Photo by Steve Ryan.

It’s always nice when someone writes an article so you don’t have to. In this case it was New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who has been doing the thankless job of writing about the health risks of toxic chemicals in our environment, as well as the politicization of the regulatory process that’s supposed to be in place.

From arsenic in chicken feed to cancer-causing chemicals to endocrine disruptors, Kristof has given new visibility to a critical issue: how toxic chemicals affect us, and how reluctant our government has been to protect us.

Kristof’s latest tale involves flame retardants, and is inspired by this knockout multimedia investigative series on the subject from the Chicago Tribune. These chemicals — various flavors of a group known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) — are everywhere and in everything, from carpet padding to furniture to baby toys to consumer electronics to dust (yes, dust).

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As a result, PBDEs are in our blood. This is a problem because PBDEs are known endocrine disruptors, with growing evidence of links to the trifecta of cancer, fetal defects, and reproductive problems. A 2005 study found significant levels of PBDEs in all U.S. blood samples it tested, compared to samples from 1973, which had undetectable levels of PBDEs.

What happened between 1973 and now? Kristof’s column reads:

It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry, according to internal cigarette company documents examined by The Tribune. A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.

Big Tobacco used every tool in its toolbox — including creating fake interest groups, finding doctors to make up horror stories, and manipulating data. That last bit is important because, as it turns out, there is virtually no evidence that PBDEs in the levels used in furniture and other products actually, you know, retard flame. In other words, all risk, no reward. And our government stood by and let it happen.

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These kinds of stories are starting to get depressingly familiar. Meanwhile, the changes we might be wreaking on our bodies from exposure to these chemicals are only now being explored.

Making matters worse, there is now growing evidence that health effects from toxic chemical exposure can last generations. A study published in February on PLoS ONE found that exposure to a set of common endocrine-disrupting chemicals (including bisphenol-A, phthalates, and dioxin) in one generation of rats can cause reproductive problems in those animal’s great-grandchildren. Yikes! And now the same scientists just came back for more.

In a new study [PDF] published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Texas and Washington State University found that exposing rats to the common fungicide vinclozolin (still used by some farmers to control blight) caused changes in physiology, behavior, and metabolic activity in their descendants three generations removed. In other words, it’s affecting the rats’ brains for generations — which leads not just to change in their bodies but in their behaviors, including an increase in anxiety. All from an exposure generations ago. If further research bears this result out, it’s an ominous prospect.

Now, as one of the scientists involved in the study assured me in an email exchange, this work is not a risk assessment (as it happens, vinclozolin is declining in use) — it’s rather an examination of epigenetic changes these chemicals can cause at high enough exposures.

But he also observed to me that “many other environmental compounds promote these types of phenomena.” He also suggested that “future science and policy needs to consider such phenomena and mechanisms.” Um. Yeah.

The point is that we don’t know half of what these chemicals might be doing to our bodies. And now we’re learning that the changes they cause may have consequences beyond ourselves and our children, persisting generations after the chemical exposure occurred. If that’s not enough to scare us into action, including more aggressive regulation of toxic chemicals, I don’t know what is.