Endocrine Disruptors, Why Should We Care?

Endocrine disruptors (hormone disruptors), like BPA, have been in the news a lot lately and for good reason.

Endocrine disruption is one of those things that can be incredibly difficult to convince people of its potentially devastating health effects, particularly for our children. The research can be hard to navigate. There is proven correlation but not necessarily causation, and the consequences of exposure to endocrine disruptors occur years later, as in the case of DES (Diethylstilbestrol). All of this makes it so easy to either dismiss the concerns about endocrine disruptors or to remain in denial.

This is a huge mistake.

So, what exactly is the endocrine system and how does endocrine disruption look?

Endocrine System

Endocrine System

The endocrine system is a collection of glands (which you can see above) that secrete hormones and receptors that react to those hormones. It controls basic body functions such as metabolism, growth and sexual development. In other words, it is incredibly important.

Endocrine disruptors interfere with the body’s endocrine system They can, and do, produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects.

Our simple understanding is that endocrine disruptors are linked to:

  • reduced fertility
  • endometriosis
  • reproductive cancers (breast, endometrial, testicular, prostate, ovarian)
  • abnormalities in male reproductive organs (cryptorchidism and hypospadias)
  • structural damage in brain
  • hyperactivity
  • early puberty
  • miscarriage
  • sex ratios (the number of live male births divided by the total number of births for a given period)
  • thyroid disorders

However, the research is behind in defining what endocrine disruption can cause, especially depending on the age at which exposure occurs. If exposure (even low-level exposure) occurs in-utero the effects can damage any of our biological systems. The new push in research is to understand how early exposure impacts all developing systems.

This could be incredibly exciting in many ways. The problem is that our children do not have the time to wait for the research.

Think of how many friends or family members you might have that have suffered from one of the above-mentioned health problems. Or even yourself.

“To date, no chemical in use has been thoroughly tested for its endocrine disrupting effects. Traditional toxicological testing protocols were not designed to test for endocrine disruption and to test at ambient or low exposure levels.”

This fact amazes me. It amazes me that this is possible and has so far been simply accepted.

What are the sources of endocrine disruption?

This is the biggest part of the problem. We encounter them every day. The most common endocrine disruptors:

  • Food and water. Pesticides are the single largest source of endocrine disruptors found in our bodies. Pesticides have been designed to disrupt biological systems. They are then running into our water sources, contaminating the food we eat, and remaining in the soil to cause more damage. DDT is perhaps the most infamous.
  • BPA (Bisphenol-A). BPA has been in the news and on legislator’s desks lately, and for good reason. BPA is found in many plastic baby bottles and sippy cups, plastic water bottles, other plastic food containers, thermal paper receipts, soda cans, and canned foods. BPA can leach from these containers into the food or water, especially when heated.
  • PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride). PVC is a cheap, pliable plastic found in numerous things such as, shower curtains, toys, building materials, food packaging, and more. PVC is considered the most toxic plastic from both an environmental and a health standpoint. It is harmful to the workers that produce it and the people, particularly children, who are exposed to it.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). PBDEs are flame retardants used in carpets, bedding, clothing, mattresses. They are related to Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which have been banned worldwide for 30 years due to their undeniable harmful health effects on people, yet are still prevalent in most American’s bodies because we are still consuming food (seafood and dairy in particular) that is laden with the toxic chemical.
  • Phthalates. Typically found alongside PVC in toys, shower curtains, and food containers, phthalates are another prevalent source of endocrine disruption. They also are often found in personal care products listed as in the ingredients as fragrance or phthalate, as well as DEP, DEHP, dibutyl, or diethylhexyl.
  • Triclosan. Triclosan is an antibacterial pesticide found in dishwashing liquid, liquid hand soaps, hand sanitizers, toothpaste, toothbrushes, toys, and diaper changing pads to name just a few. Anything labeled antibacterial will likely contain triclosan. The good news for consumers is there are lots of safer, and equally effective, products to choose from that don’t cause an increased risk of cancer, asthma, and birth defects.

