When it comes to addressing the risks of toxic chemicals, most government agencies are still operating in a 1980s paradigm – looking at the effects of one chemical at a time, catering to polluters’ interests more than public health concerns, and failing to protect the health of future generations.
Yet there is a bright spot. The National Toxicology Program, or NTP, is taking leadership in this emergent area, highlighting the growing evidence that some chemicals can alter epigenetic markers in sperm and eggs in a way that can be passed down to the next generation.
Last year EWG petitioned NTP to test the so-called Halifax approach to assessing the carcinogenic potential of exposures to chemical mixtures at environmentally relevant levels. The Halifax framework emphasizes that numerous chemicals can trigger the development and progression of cancer – even when these chemicals do not meet the traditional definitions of a carcinogen, as EWG described in our Rethinking Carcinogens report.
This week EWG testified at the NTP Board of Scientific Counselors, bringing the public health perspective to the foreground as the program considers its next steps on this important line of inquiry. EWG is eager to see NTP continue research on the potential for mixtures of environmental contaminants to cause cancer and non-cancer effects. The scientific understanding of the effects of mixtures will greatly benefit from the program’s studies, as well as from expanded monitoring of real-life exposures.
Despite decades of research into the relationship between people’s health and the environment, the medical community and government agencies face many daunting challenges when addressing the cancer epidemic, learning and behavioral problems that originate in childhood, and obesity and related metabolic disorders.
The latest science points to a largely unexplored ability of chemicals and nonchemical stressors to modify essential body functions, and suggests even short-term exposures could cause lasting damages. Only an investment in science and a committed public health framework for risk assessment will direct the nation toward a future of greater understanding, prevention and treatment for these intractable health problems.