Endocrine disruptors like BPA and phthalates lurk in everything from cleaning products to fragrances.
You may remember learning in biology class that our bodies are run by a network of hormones and glands that regulate everything we do. This endocrine system is most often thought about in the context of puberty, but it actually plays a starring role in all phases of development, metabolism, and behavior.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are natural or human-made chemicals that may mimic, block, or interfere with the body’s hormones, which are part of the endocrine system. These chemicals are associated with a wide array of health issues.
Where do these hormone-disturbing chemicals come from?
If you are not careful, endocrine disruptors are found in everyday products, including cosmetics, food and beverage packaging, toys, carpet, cosmetics, and pesticides. Some chemicals that act as flame retardants may also be endocrine disruptors. Contact with these chemicals may occur through air, diet, skin, and water. Sadly EDCs cannot be completely avoided or removed; however, you can make informed choices to reduce exposure and risk of any potential health effects.
How much hormone-disturbing chemicals is "safe"?
Even low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be unsafe. The body’s normal endocrine functioning involves very small changes in hormone levels, yet we know even these small changes can cause significant developmental and biological effects. This observation leads scientists to think that endocrine-disrupting chemical exposures, even at low amounts, can alter the body’s sensitive systems and lead to health problems.
When absorbed in the body, an endocrine disruptor can decrease or increase normal hormone levels (left), mimic the body's natural hormones (middle), or alter the natural production of hormones (right).
What are xenoestrogens disturbing-chemicals?
Xenoestrogens are a type of endocrine disruptor that specifically exert oestrogen-like effects. They are found in plastics, tap water, pesticides, birth control pills, cosmetics and personal care products such as shampoo/ conditioner, body creams and shower gels.
Oestrogen is one of the main female sex hormones. It is needed for puberty, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, bone strength and other functions of the body. Oestrogen levels vary throughout the menstrual cycle and fall after menopause. Having too much oestrogen can increase your risk of blood clots and stroke. The chemical structure of xenoestrogens is almost identical to the chemical structure of natural oestrogen.
When xenoestrogens enter the body, they have the ability to increase oestrogen levels and bind to oestrogen receptor sites in the same way that natural oestrogen does. This can result in a build-up of oestrogen which can have incredibly detrimental effects.
Xenoestrogens have been linked to breast, prostate and testicular cancer, fertility problems, miscarriages, obesity and diabetes.
Chemicals That May Disrupt Your Endocrine System
According to the Endocrine Society, there are nearly 85,000 man-made chemicals in the world, many of which people come into contact with every day. Only about one percent of them have been studied for safety; however, 1,000 or more of these chemicals may be EDCs based on their probable endocrine-interfering properties. Here are the most common EDCs.
Arsenic contamination of drinking water is considered a serious worldwide environmental health threat that is associated with increased disease risks including skin, lung, bladder, and other cancers; type 2 diabetes; vascular and cardiovascular diseases; reproductive and developmental effects; and neurological and cognitive effects. Increased health risks may occur at as low as 10–50 ppb, while biological effects have been observed in experimental animal and cell culture systems at much lower levels. Reduce your exposure by using a water filter that lowers arsenic levels.
Atrazine is one of the most commonly applied herbicides in the world, often used to control weeds in corn, sorghum, and sugarcane crops. Its been linked to breast tumors, delays puberty and prostate inflammation in animals, and some research has linked it to prostate cancer in people. Buy organic produce and get a drinking water filter certified to remove atrazine.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. It is used in manufacturing, food packaging, toys, and other applications. BPA resins may be found in the lining of many canned foods and beverages. Go fresh instead of canned or research which companies don’t use BPA or similar chemicals in their products. Say no to receipts, since thermal paper is often coated with BPA. Avoid plastics marked with “PC,” for polycarbonate, or recycling label #7.
Dioxins are formed during many industrial processes when chlorine or bromine are burned in the presence of carbon and oxygen, such as herbicide production and paper bleaching. Products including meat, fish, milk, eggs and butter are most likely to be contaminated. Dioxins can be released into the air from waste burning and wildfires. You can cut down on your exposure by eating fewer animal products and running an air filter.
Glycol Ethers which are common solvents in paints, cleaning products, brake fluid and cosmetics. The European Union says that some of these chemicals “may damage fertility or the unborn child.” Studies of painters have linked exposure to certain glycol ethers to blood abnormalities and lower sperm counts. Children who are exposed to glycol ethers from paint in their bedrooms have substantially more asthma and allergies. Avoid products with ingredients such as 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME).
Lead long acknowledged as a neurological toxicant, has also been linked with adverse female reproductive functions in animal, in-vitro, and human epidemiological studies. While lead has been banned in house paints, dishes, and cookware in the United States since 1978, this may still be found in a product’s paint especially in products manufactured in countries which still allow lead-based paint and in plastics where lead is still allowed for softening and stabilizing against heat. Studies by the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), a non-governmental organization working for safe chemical policies in the developing world, reported lead in 18 percent of children’s products in Russia and surrounding nations, 15 percent in the Philippines, and 10 percent in five cities in China. Crumbling old paint is a major source of lead exposure, so get rid of it carefully. A good water filter can also reduce your exposure to lead in drinking water. Be conscious of what country you buy toys from.
