When Princy Quadros Menella spoke to her daughter’s Montessori school community, she was sure that the teachers, administrators, and parents assembled were aware of the dangers of endocrine disruptors.
“They were mortified and shocked,” the director of Bay Path College’s nueroscience undergraduate program said recently. “They had never even heard of it.” This set into motion a series of events which introduced her to a UMass student and faculty collaboration called Protect Our Breasts. The organization addresses the dangers posed by certain chemicals, how they can affect our body, and what we can do to make informed decisions about them.
Our endocrine system is a delicately calibrated process of glands and hormones that controls much of our body’s functions. The endocrine glands (adrenal, ovaries, pancreas, pineal, pituitary, testes, thymus, thyroid) regulate hormone levels in the bloodstream, which then controls all aspects of our health and well-being, from our growth, metabolism, physical maturation, and the function of various organs.
Contained within certain plastics and other man-made materials are chemical compounds which disrupt this balancing act of hormones in mammals. Humans are particularly susceptible, especially women of child-bearing age. These are the endocrine disruptors that were the point of conversation in Quadros-Menella’s conversation that day.
“The Protect our Breasts program was geared toward women because of the idea that these chemicals can cause breast cancer,” Quadros Menella explained. “Yes, they can cause other cancers, but part of the reason for the focus on women is that we carry the children for the next generation. And the way in which these chemicals can leave our bodies is through our kids, either through breast milk or during pregnancy.”
Some 80,000 chemicals exist within our day-to-day access and they are not regulated in any way, she said. Because they do not pose an immediate risk to health these chemicals are found in such common materials as: plastics numbered 3, 6, and 7; plastic food wraps and storage supplies; cosmetics; parabens and phthalates found in soaps, personal care supplies, or water bottles. (For a more comprehensive list, see the Protect Our Breasts site: protectourbreasts.org/the-science). But the reality is that the long-term danger is genuine, in how these chemicals leach into foods or our skin.
Completely removing these harmful chemicals from our lives would be impossible, Quadros Menella said. They aren’t completely banned substances, yet the risks are obvious because of how they have been regulated. “The chemical phthalate is banned from children’s toys, but it’s not banned from the containers that our foods come in,” she explained.
“Also disturbing is that replacement for BPA (Bisphenol A—long an ingredient in plastic that is under review by the FDA) is BPS (Bisphenol S),” she added, “and scientists are finding that the replacement works just as disruptively as the original. So great, those things that say BPA-free really are. But what has replaced it is just as bad.”
Here at Bay Path, two students have joined Quadros Menella in starting a chapter of Protect Our Breasts, with the idea that understanding and information can lead to informed decision-making. “There’s no way to live in a world at this point where you can avoid exposure to these chemicals,” she explained.
“What you want to do is make choices that reduce your exposure to the chemicals,” she added. “Protect our Breasts encourages choosing safer alternatives to products that are out there. I’m more of an advocate about making small changes gradually. It’s impossible to look at this list of dangerous materials and say you’re going to clear out the cabinets in your house.”
While the group is just getting off the ground here at Bay Path, Quadros Menella hopes that further conversations will help young women as they navigate personal decisions which can impact their futures. She has known of endocrine disruptors since her graduate school days. “But it was only when I had my own children that I started to make decisions to consciously avoid them,” she said.
“I’m not going to push this message on anyone,” she added. “If someone doesn’t want to make changes to their life, that’s fine. But if the time comes and you do decide if you want to address what risks exist, now you have the information to help you make those decisions.”