We all know that exposure to toxic chemicals is bad for us and just as we stay away from a hot flame, we also learn to stay away from things that are hurtful to us. But what if there are things that are toxic to us in our daily lives in small doses that we are unaware of? This is the case of chemicals called endocrine disruptors. They are chemical compounds that mimic estrogen and have the effect of blocking our body’s receptors in doing the job they are supposed to do. You got it, they have a lot to do with messing around with our bodies and especially our hormones. Because endocrine disrupting chemicals are similar in structure to natural sex hormones they interfere with their normal functions. According to the World Health Organization endocrine disruptors cause a variety of health problems from skin problems, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, disruption to hormones, and cancer.
There are 12 primary endocrine offenders: BPA, dioxin, Atrazine, phthalates, perchlorate, fire retardants, lead, mercury, arsenic, PFCs, organophosphate pesticides, and glycol ethers. Many of these are so common and prevalent in our daily lives that they would seem benign, but they are not.
BPAs: Bisphenol A is commonly found in plastic bottles, plastic food containers, dental materials and the linings of metal food and infant formula cans. It’s also in thermal receipt paper you commonly get from vendors at stores and restaurants because the thermal paper is coated with BPA clay which allows for inkless printing. Analogous to BPA is BPS, Bisphenol S is also found in thermal paper, plastics and personal care products.
Dioxin: It’s a by-product of industrial processes involving chlorine. You can find it in chemical and pesticide manufacturing, pulp and paper bleaching, and waste incineration. Currently banned in the US, it took 27 years for the EPA to release reports on Dioxin and unfortunately they are highly prevalent in our environment. Most exposure to dioxin is through the diet and accumulates in animal fat. Also, if you were to use a coffee filter that contained dioxin, 40-70% of the dioxins would leach into your coffee.
Atrazine: Atrazine is an herbicide that is one of the most common if not the first chemical contaminant of ground and surface water in the United States. It is primarily used on corn and lawns. Banned in Europe, the safety of Atrazine remains very controversial in the US as people criticize the EPA for what constitutes safe limits.
Phthalates: Phthalates is a large class of chemicals used to soften up plastics and vinyl to make them more flexible. Phthalates are also used as binding agents. They are used in everything from plastic bottles, food packaging, household cleaners, fragrances and personal care products. In 2008 some phthalates were banned in children’s products however remain unregulated otherwise. More recent research has also linked these chemicals to asthma, ADHD, obesity and TypeII diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, along with reproductive, male fertility issues and cancer.
Perchlorate: Perchlorate is an oxidizer that is used in propellants in solid fuel for rockets and missiles. They are also used in fireworks, highway safety flares, common batteries, and automobile restraint systems. It has been found in groundwater. It is primarily toxic because it disrupts iodide uptake in the thyroid.
Fire Retardants: PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are a class of compounds found in flame retardants used in plastic cases of televisions and computers, electronics, bedding, carpets, sofas, lighting, car components, foam cushions, clothes, and other textiles. These are persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in that they bio-accumulate and persist in the environment. They are difficult to get rid of and are harmful in product recycling. PBDE concentrations have been found in food, indoor dust and sewage. It is toxic to the liver, thyroid, and neurodevelopment. It has been shown to reduce fertility. Some states have voted to reduce or ban the use of PBDEs.
Lead: Lead is a toxic metal that is found in old lead based paints and walls of old houses and toys. It was banned in 1978 in the manufacture of paints. Occupational exposure is the main cause of lead poisoning today. Today lead poisoning is usually caused by long exposures to small amounts of lead in paint, the air, water, soil, food and manufactured goods.
Mercury: Mercury is an element which is toxic. It’s found in the food chain mostly in fish from contaminated waters. Industrial mercury pollution is often in an inorganic form, but as it finds its way towards rivers and lakes it is converted to its most lethal form, methylmercury. For many years it was a part of different medicines including diuretics and antiseptics and used in dental fillings. Today mercury is still used in LCD screens, fluorescent lights, and thermometers. You might find it in old appliances. Mercury is highly toxic and can greatly harm the brain and liver, and wreak havoc on the body in various ways.
Arsenic: Arsenic is a chemical element that is found in many minerals and is used in alloys. Used commonly in the semiconductor industry, it is the second most used after silicon. It is also used in the production of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. Arsenic contamination of groundwater is prevalent around the world and affects many people.
PFC’s: Perflourinated chemicals (PFCs) are a group of manufactured compounds that are used to make things for resistant to stains, grease and water. These are found in surface protectant clothing, non-stick coatings, and in contaminated water and food such as fish. These accumulate in the body over time. Health concerns include the liver, thyroid, pancreas, and hormones.
Organophosphate pesticides: These are the most widely used pesticides serving as insecticides. They are used in agriculture, the home, garden, pest abatement such as mosquito, and in veterinary uses. Farm workers particularly suffer from cardiovascular and respiratory disease and cancer. These pesticides can cause permanent damage to a fetus. Organophosphates can lower testosterone and alter thyroid levels.
Glycol ethers - Glycol Ethers are a group of solvents used in paints and cleaning compounds. There are two classes, the E Series and P Series. E Series can be found in pharmaceuticals, sunscreens, cosmetics, dyes and liquid soaps. P Series can be found in degreasers, cleaners and aerosol paints, solvents and adhesives, and are marketed to have lower toxicity that the E Series. Although ethers are biodegradable they have shown human exposure to be harmful to the lungs, liver and kidney, and have resulted in neurological and blood effects including anemia, fatigue and nausea. Some studies have shown that exposure to ethers is correlated to low sperm count.
The scale of exposure and the magnitude of the problem of being exposed to these chemicals is not known; data is scattered, problematic and many times debated between different lobbying groups. However debatable the scope, it is particularly alarming that many studies that have been done around the world show declining sperm count and semen quality over the last 25 years. It has been referred to as the “silent sperm” crisis.
Whatever is happening, and whatever state of denial we find ourselves in, it is pretty safe to say that endocrine disruptors are not good for us. If you can mitigate your exposure, it’s a good idea.
It may take extra effort to stay away from these chemicals, but as the effects are often accumulative, what you do now will not only help you today, but will also help your future self and those around you. We'll be looking at some of the ways you can avoid these disruptors on our next blog.