Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) are found throughout our environment – in our water supply, our food containers and water bottles, and in the many common household and cosmetic products we use on a daily basis. Such widespread, repeated and long-term exposure poses a very real risk to our hormonal health.
What is an endocrine disrupting chemical?
An endocrine disrupting chemical is any chemical that can interfere with the functioning of our endocrine (hormone) system. Common endocrine disruptors include dioxins, polychlorinated bi-phenyls, pesticides, and plasticizers such as bisphenol-A (BPA) and bisphenol-S (BPS). Scientists have found that EDCs cause problems by mimicking natural hormones in the body, such as oestrogen, testosterone and thyroid hormones. This may lead to a hormone deficiency, excess, or cause overstimulation. By mimicking natural hormones, these EDCs can also block receptor sites, preventing the real hormone from binding and carrying out its important function, or they can alter hormone metabolism in the liver. In all cases, the natural hormone balance has been altered and the body is unable to function and respond appropriately.
Such interference may manifest as disorders of hormone imbalance such as PCOS, endometriosis, impaired fertility, thyroid dysfunction and cancer. There is also risk to babies, during prenatal and postnatal organ and neurological system development.
Where EDCs found?
BPA – the starting material for the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics and widely used in water bottles and food containers, as well as the lining inside tin cans. BPA is also present in white dental fillings and forms as a result of interaction between saliva and dental sealing treatments. Several studies have found it to harm brain and reproductive development in fetuses, babies and children.
BPS – an alternative to BPA thought to leach less readily. Animal studies suggest that BPS impacts hormone health in the same way as BPA.
Phthalates – used in the manufacture of a wide variety of consumer food packaging, children’s products, plastic flooring and medical devices. A particularly hazardous phthalate, di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), has been found to pose a risk to human development.
Cosmetics and feminine hygiene products
Dioxins – including polychlorinated dibenzo dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzo furans (PCDFs) found in bleached tampons and sanitary pads. Risks connected with repeated exposure include hormone disruption, cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease and endometriosis.
Parabens – widely used in cosmetic products as a preservative and fragrance. Believed to mimic synthetic oestrogen, capable of altering hormone signaling. Exposure has been linked to reduced fertility in both men and women. Research suggests that when methyl paraben is included in sunscreens, it can react with UVB leading to skin aging and DNA damage.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) – synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in cosmetics such as lipsticks and moisturisers. Believed to mimic sex hormones and alter hormone balance.
Phthalates – widely used as a fragrance ingredient in cosmetics. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is a plasticiser found in nail varnishes. Capable of interfering with fertility and hormone function.
Siloxanes – silicon based compounds used in facial, hair and deodorant products. Classed as endocrine disruptors and found, in large doses in laboratory experiments, to cause uterine tumours and harm to the reproductive and hormone systems.
Triclosan – a preservative and antibacterial agent used widely in deodorants and hand washes, as well as laundry detergents and cleaning products. Suspected of interfering with hormone function.
Oxybenzone – a chemical UV filter widely thought to behave like oestrogen in the body. Also found to alter sperm production in animals and linked to endometriosis in women. Other sunscreen filters with similar endocrine disrupting concerns include avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, octinoxate and homosalate.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) – found in many laundry detergents and known to alter gene expression and mimic oestrogen. Believed to be responsible for male fish transforming into female fish in waterways around the world.
BPA, triclosan and phthalates, as above.
Home furnishing and kitchenware
Flame retardants – polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are added to sofas and curtains, carpets, cars, mattresses, TV cabinets, wire insulation, personal handheld gadgets, car seats and changing tables. Exposure has been found to disrupt hormone signaling and is linked to fertility problems, thyroid issues, cancer and neurological delays in children.
Perfluorooctanoic (PFOA) – the coating found on most non-stick cookware (as well as stain resistant clothing). A study of more than 4000 individuals found that those with the highest levels of PFOA in their blood were more than twice as likely to suffer with thyroid disease.
Food and water supply
Perchlorate – a powerful thyroid-hormone-disrupting chemical widely used in the defense and pyrotechnics industries. It contaminates soil and water, working its way up the food chain and impacts regular and organic foods alike.
Synthetic and natural oestrogens – found in drinking water and capable of disturbing hormone balance.
Pesticides – there are many pesticides capable of disrupting hormones of all kinds, falling within the categories of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides and nematicides.
Toxic metals – arsenic, lead and mercury in water supplies are capable of interfering with hormones and promoting reproductive problems. Especially damaging to children.
How to minimise exposure
• Avoid storing or wrapping food in plastic – use glass, stainless steel or ceramic containers instead. Wrap sandwiches in environmentally-friendly paper bags instead of cling film.
• Avoid drinking tap water or mineral water from plastic bottles – choose glass or stainless steel bottles and filter drinking water.
• Choose organic food where you can – to avoid exposure to hormones in meat, and pesticides on fresh foods.
• Choose natural, organic feminine hygiene and cosmetic products – many companies make products free from harmful chemicals, or make your own!
• Switch to eco-cleaning products – to avoid exposure to chemical fragrances, cleaning agents and anti-microbials.
• Choose chemical-free home furnishings – where possible, replace toxic mattresses, sofas, fabrics, flooring, paint and kitchen products.
Written by Emma Rushe
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