These chemicals defy the conventional “the dose makes the poison” premise and are wreaking havoc with our bodies. You’ll find them in toys, scented products, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. The evidence is mounting that these dose-defying chemicals are doing us harm.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Chances are you’ve heard the term endocrine disrupters. According to recent research, these substances are costing us billions of dollars in health care costs. (See Chemical Exposure Linked to Billions in Health Care Costs.)
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) have been implicated in the following:
- Attention deficit disorder and other neurological effects
- Male and female reproductive disorders
A recent study published in Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism concludes that EDCs aggravate complications of obesity, including inflammation and cardiovascular disease risk, in premenopausal women. (Find the study published April 8, 2015, here.)
What’s more, the reinsurance company Swiss Re has warned that endocrine disrupting chemicals are a growing threat ranking EDCs as the #1 casualty risk over the next 4-10 years. See the 2013 document Swiss Re SONAR Emerging Risk Insights.
1. What are endocrine disruptors?
According to the Endocrine Society:
EDCs are defined as “an exogenous [non-natural] chemical, or mixture of chemicals, that interferes with any aspect of hormone action.”
Hormones are natural chemicals produced by endocrine glands that perform a variety of critical functions in the body and play a vital role when it comes not only to our quality of life but how we interact with the environment.
2. Types of endocrine disruptors
- Bisphenol-A (BPA)
BPA was first synthesized in 1891. It was identified as an estrogen mimic in the early 1930’s by British biochemist Charles Dodds. Dodds found BPA to be too weak to be effective clinically and went on to synthesize the synthetic estrogen DES. ( Diethylstilbestrol, used to prevent miscarriage and premature labor, was prescribed to women for decades until a connection was made with certain cancers and pre-cancerous conditions.)
BPA was found to have other chemical properties making it useful as an industrial chemical and is now found in canned food, aluminum cans, store receipts, plastic tableware, plastic toys, food storage containers, some dental composites, and even medical equipment.
BPA is used as an additive, rather than an integral component of the material. This means it leaches quickly from the product – especially when heat is applied or when certain acidic or basic conditions exist. (Contact with various food.)
Like DES, BPA acts on estrogen-sensitive tissues in the body. As of 2014, nearly 100 epidemiological studies have been published associating BPA with human health effects. Most of these effects concern reproduction, behavior, and metabolic balance. Like DES, these estrogenic effects are most damaging during fetal and infant development.
BPA is short-lived in the body. Its half-life can be as short as 5 hours. However with constant exposure, BPA may accumulate faster than previously assumed. A 2011 study concludes,
When BPA is taken through the food, the active form may remain in the body for a longer period than when it is provided through a single treatment, which does not reflect the continuous exposure that occurs in animal and human populations.
While many companies are now offering BPA-free products, recent research suggests that the “new” chemicals may be just as hazardous. (See the April 2016 article: Effects of BPA Substitutes )
The United States Food and Drug Administration has expressed concern over BPA but currently contends that BPA is safe.
The European Union and Canada have banned BPA in baby bottles. France has banned BPA from all food packaging.
A study released April 15, 2015, found that BPA can alter a turtle’s reproductive system causing male turtles to develop female sex organs. (See BPA can disrupt sexual functions in turtles, could be a warning for environmental health.)
Phthalates are a complex class of chemicals and include both high and low weight phthalates. Phthalates add softness and flexibility to otherwise hard and brittle plastics. They are used in virtually all polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products.
Phthalates are also used to make food packaging, tubing for dairy products and other items utilized in the production of fast food.
A study released April 13, 2016, found a strong connection between fast food consumption and phthalate exposure. According to lead author Ami Zota of the Milken Institute School of Public Health,
People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher. Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults.
Phthalates are also found in perfumes, cosmetics and shampoos as they help plastics and other substances retain their scent and color.
Like BPA, phthalates are not chemically bound to the product. Therefore, they are readily released into foods, liquids or air via heat, humidity or prolonged exposure. Also like BPA, phthalates are short-lived and water soluble, which means that reducing or eliminating your exposure can have a profound positive effect.
There are a myriad of other classes of EDCs including:
- Pesticides (DDT, chlorpyrifos, atrazine, 2,4-D, glyphosate)
- Brominated flame retardants (PBDEs)
The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) keeps an updated list of potential endocrine disruptors. Learn more here.
3. How do endocrine disruptors work?
EDCs disrupt the endocrine system by mimicking or blocking a natural hormone. In the case of mimics, an EDC “tricks” the hormone’s receptor into thinking the EDC is a hormone, which may inappropriately activate certain processes. As a hormone blocker, an EDC may bind to a hormone’s receptor and block the activation of critical processes in the body.
Because EDCs are not natural hormones, a single EDC can have multiple impacts on a variety of hormonal pathways. One type of EDC may disrupt two, three or more endocrine functions.
Also, there is now evidence that EDCs induce changes to germ cells – precursors to sperm and egg cells – which can potentially impact future generations. According to the Endocrine Society’s document Introduction to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) – A Guide for Public Interest Organizations and Policy-Makers,
Children can inherit the negative consequences induced by the exposures of their ancestors. This is very important, because it underscores the point that the introduction of a chemical into the environment, if it affects the germ cells, will be inherited long after the chemical is cleaned up or breaks down.
4. What can I do?
There is no need to wait for government or health organizations to take action regarding EDCs. While these chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment, many of them have short half-lives. This means reducing your exposure can offer immediate benefit by reducing your toxic burden. Consider the following suggestions:
- Avoid fast food consumption
- Reduce or eliminate plastic water bottles and replace them with stainless steel or glass reusable water bottles
- Lessen the use of plastic food packaging (I recently switched our storage containers from plastic to glass as shown below.)
- Reduce or eliminate the use of fragranced beauty products (Read labels carefully as some fragrance-free products add chemicals to mask the smells.)
- Choose organic when possible
- Avoid receipts (Store them in an envelope if needed.)
Global production of plastics grew from 50 million tons in the mid-1970s to nearly 300 million today. Endocrine disrupting chemicals aren’t going away anytime soon. In the meantime, why not be proactive and experience the reward of a more natural lifestyle!