Endocrine disruptors are chemicals found in everything from personal care and cleaning products to canned goods, cookware, and plastics. These chemicals interfere with hormones and reproduction, and they may even cause serious neurological issues.
In nature, plants and animals often mimic other species. Sometimes they look like the environment in order to blend in, or they copy the looks of a more poisonous cousin to deter predators.
It’s beneficial in nature, but there’s a far more sinister form of mimicry happening in the human-made arena that many people aren’t even aware of. Copycat chemical predators are found all around us – pretending to be the naturally-occurring hormones found in our bodies.
These faux hormones are known as endocrine disruptors. We may logically know these chemicals aren’t hormones, but our bodies don’t. The American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) says nearly $340 billion has been spent in the United States towards the treatment of endocrine disruption (source).
What is the Endocrine System?
To understand these chemicals, we need to understand the system they directly affect. Your body’s endocrine system takes care of your hormones. This system is comprised of glands found in various areas in your body, producing the chemicals you need to live and function.
Receptors for these chemical messengers are also found throughout your body and don’t escape the effects of endocrine disruptors either. People may not think much about hormones, but we wouldn’t survive without them.
Not only do hormones enable us to grow and mature, they also help with the development of our nervous systems, give us the ability to reproduce, and control our blood sugar levels.
When endocrine disruptors are introduced into the system, the body receives mixed messages due to how similar endocrine disruptors and hormones are in their makeup. The biggest difference between the two is that one is made by your body and the other is not. Endocrine disruptors are actually chemicals — some from nature but mostly man-made — and like their namesake suggests, they disrupt the endocrine system.
Hormonal Imbalance from Endocrine Disruptors
Your body can only function smoothly if the proper balance of hormones is in your bloodstream. When the receptors in your body are exposed to an abundance of hormones – real or not – chemical messages are received and your body reacts accordingly.
Endocrine disruptors and hormones work much in the same way. Hormones are chemical messengers. Their purpose is to bind and give the receptors in our bodies specific instructions to perform. The chemicals that mimic hormones will act in much the same way as the chemical messenger they are copying. So if an endocrine disruptor is similar to estrogen, your body will end up producing more female sex hormones than it needs.
Conversely, endocrine disruptors may act more as a block to other hormones. In the previous example, that means your body would produce lower levels of estrogen. Although a little more or a little less of a hormone may not seem like a big deal, even just a small upset in our body’s internal balancing act can result in major consequences.
When we are exposed to endocrine disruption, we become at risk for cancer, obesity, infertility, and neurological disorders — just to name a few.
How to Avoid Endocrine Disruptors
Unfortunately, endocrine disruptors are all around us. From food to detergents and plastic toys, it seems like there’s no escape. However, if you focus on avoiding the dirty dozen endocrine disruptors, you can reduce your and your family’s chemical body burden:
BPA is a chemical used in plastics and receipts. It imitates estrogen and has been linked with cancer, obesity, heart disease, and early puberty. To stay away from BPA, don’t buy canned foods since some can be lined with the chemical.
Many cash register receipts are made out of BPA-coated thermal paper, so it’s best to say no when asked if you want one. Also avoid polycarbonate plastics. You can tell if a product contains this if “PC” is on the packaging or if it has the #7 recycling label.
When the chemicals chlorine or bromine are burned in conjunction with oxygen and carbon in an industrial setting, dioxin is what you get. This endocrine disruptor messes with the signals of sex hormones, creating reproductive problems and possibly cancer later in life. Dioxin mainly contaminates animal-based food products, so eating less meat will help lower your exposure to this chemical.
Phthalates are used in plastic toys and they’re found in food containers among other things. When introduced into the endocrine system of a male, this chemical can signal the death of testicular cells, leading to infertility and birth defects in males as well as diabetes and obesity.
To avoid phthalates, don’t buy items made with vinyl, PVC, or plastic #3. Choose a PVC free shower curtain which is also mold-resistant and won’t off-gas volatile organic compounds. Opt for stainless steel lunch containers and glass food storage at home to reduce your use of plastic around food.
This endocrine disruptor is found in rocket fuel and contaminates much of the fruits and vegetables we eat, as well as milk. The problem with perchlorate is that it competes with the essential nutrient your thyroid gland’s need to function properly: iodine.
