Endocrine disruption, cancer and immunological effects are implicated.

As a physician member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a father and potential grandfather, I become ever more concerned about the burgeoning number of toxic chemicals in our everyday lives.

The U.S. Senate will soon consider bringing TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, up to date for the first time since 1976. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 will start to protect our children from dangerous chemicals in everyday products (phthalates in IV bags in the Neonatal ICU, of all places).

The Maine Legislature recently managed to preserve the listing of BPA as a “chemical of high concern,” in spite of massive assaults by the LePage administration, ALEC and legions of hired-gun industry lawyers.

Federal officials are frozen in their tracks, as usual, by industry and politicians, as we see daily on the news. Maine may again lead the nation, if we can successfully call on Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to champion TSCA revision.

Toxic chemical release into the environment is a perfect example requiring the application of the “precautionary principle,” a modern-day restatement of the ancient physician’s oath — “Primum non Nocere” — “Above all, do no harm!”

Chemicals must be thoroughly and rigorously proven safe first, beyond a reasonable doubt, before fetuses and children are subjected to them, especially when safer alternatives exist.

Industry usually is clueless about negative effects of powerful products, even on common experimental animals, let alone humans.

Some 80,000 chemicals are used in industry today, and every year 3,000 more join their ranks with almost no scrutiny, unless they are pharmaceuticals given directly to patients. Then the FDA can step in.

A major problem is always that the official chemical listed in a product is often part of a mixture of close cousins not studied and too closely related to be purified.

Human testing is now short term, on white males, never pregnant women and fetuses (remember thalidomide). The testing is privately funded and the results can be quickly discarded if unflattering. It looks for obvious things, such as cleft palate or heart murmurs, rather than important but much harder to spot developmental problems.

Fetuses and children are far more vulnerable to very subtle and focused, but crippling, learning disorders that can cause a lifetime of family pain. Some of the better-known of these are ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, Asperger’s syndrome and autism.

Endocrine disruption, cancer and immunological effects are poorly covered, but are overwhelmingly implicated.

Many common chemicals are found to have adverse effects in multiple systems at very low doses, sometimes worse at lower than higher doses.

The only thing more fascinating than what we know about life is how much we don’t know about the effects of new chemicals on living organisms. The human being’s 30,000 genes encode one or several proteins that interact with other genes and the proteins they produce. The “proteome” is a seething soup of at least 100,000 proteins, any of which can react unpredictably with 3 billion DNA base pairs and the RNA messengers they produce. Proteins transport materials into and throughout our bodies, and protect DNA . They weave delicate spindles that pull chromosomes into daughter cells after division.

On immune-cell surfaces, they help engulf invading microbes. They help us perceive our environment and survive through our five special senses.

The brain does not just start out as a single cell dividing and growing ever larger. Brain cells actually move around in the embryo. Some cells are killed by others or commit programmed suicide — apoptosis. Nerve cells have axons and dendrites that hook up with other very specific neurons which are often many inches away. All these actions happen at very precise times, measured in single days or even hours — windows of vulnerability.

Proteins on nerve-cell surfaces and their outgrowing axons and dendrites must continually react to minute traces of messenger chemicals released by other brain cells that tell them where they are and where to go.

Damaged kids often look superficially normal but have problems with hearing or motor skills, and later problems with language, attention and memory.

They are often marginalized, ending up in special education, prison, on welfare rolls or the street.

Maine’s senators must realize that it is time to start protecting our children from dangerous chemicals in our everyday products.

Paul A. Liebow, MD, FACEP, is a member of the Maine Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He lives in Bucksport.