When risk factors for type 2 diabetes are mentioned in the media, they tend to include lifestyle measures like your diet and physical activity, as well as factors you can’t control like your genetic makeup. But research has also identified many different chemicals that may increase the risk of diabetes if you’re exposed to them in sufficient amounts. Among these chemicals are a broad group known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs.
EDCs are found in many different types of plastic, including some used in personal and household items like cosmetics and plastic containers. As frightening as the presence of these chemicals in our lives is, possibly even more frightening is that global plastic production is projected to drastically increase in the next few decades — and along with it, global exposure to EDCs.
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That’s why the Endocrine Society, the leading organization of endocrinologists in the United States, and the International Pollutants Elimination Network have issued a report identifying over 140 EDCs and their negative health effects — along with steps that individuals and governments can take to limit their harmful effects.
Raising the alarm on plastics
The report, published by the Endocrine Society on its website, presents experts’ overview of 20 years of research showing the harm caused by EDCs in plastics. It catalogs the different EDCs found in various plastics, describes how they make their way into human beings, and outlines their harmful biological effects.
As described in the report, many common plastics found in everyday items can leach harmful chemicals, including EDCs, that are tied to a higher risk of diabetes, cancer, reproductive problems, neurological disorders in developing fetuses and young children, and an overall higher risk of death from all causes. There are over a thousand different EDCs found in currently manufactured products, by the group’s conservative estimate.
One especially alarming finding outlined in the report is that far from reducing the role of EDCs in our lives, humans are on track to increase our exposure to them in the coming decades. Global production of plastics is expected to increase from 350 metric tons in 2017 to 1.1 billion metric tons in 2050. As plastic production increases, rates of diseases and deaths linked to EDCs are expected to rise.
Based on the overwhelming evidence of the harm posed by EDCs in the report, the Endocrine Society urges governments, businesses and consumers to take steps to reduce production of and exposure to EDCs to protect human health and the environment.
“If we have increased plastic production, that likely means that we will have an increase in the amount of plastics we are exposed to in our everyday life, and also a high likelihood that we’ll be exposed to an increase in EDCs,” said Sara Brosche, PhD, science adviser for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, in a press conference announcing the report. “The problems that we already see today will become much worse.”
How to avoid exposure to EDCs in plastics
While the report makes clear that governments and businesses will need to step up to reduce the harm posed by EDCs in plastics, consumers can also take steps to reduce their exposure to these harmful chemicals.
As outlined in a Healio article on the report, EDCs are found in reusable plastic food and beverage containers, food wrappers, cookware, personal care products and cosmetics, latex paints, pesticides, industrial cleaners, water- and stain-resistant clothing, casings of personal electronics, textiles, carpets and even plastic children’s toys.
Some steps you may be able to take to reduce exposure to EDCs include avoiding disposable coffee cups (which have a plastic lining) and plastic take-out containers, not heating or microwaving plastic containers, avoiding canned foods (even those described as BPA-free, since all cans have a similar plastic lining), limiting use of cosmetics and fragrances, and opening your windows daily to circulate clean outside air.
Ultimately, though, the only solution to avoiding exposure to EDCs is to limit plastic production, since these chemicals don’t go away when plastics are thrown away or recycled. Instead, every method of plastic disposal leads to contamination of soil, water or air, or simply transferring harmful chemicals to a new product.
Plastic production “has to be drastically reduced,” according to Brosche. “At the same time, we have to look at the sources of the plastic to start moving away from fossil fuel-based sources and remove and replace those hazardous additives from the plastics.”
Want to learn more about chemicals and diabetes? Read “Are Endocrine Disruptors Disrupting Your Life?”