If you have 20 minutes, it would be well worth your time to go watch the incredibly moving video, “10 Americans,” about the toxic burden we are placing on our children.

That video illustrates the single reason I do what I do. It is our responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Babies are being born with an incredible amount of toxic chemicals already in their tiny bodies. Babies and young children are much more vulnerable to the things we are all exposed to every day, with potentially much more severe consequences to their health. This should not be acceptable to anyone.

So, the question becomes… What can we do?

Individually we can try to limit our exposure the best we can:

  • Buy and eat organic produce. Particularly those that are likely to have higher levels of pesticide and herbicide residue. Buying local and in season is always beneficial as well.
  • Avoid using pesticides in your own yard and garden.
  • Use greener household cleaners. Using ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, castile soap, and maybe some essential oil is all you really need to make your own cleaners. Or look for brands that contain fewer toxic chemicals.
  • Choose safer personal care products. The Cosmetics Database is a great place to start when researching safer products for you and your children. Read labels and understand ingredients.
  • Avoid canned foods, plastic wrap, and plastic food or beverage containers. All canned foods, with the one exception of Eden Organic beans, are lined with BPA. Many plastic water bottles (both reusable and single-use), sippy cups, plastic food containers are made with BPA. Look for BPA-free, or better yet, avoid the plastic altogether. And please, do not heat plastic containers!
  • Remove and avoid soft plastic teethers and toys. These leach endocrine disrupting chemicals, often directly into their mouths.
  • Take care when eating fish. You can check with your state to see if fish from local rivers, lakes, and bays are contaminated. Freshwater and farmed fish are often highly contaminated.
  • Avoid sunscreen with oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is easily absorbed through the skin and is another endocrine disruptor.

As a society, we can do better.

What changes are you willing to make to reduce your (and your children’s) exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals?

Does it seem too overwhelming? Too difficult? Unnecessary?

I would love to hear your thoughts.


Endocrine Disruptors, Why Should We Care? — 34 Comments

  1. Wow! That was a lot to take in.

    A few years back I tried really hard to live greener for my health, my kids health and the environment. I still do many things like avoid PVC as much as possible or just plastic in general. Or buy organic. But it is not easy. It is getting easier but still expensive.

    I do remember to try and buy more organic but I couldn’t remember why. Thanks for the reminder.

    I’ll be back for more…

    Thx, Your fellow Sits Girl. :-)

    • Hopefully not too much to take in, I can get a little wordy. ;) One thing I would like to see change is the idea that it can be too expensive to make these kinds of changes. There are certainly choices that do cost more money (organic produce for one), but many more that can actually save money. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Great overview. You summed it up nicely. It is a frustrating process trying to eliminate these toxins when we are just surrounded by them. I just keep reminding myself not to get overwhelmed and keep taking small steps forward.

  3. Excellent post! I totally believe the toxins and pollution in our environment are creating disease. We’re constantly being inundated with toxins, and no matter how hard we try to limit our exposure we’re still getting those toxins into our systems.

    We’ve made major changes in what we buy, use, and eat over the past few years, however, living in California we still have to contend with water/air pollution, and environmental toxins from our agriculture.

    Any small lifestyle changes can help limit the toxic overload in our bodies though.

    Michelle ~ fellow SITS gal ;)

    • We all contribute to the toxic burden we place on ourselves and our neighbors, which is why it is essential we start with our own choices. To make real difference with these toxins that are so prevalent in the environment, we have to make societal change. Easier said than done, but the first step is education.

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  5. I know daycares and Playcentres (Playcentres are unique to NZ) that refuse to have plastic toys at all… only natural materials for exactly this reason. I think you're absolutely right that we need to educate people on what it is and what it does. Great post. Visiting from SITS!

  6. Thank you thank you thank you for this post!!! People think I am crazy when I start talking about pesticides and endocrine disruptors!

