What are hormones?
Hormones are important chemical messengers that are associated with processes and systems within our body. Hormones are produced by the endocrine system, which is a collection of the organs and glands that secrete hormones. There are over 50 hormones that send signals throughout our bodies through the bloodstream, and they each have a specific role and function in keeping us healthy and maintaining homeostasis – a state of balanced and steady maintenance by all the components of your body working together.
You may recognize some common hormones like insulin, estrogen, testosterone, cortisol, serotonin and melatonin. These hormones play a role in regulating processes in our body such as our metabolism, reproduction, growth and development, mood and sleep patterns.
What are endocrine-disrupting (or hormone-disrupting) chemicals?
Your body naturally does a pretty good job creating and regulating hormones so that they are in balance. More and more often, products and other aspects of our environment introduce and can expose us to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These are chemicals that “may mimic or interfere with the body’s hormones” (NIEHS). EDCs can affect the endocrine system in different ways, either by mimicking hormones, blocking natural hormones, increasing or decreasing amounts of natural hormones and changing our body’s reactions to our own hormones.
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).
Graphic from NIEHS.
EDCs can be found in many everyday products, including some plastic bottles and containers, liners of metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics and pesticides. Because of how they are incorporated into products and packaging, EDCs can take a really long time to break down, which makes them ever present in our natural environment. EDCs have been found in sources of drinking water, and in fact, some of the chemicals used to treat drinking water, in particular disinfectant by-products, are known EDCs.
|Common EDCs||Used In|
|DDT; Chlorpyrifos, Atrazine; 2, 4-D; Glyphosate||Pesticides|
|Lead, Phthalates, Cadmium||Children’s products including toys, costume jewelry and plastics|
|Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Dioxins||Industrial solvents or lubricants and their byproduct. PCBs have been found in oil used in cars and paint, fluorescent light ballasts, caulking, adhesives|
|Bisphenol A (BPA), BPS, PVC, Phenol||Plastics and food storage containers|
|Brominated Flame Retardants (PBDE)||Electronics and building materials (furniture foam, carpets), children’s products including sleepwear, strollers and carseats|
|Phthalates, Parabens, UV Filters||Personal care products, fragranced (synthetic) consumer products, medical tubing, sunscreen|
|Phytoestrogen||Naturally occurring substances in plants that have hormone-like activity, such as genistein and daidzein that are in soy products, like tofu or soy milk|
|Triclosan, Triclocarbon||Colgate Total, cosmetics, such as shaving gels and lotions|
|Perfluorochemicals||Textiles, clothing, non-stick food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, Teflon cookware|
EDCs and Your Health
Endocrine disrupting chemicals can mimic, interfere with or affect multiple natural hormones. As we mentioned above, hormones are incredibly important for regulating many different physiological processes. When EDCs are present in the body, they can affect these processes and create adverse health effects. Some of the most recently reported affects include a decrease in sperm quality and count, disrupting the fertility process, creating abnormal development of sex organs, increasing risk of endometriosis diagnoses, inducing early puberty, and in some cases is linked to increased risk for chronic health conditions such as weakened immune and respiratory systems, metabolic issues, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, stunted neurological growth, and certain cancers. (Hormone.Org)
There are certain windows of development in each person’s life, where hormones are especially important to healthy development and maturation of organs. These include early childhood, puberty, and even in utero fetal development, as some EDCs have been found to transfer from the placenta to the fetus. In addition, EDCs can be transferred to infants through breast milk.
What Can We Do to Avoid or Reduce Exposure to EDCs?
FOOD AND WATER
- Trim fat from meat and the skin from fish and cook using a rack to allow fat to drain.
- Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before consuming them (buy local if possible).
- Don’t microwave plastic food containers or use them for storing hot liquids. Use glass, porcelain, or stainless-steel containers when possible, especially for hot food and drinks.
- Avoid plastic containers designated #3, #6, and #7.
- Reduce consumption of canned and processed foods. Fresh and frozen is best.
- Use a water filter.
- If possible, purchase organic produce, meat, and dairy products through your farmers’ market
- Replace older non-stick pans with newer ceramic-coated, stainless steel or cast iron pans.
EXERCISE AND ACTIVITY
- Check air quality in your area [https://airnow.gov].
- Avoid outdoor exercise when pollution levels are high.
- Avoid exercise near high traffic areas. Choose routes away from busy roads and vehicles.
- Read labels and avoid products containing phthalates.
- Choose products labeled “Phthalate-Free”, “BPA/BPS-Free”, and “Paraben-Free.”
- Avoid fragrances in home and personal care products. Opt for cosmetics labeled “no synthetic fragrance.”
- Wash your hands often, especially before preparing and eating food.
AROUND THE HOME
- Support retailers that have a comprehensive chemical policy.
- Choose natural cleaning products, such as vinegar and baking soda.
- Look for consumer products that do not contain synthetic fragrance. Use natural scents such as cinnamon, clove and citrus.
- Keep dust levels down by wet mopping and wet dusting.
- Purchase children’s products and furniture made with cotton, polyester or wool.
- Replace and discard safely old fluorescent bulbs and deteriorating construction materials from older homes and buildings.
- Minimize burning wood or trash.
- Use hand-powered or electric lawn care equipment instead of gas-powered alternatives.
- Forbid smoking and vaping indoors and advocate for measures to make public spaces tobacco-free.
- Plant trees to absorb pollutants and harmful greenhouse gases.
- Avoid hand-me-down toys.
- Use infant formula bottles and toys that are labeled “BPA/BPS-Free”.
- Avoid costume jewelry.
- Choose transportation options and transit routes that limit time sitting in traffic.
- Encourage your child’s school to reduce school bus emissions, including reducing idling.
It should not be up to consumers or individuals alone to reduce their exposure to EDCs. Advocate for more research and improved federal regulations by contacting members of Congress.