is about?
At the time when a chemical compound is registered for launch onto the market, they do animal studies and testing… that relate to this particular individual compound, in order to calculate the dose/risk limits and the amounts at which exposure should not take place for these individual compounds.
But the reality is not so. The reality is that one is exposed to hundreds of chemical compounds that are taken up by your body via different channels and converge, like a real storm-water drain of everything floating around in the environment. Then logic requires that you consider the combined effect of all these compounds inside your body. That is what is known as the cocktail effect.
Unfortunately this has very rarely or possibly never been considered because the compounds are evaluated on an individual basis. It does not line up with the reality of what is happening, that is the exposure to multiple compounds at once.
You have also collected a body of scientific evidence that shows that contamination exists and it is affecting the population right now. Why are products containing endocrine disruptor components still being marketed and sold?
Because legislation governing endocrine disruptors doesn’t exist as such. There has been huge resistance on the part of the industry and the manufacturers. Some don’t even want the fact of the compound’s hormonal activity to be identified as a risk factor for disease.
This is the big resistance to there being specific legislation for endocrine disruption, that has been demanded by Europe’s own parliament since 2013, but that for now, still has not been implemented.
What role does the chemical industry play in the legislation, by which a product can be approved as safe or not?
Europe does not have official independent laboratories to study the toxicity of these compounds, so when the time comes and toxicity criteria are established, it will be up to the laboratories themselves and the industry itself, manufacturers of these chemical compounds, to be responsible for and to pay for all the required testing and then present their results (that are then evaluated by one or various countries).
The key is that it is made a requirement, as part of the approval process, for a compound to be used in the environment. What is needed is that the politicians are even more committed and that they apply the scientific knowledge to the regulation of these compounds that we know are endocrine disruptors.
Faced with this, what is being done on a government level to protect everyday citizens?
Well look, the most important thing to know is that the major part of the decision making process, for countries such as Spain, is controlled by the EU. The European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council are the bodies that are discussing the topic of endocrine disruptors, even though the process is happening at a terribly slow rate.
What the Spanish people can do is, to put pressure on our European representatives so that they are more demanding and strict, resulting in the commission implementing rules more quickly. More research is not necessary. What is needed is more courage and more decision making in these political discussions where the future of the population is at stake.
Thank you to Dr Nicolás Olea for answering our questions, and please keep up your research to help us live life with less toxic chemicals.