Harmful chemicals are found in a wide range of products we encounter every day including plastic bottles, metal food cans, food, toys, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. While the debate over regulation of these chemicals builds, one watchdog group has released a list of what they call “The Dirty Dozen,” or the 12 most harmful hormone-altering chemicals, as well as how to avoid them.
These hormone-altering chemicals are known as endocrine disruptors, and can interfere with the body’s endocrine system, producing “adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife,” according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH).
One of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals, Bisphenol A, better known as BPA, has received much national attention during the past few years. Exposure to BPA, which has been present in many everyday items such as plastic bottles and metal food and beverage cans since the 1960s, can increase susceptibility to certain cancers and has been linked to reproductive and developmental risks in fetuses and children.
Some states have banned the use of BPA in certain products like baby bottles, but “BPA-free” does not necessarily mean products are safe. According to Discovery News, many consumers have a misguided notion of BPA-free products, which can contain many other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that act like BPA.
Part of the difficulty in regulating these potentially toxic chemicals is that, despite vast evidence of their dangers, a debate over the risks of such chemicals exists among scientists and researchers. In July, the debate escalated after a European Union report evaluating its policy on endocrine-disrupting chemicals was leaked, resulting in a “scathing” response by a group of researchers “attacking the assumptions underpinning the report’s proposals,” Scientific American reports.
Now, other groups of experts have published criticisms of the harsh response, which appeared in Food and Chemical Toxicology. The original backlash against the EU’s report is now being called “a profound disservice” to public health. Meanwhile, a report by Environmental Health Sciences found that 17 of the 18 scientists who authored the response to the EU’s chemical policy have “past or current ties” to affected industries.
The debate among scientists has been controversial and means that any decisions on potentially regulating these chemicals have been delayed. Regulating products containing hormone-altering chemicals will be an extensive process regardless, as less harmless chemical substitutes will have to be found and implemented.
There are approximately 80,000 chemicals currently on the market, many of which have not been tested for safety due to decades-long oversight, according to the Huffington Post. The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, was intended to regulate commercial chemicals before they entered the market; however, industry pressure allowed chemicals already on the market to be grandfathered in.
“Under the current legislative situation, there’s no assurance whatsoever that whatever comes along as a replacement is going to be any safer,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine told the Post. “We can’t test chemicals properly until we have new legislation in this country.”
Watchdogs like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are working to put pressure on lawmakers and spread public awareness about the dangers of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The EWG lists the following 12 endocrine-disrupting chemicals as among the most hazardous to human health:
1. Bisphenol A (BPA): imitates the sex hormone estrogen; linked to breast cancer and other cancers, as well as obesity and heart disease; present in 93 percent of Americans’ bodies.
2. Dioxin: can disrupt both male and female sex hormone signaling; exposure to low levels in the womb and in early life can affect sperm quality and sperm count; a powerful carcinogen that can affect the immune and reproductive systems.
3. Atrazine: widely used on US corn crops and pervasive in drinking water; linked to prostate cancer in humans; linked to breast tumors, delayed puberty, and prostate inflammation in animals; research found exposure to low levels can turn male frogs into females.
4. Phthalates: can trigger “death-induced signaling” in testicular cells, causing premature cell death; linked to hormone changes, lower sperm count, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes, and thyroid issues.
5. Perchlorate: a common component of rocket fuel also found in produce and milk; competes with the nutrient iodine, which the thyroid gland needs to produce hormones, and thereby can alter thyroid hormone balance – thyroid hormones regulate metabolism and are “critical” to brain and organ development in babies and young children.
6. Fire retardants: known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs); can imitate thyroid hormones and disrupt their activity; can lead to lower IQ and other serious health effects; 1999 study found PBDEs present in breast milk and determined levels in milk have been doubling every 5 years since 1972.
7. Lead: toxic, especially to children; harms almost every organ system; linked to numerous health effects including permanent brain damage, hearing loss, lower IQ, miscarriage, premature birth, kidney damage, and nervous system issues; can disrupt hormone signaling that regulates humans’ major stress systems, which can lead to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and diabetes; found to lower sex hormone levels in animals.
8. Arsenic: found in food and drinking water; small amounts can cause lung, skin, and bladder cancer, large amounts are fatal; can interfere with normal hormone functioning in the system that regulates how the body processes sugars and carbs, known as the glucocorticoid system – disruption of the glucocorticoid system is linked to weight loss and gain, immunosuppression, insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes), osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and growth retardation.
9. Mercury: enters the air and oceans primarily through burning coal, and can thereby be present in seafood; can interfere with fetal brain development; known to bind to a hormone that regulates women’s menstrual cycles and ovulation; linked to diabetes – has been shown to damage pancreatic cells that produce insulin.
10. Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs): found in non-stick cookware and water-resistant coatings on clothes and in furniture and carpets; found to be present in 99 percent of Americans; linked to decreased sperm quality, low birth weight, kidney and thyroid disease, and high cholesterol, among other health issues; found to affect thyroid and sex hormone levels in animals.
11. Organophosphate pesticides: produced in large quantities by the Nazis for use during WWII, but were never used – afterwards, US scientists used the chemistry to develop pesticides that target the nervous system of insects; linked to issues with brain development, behavior, and fertility; can interfere with the way testosterone communicates with cells, thereby lowering testosterone and altering thyroid hormone levels.
12. Glycol ethers: common solvents in cosmetics, paints, cleaning products, and brake fluid; found to cause shrunken testicles in rats; EU found some “may damage fertility or the unborn child;” linked to blood abnormalities and lower sperm counts, as well as asthma and allergies in children.
For more information on endocrine-disrupting hormones and measures to avoid them, visit the Dirty Dozen List by the Environmental Working Group.