The ugly truth: endocrine disruptors

Remember learning about the endocrine system in high school health class? For those of you who don’t, it’s basically a bunch of glands that make hormones. Those hormones are super important because they regulate your growth and development, metabolism, tissue and sexual function, reproduction, sleep, mood and other important bodily processes.

It’s a pretty important system in our bodies, playing a key role in our lives, from puberty to pregnancy. When the endocrine system is disrupted, however, the effects can be deadly.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with this system. Interference can happen in a number of different ways. The disruptors can increase the development of certain hormones and decrease the development of others, imitate hormones, turn a hormone into an entirely different hormone or even tell cells to die prematurely.

The Environmental Protection Agency states the effects of these disruptors can include “developmental malformations, interference with reproduction, increased cancer risk; and disturbances in the immune and nervous system function.”

In a 2010 study performed on frogs, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley discovered that atrazine, a known endocrine disruptor, completely altered the amphibians’ sexual organs. Biologists found that after male frogs were exposed to low dosages of the chemical, 75 percent of them were chemically castrated and unable to reproduce. One in every 10 of the males had completely altered sexual organs and became female.

Those are the effects of endocrine disruptors at an extreme level, but consumers should still be wary of exposing themselves to such dangerous chemicals.

The EPA maintains that endocrine disruptors are not a risk to humans, but clearly, they are to animals. It can take decades to definitively prove a chemical is carcinogenic or harmful to human health. Until then, they are considered “possible” or “suspected” carcinogens and remain in products.

Atrazine, the chemical that turned those male frogs into egg-bearing females, is a widely known herbicide used on the majority of corn crops in the United States, which means it’s on our food and ends up in our water.

BPA is an endocrine disruptor that you might already be familiar with. Exposure to the chemical has been linked to breast cancer, reproductive problems, early puberty and heart disease. According to a study done by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, 93 percent of Americans have BPA in their bodies.

Phthalates, another endocrine disruptor, can be found in food containers, children’s toys and personal care products, like makeup and lotions. According to research conducted by the Environmental Working Group, this chemical has been linked to hormone changes, lower sperm count and birth defects.

Feeling overwhelmed yet? The best way to avoid endocrine disruptors is to learn about them.

As a society, we can no longer blindly purchase products we know nothing about. To work toward change, we have to arm ourselves with information and knowledge.

Before buying a product, consider consulting online databases – such as The Good Guide website or the Think Dirty app – that break down ingredient lists and makes it easy to avoid harmful chemicals. These resources point out endocrine disruptors and carcinogenic chemicals that lurk in products.

Choose organic food and produce over cheaper alternatives that have likely been exposed to more chemicals.

Through small consumer choices, we can send the message that healthy products and food are valued over cheaper alternatives with dangerous effects.

[Editor’s note: This is the final piece in a two part series.]

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