By Lindsay Dahl
One of my personal heroes is E.O. Wilson, a well-respected biologist, author and researcher. He has spent a good part of his career studying ants (yes, ants!) and the behavoiors of "social insects." Based on his research he argues that we should model human behaviors similar to social insects, who work to take care of the collective whole.
E.O. Wilson's research about social insects can teach us a lot about the importance of working together and the protecting our fragile ecosystems. Meanwhile, there is fascinating new research on what ants can tell us about our daily exposures to toxic chemicals.
Learning from ants
about hormone-disrupting chemicals
research testing ants signals another reason for us to get serious about
hormone-disrupting chemicals. Published this month in the journal Science of the Total Environment, Dr. Lenoir found that ants contain a class of toxic chemicals
called phthalates (THal-ates).
problem wasn’t simply that he found phthalates in the ants, but that he
found them in all of the ants tested. Even more interesting, the levels of phthalates
increased in the ants overtime. So what caused this increase?
boxes that the ants were being stored in were free of plastic and phthalates
(which would have contributed to the ants exposure), so that wasn’t the reason.
The researchers found that the ants were being exposed to phthalates in the
air, which contributed to the rise of phthalates tested.
What we can learn from this
The implications for this study confirm and underscore two
very important points. First, toxic chemicals like phthalates are ubiquitous –
they’re everywhere. Since every ant tested positive for phthalates, there are
serious implications for exposure levels in the human population.
Second, exposure to toxic chemicals from indoor air should
not be dismissed. I know it’s sometimes hard to understand the complexities of our
exposures to toxic chemicals through the air in our homes and workspaces. Most
Americans spend more time indoors than they do outside – and depending on where
you live, the indoor air quality can be more toxic than the air outside.
What are phthalates?
Phthalates are linked to lower testosterone
levels, decreased sperm counts and poor sperm quality.
Exposure to phthalates during development has been linked to malformations of
the male reproductive tract and testicular cancer. Young children and developing
most at risk. Phthalates also have been associated with obesity, reduced female fertility, preterm birth and
low birthweight, a worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms, and behavior
What can we do?
Advocate for stronger
It’s time to get tough on toxic chemicals. Contact your
Senators today and tell them to stand up for the Safe Chemicals Act, a bill
that would take serious action on hormone disrupting chemicals.
how the Safe Chemicals Act addresses hormone-disrupting chemicals:
- It would require the EPA to consider
endocrine-disruption (hormone disruption) in their criteria for restricting or
regulating a chemical
- For the first time, would help us understand
how we’re exposed to hormone-disruptors through aggregate and cumulative (where
- Require information on chemical profiles,
hazards and characteristics like hormone-disruption that are currently kept
secret under current law. Further expanding the information we have about which
chemicals act like hormones, where they are found and how we're exposed.
low-dose exposure as a criteria for assessing chemical safety
Reduce exposure to
- Skip the fragrance when choosing cosmetics, personal
care products, cleaning products, detergents, and air fresheners. (Skip the
cologne or perfume too!) Manufacturers aren’t required to list phthalates on
the label, but any item listed as “fragrance” is often a chemical mixture that
can contain phthalates.
- Avoid buying plastics that may be treated with
phthalates, including vinyl toys, shower curtains, and gloves. Look out for
"PVC," "V" or the "3" recycling code on the item
or its packaging. For more information on PVC “the poison plastic” check out CHEJ’s
- Avoid phthalates in your children’s school. Here
is a great guide of ways to avoid PVC plastic in your children’s school
supplies and building.
- Clean up indoor air quality – Occasionally
opening up windows and vacuuming with a HEPA filter are simple but effective
ways to reduce indoor air pollutants. Plants are also a great way to clean up your indoor air. Some of the EPA’s
highest ranked plants for filtering out toxics include: Mother in law’s tongue,
peace lilies, golden pathos and many more. Organic Aspirations wrote a great blog on this topic if you'd like more information.
Ants are amazing creatures, they organize (like us!), build
community, are social, and within a small amount of time they can cover a lot
of ground. Let us learn from these little buggers and act on toxic chemicals! I'll leave you with a quote from E.O. Wilson, "When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all."
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @Lindsay_SCHF