    Yes, it sounds crazy. yes, it is a colossal pain in the ass to avoid them. And yes, it is worth it. We do what we can to avoid them, but it is pretty overwhelming…. If more people understood the dangers and demanded products that had none of these toxic chemicals, it might be easier. Keep the info. coming!

    • I have the same problem sometimes. ;) The main issue I have with endocrine disruptors in particular is that we are exposed to them no matter what personal choices we make. That doesn;t mean all is lost and we should give up, but rather we need to educate others (gently) and demand societal change.

  7. Wow. For my first impression of your light-hearted and cute header on the blog this was quite a heavy post. But it's all good. Just caught me off guard a bit.

    All these things can be quite overwhelming to me and I tend to shut out the info. But it's true. There's lots of bad things out there (my unscientific voice here) that are certainly not helping us live amazing and healthy lives.

    So thanks for sharing with the intent of loving and caring for people around you. I do what I can to promote health and happiness, but at the same time I refuse to live in fear. It's a tricky balance.

    • Well, I try not to be too heavy handed even though I am very passionate about children's health and the health of their environment. You caught me on one of my more serious days. :)

      There is no reason to live in fear, but the more we know, the more we can change. Awareness is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves and our children. We should all be able to make conscious choices in life, not allow them to be made for us. I don't believe I am in the business of fear-mongering, I am in the business of education. What people choose to do with that knowledge is up to them.

  8. Also, our wonderful governor up here in Maine is now telling us that "at most, some women would have small beards" from exposure to BPA and other endocrine disruptors. Come on, it's just a little beard, right? What's the big deal?

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  15. Thanks for the great summary! I’m happy to see that we’ve done a lot of the things on your list already. With my 2 year old son, we are also constantly monitoring the toys that family members buy (without offending them too much). So many bath toys have been kept away from him….

    We also try to eat all organic, local , and unprocessed foods. I cook and pack my son’s lunch for daycare each day. I just wish that they would accept glass baby bottles for baby #2’s breastmilk, but I think I might look into stainless steel bottles.

    Anyway, thanks again for a great post!

  16. I really appreciate this post. It makes me feel less crazy when trying to explain why I insist on feeding my 16 month old organic food (and me and my husband for that matter). It is infuriating that cans are lined with BPA, and so this season I’ve taken to making my own pumpkin puree and using dry beans which is such a pain.
    I did read a small ray of hope recently, and I wish I could remember the source, but a study done in Northern California found that after eliminating foods from the diet that had been packaged with BPA containing materials, the subjects showed a 60% reduction in their BPA levels in just 3 days. If anyone knows of the study to which I’m referring, I would love to track it down again.

  17. Thank you for enumerating. Difficult to swallow, but necessary!
    In that spirit, I would like to add one more place of bad news: car interiors apparently can exceed OHSA limits on various toxins. That “new car” smell is actually a cocktail of bad-news chemicals, including a few endocrine disruptors, off-gassing from the mostly plastic interiors. Taken together, the nation’s car interiors might qualify for superfund status.
    What to do about it: (Try hard to) limit car time. Teach your children to bike. If you must use your car, air it often and long. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove the plastic bits that wear off the interior. Because after the new car smell wears off, there are wear problems. More tips: http://bit.ly/zaSavK

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  20. I’m bookmarking this wonderfully concise explanation about why not to use products with BPA. It’s also a caution to generally be vigilant about knowing the ingredients and their impact for any product you buy. I strongly believe there is a correlation between fertility issues that women of our time now suffer and the use of toxic chemicals. I’m so glad all the concern about BPA started when my son (now 5 years old) was a baby. It helped me make the right decisions for him and his 18 month old baby sister.

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  23. Hey Brenna,

    This is a very informative post! In our family we choose to eat everything organic as much as possible. We’re also trying to reduce the use of plastic and make sure everything we purchase have the BPA-FREE sticker or sign.

    Thank you for sharing :)