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A Medical Student for Safer Chemicals

Posted by Shilpa Gogna on July 26, 2010

On May 6th, the President’s Cancer Panel issued a report expressing concern over the increasing number of toxics and cancer-causing substances which are being released into the environment. The report called for greater regulation of industrial chemicals as well as increased awareness of the problems associated with their dangers. The panel advised President Obama to use his power in office to eliminate environmental carcinogens. Dr. LaSalle Leffall, Jr., the chairman of the panel, stated, “The increasing number of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compels us to action, even though we may currently lack irrefutable proof of harm.” But that is just the problem. With an increasing number of known or suspected carcinogens in our atmosphere, comes an even bigger number of unknown carcinogens just the same.

Let us take a look at Bisphenol A, a widely used toxin commonly known as BPA. BPA is used in the manufacturing of compact discs, polycarbonate bottles, lining of metal food cans, and dental sealants. Potential sources of exposure include water and food packaged in polycarbonate bottles or cans, including baby bottles, and dental sealants. Both animal and human studies have indicated that BPA is detrimental to endocrine systems, and may cause such problems as diabetes, infertility, cancers, and obesity. As Dr. LaSalle Leffall, Jr., stated, chemicals are used until researchers are able to gather irrefutable proof of harm, leaving the public to deal with the side affects.

So this is where I step in. As a future medical doctor, I believe that it is critical for myself, and health care professionals alike, to ensure that chemicals are thoroughly screened for toxicity before they enter the market. This would allow for efficient, health-protective innovation in the chemical manufacturing industry. During my undergraduate career at the University of Florida, my passion to stay involved with medical research broadened my understanding of toxics and the environment. I have worked with an HIV/AIDS research team through which I traveled to impoverished communities around the United States. During this experience, I became well aware of our surrounding exposure to toxics and their effect on the immune system. Below you will find a picture of me, along with other current Student PSR members, at an HIV research center during an HIV/AIDS mission trip to Birmingham in 2008. 

SPSR Members in Birmingham Alabama, 2008.

My extensive research in Type II diabetic precursors has also given me reason to fight for a cleaner and greener environment. I have learned how many chemicals, including airborne pollution and Bisphenol A, can disrupt the endocrine system. Such endocrine disruptors can interrupt normally functioning human processes, leading to endocrine diseases, such as diabetes and obesity. Research analyzing data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys show that in relevance to BPA exposure, individuals with the highest levels of BPA in blood have almost two and a half times increased odds of developing diabetes, heart disease, and obesity as compared to those individuals with the lowest levels of this chemical. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the maximum daily recommended exposure rate to BPA is significantly below what is normally consumed by a typical American.

We owe it to ourselves and to our nation to protect this country’s health as much as possible. Given so many variables, it is difficult to determine how harmful these chemicals might be,  whether they are harmful at all, or what anyone can do to avoid their effects. In the case of BPA and other chemicals of its sort, their widespread prevalence and association with health problems become too worrisome to ignore. The challenge now is to take action before there is absolute certainty about what is truly dangerous and what is not.

SPSR Members meet in Washington, D.C., in May 2010 to Learn about Medical Advocacy.

And with that being said, you can help too. Get involved with PSR or SPSR at your local university student chapter. If your medical/healthcare institution does not already have a chapter, contact to learn more on how to develop one. Student PSR memberships are free for students. Join today to receive “Action Alerts” allowing you to quickly become informed to take action on current legislation and PSR healthcare reports.

SPSR Members gather in front of the Taj Mahal after spending 2 weeks in India during 2009 volunteering in rural villages.

Shilpa Gogna is the Environmental Health and Toxics Intern at Physicians for Social Responsibility in Washington, D.C. She is currently pursuing her medical degree while maintaining her interest in health advocacy and policy. 


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