ENDOCRINE DISRUPTOR: A new Web site maps the impacts of endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as the bisphenol A in many plastics, along with human development in the womb. Image: ©ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/KATHRYN GRUBER
An electronic database going public today has gathered the latest science on some of the most controversial chemicals in use, offering a handy look into potential health effects when babies are exposed while developing in the womb.
The interactive Web site, called “Critical Windows of Development,” has compiled an array of data from hundreds of scientists studying low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Theo Colborn, a scientist often credited with discovering in the early 1990s that environmental pollutants were mimicking and altering hormones, led the effort to create the database. She said her intent is to give scientists, policymakers, journalists and others immediate access to the information in a user-friendly, visually interesting way.
“This puts information directly at our fingertips with the utmost ease,” said Gail Prins, a physiology professor at University of Illinois at Chicago and one of a few dozen scientists who have previewed the Web site. “By making it electronic, the worldwide availability is a tremendous step forward in data dissemination.”
The Web site compiles information from hundreds of studies and inserts it on timelines that show the development of key bodily systems in both people and animals, including the male and female reproductive tracts, immune system and nervous system.
By layering research results over these timelines, Colborn provides graphic evidence that there is a large body of animal research suggesting that low doses of chemicals might be harming human fetuses.
When a Critical Windows user chooses a chemical, red lines appear on a timeline, displaying the areas of development where effects have been found in laboratory animals exposed to low doses. Clicking on a triangle retrieves a summary of each study, which then leads to direct access to the published article in a scientific journal.
So far, information is displayed for bisphenol A, dioxin and phthalates. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of industrial chemicals and pesticides in use today can disrupt hormones, but two of them--BPA, found in hard plastic, and phthalates, used in cosmetics and vinyl--are among the most controversial.
The new database “pairs normal human development in the womb with laboratory research showing where and when low-dose exposure to bisphenol-A, phthalates and dioxin has effects,” wrote Colborn, founder and president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a nonprofit organization, and Carol Kwiatkowski, its director.
Some scientists said they will use the new database at upcoming public meetings where decisions are being made about regulating chemicals.
On Tuesday, Prins plans to display the Web site on a screen in front of the Chicago City Council as the politicians debate an ordinance that would ban BPA in plastic baby products.
“It’s not just an academic exercise,” said Prins, who studies how neonatal exposure to estrogens affects the prostate. “The uniformed person can make a visualization and get a grasp of what information is out there.”
Next month, John G. Vandenbergh, Professor Emeritus in at North Carolina State University's Department of Biology, said he will use it at a workshop in Berlin held by Germany’s environmental agency to discuss the possible human risks of BPA exposure.
Vandenbergh said it will be “useful to call up references to bolster or refute items as they arise.”
Before Critical Windows, Prins said she and other scientists “had to do so much digging around” to find data. “Literature searches can really bog one down. It is painstaking. It would take us hours, weeks,” she said.
For example, she recently needed to know whether exposure to BPA affected immune systems in animals. She had to search and cross-search medical literature Web sites. Now, with the new database, she can find the same information with a few clicks of a mouse.