Mercury a naturally occurring but toxic metal, gets into the air and the oceans primarily though burning coal. Eventually, it can end up on your plate in the form of mercury-contaminated seafood. Pregnant women are the most at risk from the toxic effects of mercury, since the metal is known to concentrate in the fetal brain and can interfere with brain development. Mercury is also known to bind directly to one particular hormone that regulates women’s menstrual cycle and ovulation, interfering with normal signaling pathways. In other words, hormones don’t work so well when they’ve got mercury stuck to them! It may also play a role in diabetes, since mercury has been shown to damage cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, which is critical for the body’s ability to metabolize sugar. For people who still want to eat (sustainable) seafood with lots of healthy fats but without a side of toxic mercury, wild salmon and farmed trout are good choices.
Perchlorate is a colorless salt manufactured and used as an industrial chemical to make rockets, explosives, and fireworks, which can be found in some groundwater. Perchlorate, a component in rocket fuel, contaminates much of our produce and milk, according to EWG and government test data. When perchlorate gets into your body it competes with the nutrient iodine, which the thyroid gland needs to make thyroid hormones. Basically, this means that if you ingest too much of it you can end up altering your thyroid hormone balance. This is important because these hormones regulate metabolism in adults and are critical for proper brain and organ development in infants and young children. You can reduce perchlorate in your drinking water by using a reverse osmosis filter. As for food, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid perchlorate, but you can reduce its potential effects on you by making sure you’re getting enough iodine in your diet or with a supplement.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large group of chemicals used widely in industrial applications, such as firefighting foam, nonstick pans, paper, and textile coatings. PFASs are so widespread and extraordinarily persistent that 99 percent of Americans have them in their bodies. One particularly notorious compound called PFOA has been shown to be “completely resistant to biodegradation.” In other words, PFOA doesn’t EVER break down in the environment! That means that even though the chemical was banned after decades of use, it will be showing up in people’s bodies for countless generations to come. This is worrisome, since PFOA exposure has been linked to decreased sperm quality, low birth weight, kidney disease, thyroid disease and high cholesterol, among other health issues. Scientists are still figuring out how PFOA affects the human body, but animal studies have found that it can affect thyroid and sex hormone levels. Skip non-stick pans as well as stain and water-resistant coatings on clothing, furniture and carpets.
Phthalates are a large group of compounds used as liquid plasticizers. They are found in hundreds of products including some food packaging, cosmetics, fragrances, children’s toys, and medical device tubing. Cosmetics that may contain phthalates include nail polish, hair spray, aftershave lotion, cleanser, and shampoo. Studies have linked phthalates to hormone changes, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes and thyroid irregularities. A good place to start is to avoid plastic food containers, children’s toys (some phthalates are already banned in kid’s products), and plastic wrap made from PVC, which has the recycling label #3. Some personal care products also contain phthalates, so read the labels and avoid products that simply list added “fragrance,” since this catch-all term sometimes means hidden phthalates. Find phtahalate-free personal care products with EWG’s Skin Deep Database: ewg.org/skindeep
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring substances with hormone-like activity found in some plants; they may have a similar effect to estrogen produced by the body. Soy foods, for example, contain phytoestrogens.
Fire Retardants - Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are used to make flame retardants for products such as furniture foam and carpet. These incredibly persistent chemicals, have since been found to contaminate the bodies of people and wildlife around the globe – even polar bears. These chemicals can imitate thyroid hormones and disrupt their activity. That can lead to lower IQ, among other significant health effects. Several kinds of PBDEs have now been phased out, but this doesn’t mean that toxic fire retardants have gone away. Try using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which can cut down on toxic-laden house dust, avoiding reupholstering foam furniture and taking care when replacing old carpet (the padding underneath may contain PBDEs).
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used to make electrical equipment, such as transformers, and are in hydraulic fluids, heat transfer fluids, lubricants, and plasticizers. PCBs were mass-produced globally until they were banned in 1979.
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent that has been used in hospitals for many years to keep surfaces germ-free. It can be found in detergents, soaps, skin cleansers, deodorants, lotions, creams, toothpaste, mouthwash, and dishwashing liquids. Triclosan is also in cutting boards, clothing, and plastics that go into furniture and toys. Its classified as an endocrine disruptor because of its ability to interfere with the estrogen (female hormone), androgen (male hormone) and thyroid systems of the body. Emerging evidence indicates a link between triclosan and allergy in children. Other studies in mice showed an effect on heart function even at relatively low dose. Children’s exposures may be greater. Read your ingredients list on all personal and cleaning products.
The Bottom Line
Tell companies, agencies, and policy makers that we need systems in place to make sure that toxic chemicals like EDCs, phthalates, and fluorinated chemicals stay out of our food, water, or homes in the first place.
Hormone-disrupting chemicals are found in everything from the food we eat, to the water we drink and the air we breathe. The good news is, however, is that if we take certain precautions, we can stop them from entering our bodies to help protect our endocrine system. Doing things like avoiding plastics, eating organic and drinking filtered water are just a few of the many ways you can keep these endocrine-disrupting chemicals from harming you and your loved ones.
See blog for 21 Ways to Avoid Hormone Disruptors for more information.
To Your Thriving Health,