In recent years, more and more evidence has emerged, showing that certain chemicals are causing damage to the endocrine system of both wildlife and humans. Male infertility, in particular, is on the rise, and about 250,000 fewer boys have been born in the last 30 years in the U.S. and Japan.
Scientists are linking these phenomena to an accumulation of “gender-bending” toxins called endocrine disruptors.
Based on the initial evidence, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, which required the EPA to initiate the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP) to screen pesticide chemicals and environmental contaminants for their potential to affect the endocrine systems of both animals and humans.
However, despite the fact that more than a decade has passed since the beginning of the program, the market is literally flooded with chemicals that have the potential to wreak havoc with your health. Especially when you’re exposed to them in a myriad of untested combinations.
Says CHEM Trust director, Elizabeth Salter Green:
“Chemicals that have been shown to act together to affect male reproductive health should have their risks assessed together. Currently that is not the case, and unfortunately chemicals are looked at on an individual basis.
Therefore, government assurances that exposures are too low to have any effect just do not hold water because regulators do not take into account the additive actions of hormone disrupting chemicals.”
Why You Need to Protect Your Endocrine System
Your endocrine system is a complex network of glands, hormones and receptors, which works in tandem with your nervous system to control all your bodily functions and processes.
The glands of your endocrine system and the hormones they release influence almost every cell, organ, and function of your body. It is instrumental in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism, as well as sexual function and reproductive processes.
Endocrine disrupters are substances or mixtures that alter the functions of your endocrine system and consequently cause adverse health effects, either in your body or in your offspring.
These types of chemicals can exert their effects by:
- Mimicking the biological activity of your hormones by binding to a cellular receptor. This can initiate your cell's normal response to the naturally occurring hormone at the wrong time or to an excessive extent (agonistic effect).
- Binding to the receptor but not activating it. Instead the presence of the chemical on the receptor prevents binding of the natural hormone (antagonistic effect).
- Binding to transport proteins in your blood, thus altering the amounts of natural hormones that are present in your blood circulation.
- Interfering with the metabolic processes in your body, affecting the synthesis or breakdown rates of your natural hormones.
So far, the main areas of scientific study have focused on disruption to the hormones that play a major part in development and reproduction, mainly estrogens and androgens.
These hormones also influence your immune system and general metabolism.
The strongest evidence showing that exposure to environmental chemicals can lead to disruption of endocrine function comes from the bizarre changes seen in a number of wildlife species, such as male fish transforming into females; frogs developing a variety of defects like multiple testes or ovaries; and hermaphrodite bears, just to name a few.
The Dirty Dozen -- Potential Endocrine Disrupters to Avoid
Endocrine disrupting chemicals are everywhere these days. You are exposed to them from a variety of sources, including countless common household products, toys, personal care products, and cosmetics.
Here’s a list of twelve common agents with hormonal activity, i.e. potential endocrine disrupters:
- Phthalates -- Exposure to phthalates can lead to incomplete testicular descent in fetuses. Phthalates are found in vinyl flooring, detergents, automotive plastics, soap, shampoo, deodorants, fragrances, hair spray, nail polish, plastic bags, food packaging, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage bags, and intravenous medical tubing.
- Bisphenol A -- a common ingredient in many plastics, including those in reusable water bottles and resins lining some food cans and dental sealants, can change the course of fetal development in a way that increases your risk of breast cancer.
- Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) -- found in grease- and water-resistant coatings like Teflon and Gore-Tex, is a likely carcinogen.
- Methoxychlor and Vinclozin-- An insecticide and a fungicide respectively, have been found to cause changes to male mice born for as many as four subsequent generations after the initial exposure.
- Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) -- Known to be potent endocrine disrupters, these chemicals affect gene expression by turning on or off certain genes, and interfere with the way your glandular system works. They mimic the female hormone estrogen, and have been implicated as one reason behind some marine species switching from male to female.
- Bovine growth hormones, commonly added to commercial dairy have been implicated as a contributor to premature adolescence.
- Soy products, which are loaded with hormone-like substances.
- MSG -- A food additive that’s been linked to reduced fertility.
- Fluoride -- This chemical in the U.S. water supply has been linked to lower fertility rates, hormone disruption and low sperm counts.
- Synthetically produced pharmaceuticals that are intended to be highly hormonally active, such as contraceptive pills and treatments for hormone-responsive cancers. Your body is not designed to be exposed to these synthetic hormones, and long-term use will invariably increase your risk of developing serious chronic illness.
- Other natural chemicals, including toxins produced by components of plants (the so-called phytoestrogens, such as genistein or coumestrol) and certain fungi.
- Other man-made chemicals and by-products released into the environment. These include some pesticides (such as pyrethroids, linuron, vinclozolin, fenitrothion, DDT and other chlorinated compounds), and a number of industrial chemicals like polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) and dioxins.
How Do These Chemicals Affect Your Health?
Certain health patterns over recent decades suggest that endocrine disrupting chemicals are quietly at work. These include:
One of the Most Infamous Examples of the Dangers of Endocrine Disrupters
The clearest example of the disastrous, long-term health effects of an endocrine disrupter is diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen prescribed in the 1950s and 1960s to five million pregnant women for the prevention of spontaneous abortion.
Many of these children ended with physical deformities and developmental abnormalities, and some of the girls developed an unusual form of vaginal cancer when they reached puberty.
Consequently, DES was banned in the 1970s. But the damage still lingers, and in some cases keeps showing up even in second generation babies. And, although DES is no longer on the market, other similar chemicals are, such as Bisphenol-A (BPA), which I’ve written about on numerous occasions.
How to Protect You and Your Children’s Health
If you have children, or are planning a pregnancy, this is clearly an issue you’ll want to pay attention to. Yet, so many more products contain endocrine disruptors of varying types; trying to avoid them all can seem like an impossible task.
It is difficult, yes, but there are still a number of practical strategies you can implement to limit your exposure to endocrine disruptors, and other common toxins.
Here’s a baker’s dozen of practical measures you can take to protect you and your children from common toxic substances that may wreak havoc with your delicate endocrine system:
- Store your food in glass containers whenever possible, as it is the most inert container you can use.
- Only use natural cleaning products in your home. Most health food stores will have these available or you can search online for them.
- Buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic foods to reduce your exposure to pesticides and fertilizers. This also applies to milk, which is frequently contaminated with bovine growth hormone.
- Avoid conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury. Instead, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity.
- Avoid processed foods, and artificial food additives of all kinds, including artificial sweeteners and MSG.
- Throw out your Teflon pots and pans.
- Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).
- Only use natural cleaning products in your home.
- Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances.
- Switch to natural brands of toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics.
- When redoing your home, look for “green,” toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric.
- Review Our Stolen Future, which is an excellent resource on this topic.