Monday, December 04, 2006

Chemical Cocktail & Your DNA

Back when I took Organic Chemistry in college, I mindlessly took a big whiff of some clear liquid in a test tube, in order to confirm that I was holding a tube of ethanol. I nearly landed myself flat on the floor, because I had just inhaled a big dose of straight-up toluene! (This is a big part of why I have decided it is much safer for me to practice "chemistry" within the safe confines of a kitchen, with such mundane "reagents" as eggs and butter). At the time I chastised myself for potentially shortening my life, but I had no idea of the larger picture -- I could very well have doomed future generations to permanent genetic weaknesses. Thankfully I don't have plans of pro-creating.

The following are excerpts from an article on how industrial chemicals are changing our biology. First, note the prevalence of under-researched chemicals in our daily lives:

On average, 1800 new chemicals are registered with the federal government each year and about 750 of these find their way into products, all with hardly any testing for health or enviornmental effects.

Brominated flame retardants, phthalates [plasticizers that can leach from plastic food containers], bisphenol-A, PFOA (related to the manufacture of Teflon) are the toxins thathave gained our attention at the moment. By working overtime for 10 or 15 years in the traditional enviornmentalist way, we may be able to ban a half-dozen of them. But during that 10 or 15 years, the chemical industry (and the federal EPA) will have introduced somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 new chemicals into commerce, almost entirely untested. This destructive merry-go-round is accelerating.

[But starting at the beginning at the article . . .]

During the 1990's, it came as a surprise that many industrial chemicals can interfere with the hormone systems of many species, including humans.

. . .

Now new evidence is piling up to show that some of these hormone-related changes can be passed from one generation to the next by a mechanism that remains poorly understood, called epigenetics. Until very recently scientists had thought that inherited traits always involved genetic mutations -- physical changes in the sequence of nucleotides that make up the DNA molecule itself. Now they know that there is "second genetic code" that somehow influences the way genes operate, and that by some poorly-understood mechanism can be passed along to successive generations.

. . .

But the dark side of this new understanding is that stress, smoking, and pollution can cause epigenetic changes -- including many serious diseases like cancer and kidney disease -- that apparently can be passed along to one's children and even grandchildren. For example, Dutch women who went hungry during World War II gave birth to small babies. These babies, in turn, gave birth to small babies even though they themselves had plenty to eat. "It changes the whole way we think about inheritance," says Dr. Moshe Szyf at McGill University in Toronto.

Just last month professor Michael Skinner at Washington State University in Spokane announced results of laboratory experiments showing that environmental pollution could permanently reprogram the genetic traits of a family line of rodents, creating a legacy of sickness. This research "highlights the long-term dangers from environmental pollution, " professor Skinner said. Dr. Skinner showed that a single exposure to a toxic chemical in the womb could produce a sick litter of offspring, which in turn could produce its own sick offspring. "It's a new way to think about disease," Dr. Skinner said.

. . .

"It introduces the concept of responsibility into genetics," says Dr. Szyf . . . . "You aren't eating and exercising for yourself, but for your lineage."


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