The University of Newcastle, Australia

Chemicals in household items linked to cancer

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The United Nations has released a list of about 800 chemicals, many used in household products, that could damage the human hormone system.

Hand with fork digging into food

Article written by Jennifer Macey and published on the ABC News website. To listen to the radio audio and read the interview transcript, click here.

The chemicals, known as endocrine disrupters, mimic human hormones and have been linked to cancers, they can alter the development of unborn babies and contribute to disease such as obesity and diabetes.

The report by the UN's Environment Program warns not enough is known about how dangerous the chemicals are to human health.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the vast majority of these chemicals in current commercial use have not been tested.

John Aitken is a laureate professor of biological sciences at the University of Newcastle and an expert on reproductive health.

He says the list is just the tip of the iceberg.

"Basically, after the Second World War, there was an enormous explosion in the chemicals industry and a whole range of new chemicals were introduced into the environment that our biological systems are not designed to cope with," he said.

Many of the endocrine disrupter chemicals on the UN's list are found in cosmetics, household cleaners, electronic equipment and pesticides.

Professor Aitken says the link between these chemicals and diseases such as cancer, obesity or fertility problems, is uncertain and contentious.

"I think not enough research has been done to determine exact levels of exposure for humans," he said.

"One thing we do know is that things like testicular cancer are increasing all over the world, including New South Wales. In fact we have one of the fastest rising testicular cancer rates in the world.

"This is thought to be due to exposure of the pregnant mother to these kinds of endocrine disrupters."

He says people are easily exposed to endocrine disrupters every day.

"[They] are present in for example, plastics that we use day in and day out, for example they will be in some of the plastic containers in which we put our food, they get transferred to the food we eat, and that's how we get our level of exposure," he said.

The UN's report says there is a high incidence and increasing trend of many endocrine-related disorders in humans, such as breast, ovarian, prostate and testicular cancer.

But it says much more research is needed to identify the exact risk of exposure to these chemicals and the link to human health.

Toxicologist Ian Musgrave is a senior lecturer in pharmacology at the University of Adelaide.

He says the report's findings are important.

"What it's trying to do is try to summarise our degree of knowledge and our degree of uncertainty. So while we have got a fair degree of experimental evidence that endocrine disrupters can interfere with the male reproductive tract, there's less evidence that it is actually producing effect in the real world," he said.

He says it is also unclear what level of concentration poses a risk.

"We can measure really tiny concentrations of these chemicals, but many of these chemicals are at concentrations far too low to be of any direct impact to us," he said.

"On the other hand, there are quite a few which can persist in the environment and also build up in the food chians and these chemicals in particular are of worry."

The report says the sources of these endocrine disrupting chemicals are not known as they are simply not labelled or identified in many products and materials.

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