Endocrine Disruption and Health: The State of the Science and the Need for Primary Prevention
By Pamela Miller, Executive Director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics
Over the past 25 years, scientists have made astonishing progress in elucidating how endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in the environment affect humans – especially pregnant and nursing women, babies, infants, and children. Scientific understanding has far surpassed public policy, leaving us with chemical policies that are not protective of public health.
Confronted with this growing body of new research, the highly respected Endocrine Society set an important precedent for scientific and medical organizations in 2009 by taking a public stance on endocrine-disrupting chemicals and again in 2015 by issuing a comprehensive scientific statement. The Endocrine Society is the largest international membership organization representing scientists and health care professionals in the field of endocrinology. The Endocrine Society statements:
- “Defined an EDC as a compound that, through environmental or developmental exposure, alters how an organism communicates and responds to the environment;
- Asserted that there is no endocrine system that is immune to EDCs and that the effects may be transmitted to future generations (e., transgenerational);
- Declared that the evidence for adverse reproductive outcomes is strong and mounting for effects in areas such as neuroendocrine, sexual development, obesity, metabolism, thyroid systems, and insulin resistance;
- Highlighted the “precautionary principle” for informing decisions about exposure and risk: Chemicals must be tested before being introduced into the environment;
- Encouraged scientific societies to partner with organizations with scientific and medical expertise to evaluate the effects of EDCs and communicate to other researchers, clinicians, community advocates, and politicians.”
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are exogenous chemicals that can act in various ways to disrupt the delicate chemical messaging system of the body, including mimicking or blocking our normal hormone functions. They are found in our home, school, and work environments in such products as electronics, furniture foam and carpet padding treated with certain flame retardants, personal care and cleaning products, pesticides, food packaging, medical equipment, and toys. We are exposed to EDCs in our air, water, food, and through household dust. In a commentary in Environmental Health News,[i] Dr. Laura Vandenberg of the University of Massachusetts states:
“We also know that Americans today have hundreds of chemicals circulating in their bodies. Our babies are being born ‘pre-polluted’ with chemicals detectable in their blood, in the placenta, and in amniotic fluid because of exposure to EDCs and other contaminants during pregnancy and throughout the mother’s life. We now recognize that EDCs can act at low doses . . . It is also clear that the traditional adage ‘the dose makes the poison,’ used by toxicologists for decades, is outdated and too simplistic when it comes to understanding the health effects associated with EDCs; studying high doses often does not tell the full story about a chemical’s effects. And there are periods in our life when we are more sensitive to these chemicals; exposures during vulnerable periods of development can produce effects that might not manifest until adulthood.”
EDCs are implicated through laboratory and epidemiological studies in adverse health outcomes including infertility, thyroid impairment, neurodevelopmental harm, obesity, and certain cancers including testicular, breast, prostate, and ovarian.[ii] Pregnant and nursing women, babies, infants, children, and adolescents are particularly vulnerable. Several studies have highlighted the harmful exposures of premature babies in neonatal intensive care units who are exposed to certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in medical devices, such as phthalates and bisphenol A. Phthalates are chemical substances used as plasticizers in plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and found in medical devices including blood storage bags, IVs, breathing tubes, feeding tubes, and catheters.
What Can You Do?
Some simple ways to prevent or reduce exposures include:
- Wash hands frequently
- Dust with a damp cloth and using a vacuum with a HEPA filter
- Avoid personal care products with the word “fragrance” on the label
- Use glass and stainless steel instead of plastic or Teflon for food storage and cooking
- Choose fresh, frozen, or dried foods (such as beans) rather than canned foods
- Choose organic foods as much as possible
But it’s clear we can’t “shop our way out of this problem.” Public policies that are based on our current scientific understanding of EDCs and prioritize protection of public health are vital to the health of current and future generations of Alaska’s children. Expecting our Alaskan hospitals and medical clinics to develop a plan for acquiring and using alternative medical devices, materials, and products that do not contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals is a great place to start.
- The Endocrine Society’s Second Scientific Consensus Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals, 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4702494/
- Introduction to Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: A Guide for Public Interest Organizations and Policy Makers, 2014. A Publication of the Endocrine Society and the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN): http://ipen.org/documents/introduction-endocrine-disrupting-chemicals-edcs.
- Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments: Promoting healthy people and healthy environments by educating and leading the nursing profession, advancing research, incorporating evidence-based practice, and influencing policy. http://envirn.org/
- Health Care Without Harm – an excellent resource for health care providers interested in environmentally responsible health care: https://noharm-europe.org/issues/europe/edcs-infographic
- The Endocrine Disruption Exchange – a helpful source of information on the latest science concerning endocrine disruption: https://endocrinedisruption.org/.
- Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) – an information source about community-based research, science and health in Alaska. ACAT hosts free monthly teleconference seminars with leading science and policy experts on environmental health topics: akaction.org
- Safer Chemicals Healthy Families – a national coalition of health professionals, parents, advocates for people with learning and developmental disabilities, reproductive health advocates, environmentalists and businesses: http://saferchemicals.org/
[i] Vandenberg, L. 2016. Commentary: 25 years of endocrine disruptor research – great strides, but still a long way to go. Environmental Health News: http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2016/sept/commentary-25-years-of-endocrine-disruptor-research-2013-great-strides-but-still-a-long-way-to-go
[ii] The Endocrine Disruption Exchange Fact Sheet on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: https://endocrinedisruption.org/assets/media/documents/EDC%20Fact%20Sheet%2020170705.pdf