I’ve been seeing a lot of references to “endocrine disruptors” lately, and not in scientific journals, but rather in magazines and online newsletters. If you’re scratching your head and wondering what the heck an endocrine disruptor is, well, you’re not alone. The term may not be a topic of dinnertime conversation yet, but it’s something to get familiar with.
What are endocrine disruptors?
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or NIEHS (part of the National Institutes of Health), “endocrine disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife.” And in case you need a refresher on what the endocrine system is, it’s the system of glands that produce hormones that regulate growth, metabolism, and reproduction. The pancreas is an endocrine gland, as it secretes insulin, glucagon, and amylin — hormones that play a key role in blood glucose management.
Where are endocrine disruptors found?
Endocrine disruptors are found both in synthetic or man-made substances and their by-products, such as plastics, pesticides, and PCBs, as well as in natural substances, including phytoestrogens, which are hormone-like substances found in some plant foods.
How do endocrine disruptors affect health?
More and more evidence is pointing to the harmful effects of endocrine disruptors. The Endocrine Society even published a statement in 2009 regarding the possible deleterious effects of a number of chemicals in our environment and called for more research and policy change to address these issues.
The NIEHS has listed a number of potential health problems as a result of endocrine disruptors, including:
• A reduction in male fertility
• Abnormalities in male reproductive organs
• Female reproductive health issues
• Increases in breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers
• Increases in immune, autoimmune, and neurodegenerative disorders
A lot of attention is now focused on looking at these substances as a possible cause for Type 1 diabetes, given that this is an autoimmune disorder, as well as obesity.
Endocrine disruptors likely pose the greatest risk to unborn and newborn infants when organ and nerve systems are developing. It’s also thought that these chemicals can affect the offspring of those who have been exposed, and even subsequent generations.
What are examples of endocrine disruptors?
The Environmental Working Group, a prominent environmental health research and advocacy organization, has put together the “Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors,” which you can find here. I won’t go through the entire list, but here are a few of the endocrine disruptors that you should probably be aware of:
Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is an industrial chemical used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastics are used in many food containers, like water bottles, and epoxy resin is used to line the inside of cans, bottle tops, and water supply lines. It’s thought that BPA can leach into food and beverages from these containers, and it’s estimated that 93% of us have BPA in our bodies. The FDA deems BPA safe at low levels, but the concern is that BPA may be, in part, responsible for cancer, reproductive problems, heart disease, and obesity.
Protect yourself. Try to limit the use of canned foods and bottled water. Look for products labeled “BPA-free.” Don’t microwave foods or beverages in plastic containers, and don’t put these containers in the dishwasher. Use glass or ceramic containers, instead. Also, try to limit buying products marked with a “PC” for polycarbonate, or recycling label #7. Limit handling store receipts, as BPA is used in thermal paper, which is often used for store receipts.
Phthalates. Phthalates are chemicals that make plastics more malleable and help lotions be absorbed into the skin. They’re found in air fresheners, plastic toys, floor tile, cosmetics and personal care products, ink, vinyl, and food additives. Phthalates are linked with a low sperm count, lower sperm quality, malformations of the male reproductive system, and testicular cancer.
Protect yourself. Limit or avoid the use of plastic food containers and plastic wrap made from PVC (look for the recycling label #3). Buy phthalate-free cosmetics, personal care products, and fragrances. If you have a vinyl tile floor, limit its exposure to sunlight, as direct sun can cause the tiles to release phthalates more quickly. Damp mop your floor regularly. Or, consider replacing the floor with linoleum, wood, stone, or cork.
Atrazine. Atrazine is an herbicide used mostly on corn crops. It’s also used to kill weeds on home lawns and golf courses. Not surprisingly, atrazine enters the water supply, and studies show that even at low doses, this chemical affects the reproductive systems of amphibians and mammals. In humans, atrazine is linked with low sperm counts, hormone imbalances in women, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. Atrazine has been banned by the European Union.
Protect yourself. Since atrazine is permissible in lows levels in our water supply, it’s hard to avoid it altogether. You can contact your local water department to find out the level in your drinking water and use a drinking water filter that is certified to remove atrazine (check out the EWG’s water filter buying guide here.) The level should be no higher than 0.0003 mg/L or 3 ppb.