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Food and Agriculture

Endocrine Disruptors, what are they and how to avoid them?

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Isabel Forner


Published November 9 2021

Endocrine disruptors. A couple of words rarely heard in the media but gaining importance in medicine, research, or safety consumer offices. What are they? Where can we find them? Are they detrimental to our health? Can we avoid them, and if yes, then how? All questions that we will answer here, so keep reading!

According to the World Health Organization, an endocrine disruptor or endocrine-disrupting chemical (from now on, EDC), is “an exogenous substance or mixture that alters function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub)populations”.

Before explaining how EDCs interplay with our cells, we have to understand that the endocrine system is a complex network of glands and organs, where hormones act as messengers, tightly coordinating a plethora of physiological functions and processes, such as sugar metabolism, growth, sleep, stress, mood or reproduction. The hormones, which are released to the blood or to the cells surrounding, can regulate all those processes through binding their very specific (complementary) receptors. Once the receptor is bound with the specific hormone, some molecules and pathways are activated, generating a physiological response (i.e. hunger, puberty). In other words, it is like a puzzle, where each piece has to be allocated in a specific position. However, EDCs may alter this puzzle game.

Many years of research has revealed that EDCs can threaten our health via various mechanisms of action. Briefly, according to the European Commission: 1) an EDC can mimic our hormones binding its receptor and then, activating inappropriate hormonal responses; 2) an EDC can bind the receptor but block further hormonal responses 3) an EDC can bind natural hormone transport proteins in the blood; 4) and finally, an EDC can interfere with different physiological processes.

Various chemicals can trigger those effects with hormonal activity: 1) Natural/body hormones from a specific animal species released into the environment that exert hormonal activity in other species (i.e. oestrogens); 2) Natural chemicals (i.e. phytoestrogens produced by plants or toxins produced by certain bacteria); 3) Pharmaceuticals (i.e. contraceptive pills) and 4) Synthetic chemicals (or man-made chemicals).

Chemical world

The Endocrine Society estimates that 1.000 out of 85.000 synthetic chemicals are potential EDCs and that only a tiny amount (less than 1 milligram per litre) would be sufficient to cause adverse health outcomes. To add some context, in Europe alone, in 2019, 281.1 million tons of chemicals were produced, while more than 22.000 substances have been registered since 2008.

It is clear that we live in a chemical world, where chemicals have improved our lives, such as medicines or electronics. However, many of those man-made chemicals used daily can have disrupting properties for our hormonal health. The National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS, USA) lists plasticizers, dioxins, perchlorate, perfluoroalkyl/polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) or triclosan, as a few. But beyond complicated names, these chemicals can be found in very common products as plastic items, non-stick pans, synthetic clothes, dyes, children toys, cosmetics, food packaging, medical devices, household products, electronics, lubricants, sealants or soaps, and they are absorbed in our body through our diet (i.e. food), skin (i.e. cosmetics) or by inhalation (i.e. dust).

Since the very first observations of the adverse effects of synthetic chemicals with the pesticide DDT by biologist Rachel Carson—compiled in her book Silent Spring—increasing concern about EDC impact on human and wild species exist. Many countries introduced or are in the process of implementing specific legislation to improve EDC identification and to increase consumer safety. As we said, EDCs may be implicated in several body dysfunctions, which is associated with an estimated economic cost of approximately $340 billion in the USA and nearly $217 billion in Europe.

Health problems

For some years now, much scientific effort has been focused on understanding the effects of EDCs in our bodies. A quick search on PubMed with the keywords “endocrine disruptors” results in almost 11.000 scientific publications since 1995. Among those, growing evidence links the presence of EDCs with, to cite some, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, reproductive impairments, hormone-sensitive cancers, prostate alterations, thyroid disruption, transgenerational effects, neurodevelopmental and neuroendocrine problems in humans and wildlife. As we do not want to extend this article a lot, we plan to publish follow up articles with some more specific information. But, if you are interested, here some suggested reading:

Sicker, fatter, poorer — L. Trassande; Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race — S.H. Swan; Toxic cocktail — B. Demeneix.

How to avoid EDCs?

We know that it is impossible to avoid certain chemicals, but we do not have to stress ourselves. Basically, as you can find here, here or here, you can introduce these few tips to reduce your daily exposure to EDCs, just changing a few little habits. And changes need not be dramatic but rather involve slightly modifying some manners to reduce our environmental and occupational exposure to EDCs. For example, changing your cosmetic regimen as shown here towards EDC-free products, consuming organic products or removing dust from carpets will considerably reduce the content of EDCs in our body. In this way, our health will win as well as the health of our favourite ones.

Isabel Forner-Piquer is a researcher at Brunel University London, United Kingdom. Before joining Brunel, she was a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Functional Genomics in France. Her research focuses on the study of environmental pollutants and their effects on the endocrine system and neurodevelopment. She holds two Bachelor's degrees—Biology (University of Valencia, Spain) and Marine Science (University of Alicante, Spain) and a PhD degree in Marine Biology and Ecology from the Polytechnic University of Marche (Italy). Awarded numerous grants and accolades, Isabel has published more than twenty scientific articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

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