As a result, your metabolism will be adversely affected and can possible inhibit the development of the brains and organs of babies and children. You will also need a water filter to remove this chemical from you water, specifically a reverse osmosis filter. Make sure to incorporate plenty of iodine to make up for the loss in your diet as well.
Although used to prevent fires, fire retardants have proven to be not only ineffective, but also dangerous for your health. Laws and bills have been passed banning chemicals like these, but even so, fire retardants are still found in breast milk and are linked to lower IQ since they’re similar to thyroid hormones.
Choose a certified organic cotton / eco wool mattress to ensure you and your child are not spending 8 or more hours a day inhaling toxic chemicals and coming into contact with flame retardants. Be very careful when you see certifications on mattresses. Some companies use their supplier’s GOTS certificate, which only guarantees that some materials are organically made.
The absolute best organic and safe mattress we’ve found is from Naturepedic. They go beyond the strictest standards and still offer a comfortable, affordable mattress. You can learn more about flame retardants and how to choose an organic mattress here.
Naturepedic offers Green Child readers a special 15% discount on their top-rated, certified organic mattresses and accessories.
You can also limit your contact by using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and by being careful when you take on renovation projects. Reupholstering foam furniture and replacing carpeting could expose you needlessly to fire retardants.
Atrazine is an herbicide generously used by farmers who grow corn. Like many other pesticides and herbicides, this endocrine disruptor also ends up in our water supply. Research has shown atrazine to cause prostate cancer, so make sure to buy organic foods and filter your water.
Lead is something we’ve been warned against for awhile now. Did you know, though, that it’s also an endocrine disruptor? This toxic heavy metal is known to cause damage throughout your whole body. It would be easier to say what lead doesn’t do, but here are just a few maladies: reproductive issues, brain damage, problems with the nervous system, lowered IQ, and more.
Lead is also believed to interfere with the hormone that regulates stress. An inability to handle stress brings on it’s on host of health issues to combat as well. Again, a water filter will come in handy if lead is found in your drinking water. Also be careful when removing old paint from walls as the paint could contain lead. Eating a healthy diet has shown to decrease absorption of lead in the system.
Arsenic is another heavy metal that disrupts your endocrine system. It is found in both food and water and interferes with the hormones that processes carbohydrates and sugars. This can lead to a plethora of problems, such as insulin resistance, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and trouble with weight. The best you can do to limit your arsenic intake is to check if your water contains it and buy a water filter if it does.
This endocrine disruptor is released into the air and ocean when coal is being burned. This contaminates the fish we eat and can lead to a lack of brain development in the fetus of pregnant women who are exposed.
Mercury has also been known to attach to hormones that have to do with female ovulation and the menstrual cycle, disrupting their natural function. Removing fish from your diet is an effective way to remove mercury from your system. If you can’t live without fish, wild Alaskan salmon is your healthiest option.
Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs)
This chemical is used to make cookware non-stick and other products stain or waterproof. Although the convenience is nice, PFCs are linked to an increased risk of infertility, high cholesterol, and thyroid and kidney disease.
Some PFCs aren’t even biodegradable, meaning who knows how long these endocrine disruptors will be around to harm us? To avoid these chemicals, choose safe, non-toxic cookware like the versatile Always Pan.
Nazis were the inspiration for this endocrine disruptor. First created to be used for chemical warfare, American scientists studied the unused chemical and developed it into a pesticide instead. In fact, it’s one of the most used pesticides today, despite its correlation with infertility and neurological issues.
This is because organophosphate pesticides influence the levels of testosterone and thyroid hormones. Avoid this endocrine disruptor by eating organic foods.
This chemical is found in cosmetics, cleaners, and paint. Many scientists believe glycol ethers are the cause of infertility and asthma. This is because painters were shown to have lower sperm counts and children suffered noticeably more from allergies when their rooms were painted with brands containing glycol ethers.
Mitigate these effects by not purchasing anything with 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) or methoxydiglycol (DEGME). Avoid these by making your own chemical-free cleaners.
Chemicals are everywhere. We need to start viewing health more from a population perspective instead of a case-by-case basis. Our bodies may not be able to tell hormones and endocrine disruptors apart, but there are things we can do limit the effects they have on our health.
If you want to take action beyond avoiding endocrine disruptors, support organizations that protect families from harmful chemical exposures. And be sure to reach out to your local lawmakers.