Endocrine disrupting chemicals in plastics, other sources pose serious health threats, says new research 

A report from scientific and medical experts on hormone-related health conditions raises new concerns about the profound threats to human health from endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that are ubiquitous in our surroundings and everyday lives. 

The report from the Endocrine Society, co-produced with the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), includes detailed analyses on exposure to EDCs from four sources: plastics, pesticides, consumer products (including children’s products), and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of thousands of chemicals known or suspected to be EDCs. 

“A well-established body of scientific research indicates that endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are part of our daily lives are making us more susceptible to reproductive disorders, cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and other serious health conditions,” said the report’s lead author, Andrea C. Gore, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin. Gore is also a member of the Endocrine Society’s Board of Directors. 

“These chemicals pose particularly serious risks to pregnant women and children. Now is the time for the UN Environment Assembly and other global policymakers to take action to address this threat to public health.”

Hormones are natural chemicals that contribute to normal development, adaptation, and maintenance of bodily processes and health. By interfering with hormones and their actions, EDC exposure can impact many health-related functions, with consequences for increased risks of many serious conditions. Evidence suggests that EDCs in the environment contribute to disorders such as diabetes, neurological disorders, reproductive disorders, inflammation, and compromised immune functioning.

Two of the four analyses in the report look at EDCs used in plastics and as pesticides. Global production of plastics and pesticides is increasing even as scientists warn that chemical and plastic pollution is an escalating crisis. Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used herbicide, and a recent study found that glyphosate has eight of ten key characteristics of an EDC. 

Other studies have found links between glyphosate and adverse reproductive health outcomes. Plastics are made with thousands of known toxic substances, some of which are known or suspected EDCs. The report examines bisphenols and phthalates, two toxic chemical groups found in many plastics. Exposures to EDCs from plastics occur at all phases of plastics production, use, disposal, and even from recycled plastics.  

The report notes that, while evidence of health threats from EDCs is mounting, current regulations have not kept pace. 

“EDCs are different than other toxic chemicals, but most regulations fail to address these differences,” said IPEN Science Advisor Sara Brosché, Ph.D. 

“For example, we know that even very low doses of endocrine disrupting chemicals can cause health problems and there may be no safe dose for exposure to EDCs. However, regulations typically do not protect against low-dose effects. We need a global approach to controlling EDCs based on the latest science with a goal of protecting the human right to a healthy environment.” 

In addition to plastics and pesticides, the report looks at EDC exposures from arsenic and lead, and from widely used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), manmade “forever chemicals” used as oil and water repellents and coatings. Lead remains in use in paint in many countries, as documented in recent IPEN reports. Endocrine-related conditions from lead exposure may include delayed onset of puberty and early menopause. 

Arsenic is a common metal that has long been linked to cancer and other health conditions, and more recent evidence shows that arsenic can disrupt multiple endocrine systems. PFAS are used in hundreds of products including clothing and food packaging, but recent studies show that some PFAS can disrupt hormones such as estrogen and testosterone and impair thyroid hormone functions.

Photo credit: iStock/ mbala mbala merlin

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