Our bodies are complex machines, carefully regulated by hormones. Oestrogen, insulin, testosterone, thyroxin, key hormones amongst many others, allow our cells to communicate with each other. In almost all animals, hormones play a vital signaling role. They help us grow and reproduce, let our brain know when we’re hungry, or in love. Over millions of years of evolution and fine-tuning, the precisely balanced system of hormones we rely on today developed.
But something might be going wrong. There is mounting evidence from studies in the lab and in wildlife that exposure to certain chemicals can result in disruption to our hormonal system. Man-made chemicals have been linked to developmental abnormalities, population declines and sex ratio imbalances in mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, invertebrates and insects. Some chemicals are enough to cause adverse effects on their own, while others have an effect when they combine in a chemical cocktail. These chemicals are known as ‘Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals’ (EDCs).
So what exactly are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and where do they come from? They are any substance which doesn't “originate from your body that interacts with your hormones and cause an adverse health effect in an intact organism, its progeny, or (sub)population” (1). Released intentionally or unintentionally, these synthetic chemicals come from the manufacture, use and disposal of a huge number of materials and goods, including: plastics, pesticides, cosmetics, personal products and cleaning products.
The European Commission found that a total of 564 chemicals used by industry are suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals. 147 of these are either incredibly persistent in the environment or are being pumped into the environment with such frequency they are in effect persistent.
What does exposure to these chemicals mean for humans? Well, it is difficult to say. We know that the average human has over 700 different man-made chemicals swimming through their body. Scientists have found some links between reproductive health issues and EDCs. There is also evidence pointing to links between testicular, prostate, breast, and thyroid cancers and EDCs.Trend data shows that over the years endocrine related health issues, such as reduced fertility and thyroid problems have been increasing . This trend can’t be explained by genetics alone. What we come into contact with in our environment plays an important role.
We are bombarded by potential endocrine disrupting chemicals. We wash our hair with them, smother our faces, spray our food, package our drinks with them. We breathe them in, absorb them through our skin, and eat them in our food. On their own after a single exposure, they might not be much of a problem, but they all add up. This constant, cumulative exposure can cause serious problems.
Since they look and act just like our own hormones, our bodies can’t tell the difference. Our body relies on careful levels of hormones sending specific messages. If cells can’t communicate properly then unplanned changes start to happen. When this happens during important development stages, the effect on mental and physical health can be huge, and irreversible.
Recent reports by the WHO and UNEP (2) stress the need to increase our research into the potentially harmful effects exposure to these chemicals might have on individuals, their offspring, and the wider population.
Scientists aren’t yet sure yet exactly how much you need before damage starts to occur, and since pretty much everyone is being constantly exposed, it’s hard to compare a group of affected people with unaffected, to see clearly what impact they’re having. There is a high chance you were exposed to these chemicals before you were even born and could pass them on to your offspring.
What can we do? Think about the products you use and consume. You can check the latest information on specific chemicals using the Endocrine Disruptor Exchange Database.
See how many of your favourite products have some of these chemicals and think about the chemical cocktail you are exposing yourself to.
What we urgently need is more research, awareness and caution regarding these chemicals and their effects.
(1) WHO report
(2) UNEP report