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Scientists and doctors raise global alarm over hormone-disrupting chemicals

Image: A farmer spraying pesticides in a rice field. Image by Galeri ega via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
  • Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which harm the human body’s regulation of hormones, have become ubiquitous in consumer products, food, water, and soil, says a new report, leading to serious global health impacts.
  • There are some 350,000 synthetic chemicals and polymers used worldwide, and thousands may be endocrine disruptors. Most were not studied for their human health effects before being marketed. Known and suspected endocrine disruptors are found in pesticides, plastic additives, cosmetics, and waterproofing finishes.
  • The new report examines four sources of endocrine-disrupting chemicals: plastics, pesticides, consumer products, and PFAS. Rising rates of cancer, infertility, and obesity are suspected to be at least partially attributable to the presence of endocrine disruptors in the human body.
  • The Endocrine Society and International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), which co-authored the new report, are calling for legally binding global treaties to restrict and ban endocrine disruptor production and use.

A new report makes the strong case that a class of industrial chemicals called endocrine disruptors are behind many diseases on the rise globally. The report calls for stronger global regulations controlling their use and release into the environment.

A joint effort by the Endocrine Society and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), the report includes fresh research from the past decade documenting evidence that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) contribute to reproductive disorders, cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, neurological conditions, reduced immune function, chronic inflammation, and other serious health conditions. Research shows the chemicals to be especially dangerous to pregnant women and to children.

Endocrine disruptors interfere with natural human hormones and disrupt the smooth functioning of the endocrine system, which governs everything from fetal development and fertility to skin appearance, metabolism, and immune function. Some endocrine-related disorders can lead to death.

More than 24% of human diseases and disorders globally are attributable to environmental factors such as pollutants and hazardous chemical exposure, the report says, and those environmental factors play a role in 80% of the deadliest diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

There are an estimated 350,000 manufactured chemicals and polymers used worldwide, and thousands of those may be endocrine disruptors. Most have not been studied for their effects on human health before being released onto the market.

A woman holding a baby.
Research shows endocrine-disrupting chemicals to be especially dangerous to pregnant women and to children. Image by Anna Dubuis/DFID via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Lagging EDC regulation, growing concern

Current global legislation on toxic chemical exposure is based on the traditional understanding that “the dose makes the poison.” That is, hazardous substances only impact health at high levels. But IPEN science advisor Sara Brosché, Ph.D., countered that misperception in the organization’s press release: “We know that even very low doses of endocrine disrupting chemicals can cause health problems and there may be no safe dose for exposure to EDCs.” Regulation of endocrine disruptors around the globe is similarly lax and lagging behind current science.

The new report was released during the U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) meeting in Nairobi, where the UNEA is expected to welcome the newly adopted Global Framework on Chemicals, and try to advance global action on highly hazardous pesticides. Later this year both UNEP and the World Health Organization are expected to release an update to their 12-year-old Report on State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals.

The Endocrine Society, an organization of hormone research scientists and physicians who care for people with hormone-related conditions, and IPEN, which promotes policies to protect human health from the production, use and disposal of toxic substances, is not alone in sounding the alarm.

Medical societies including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, the U.K.’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, American Society of Reproductive Medicine, and the International Conference on Children’s Health and Environment have all issued statements calling for more care and control of endocrine disruptors.

A farmer spraying pesticide in a rice field in Nepal.
A farmer spraying pesticide in a rice field in Nepal. Image by Prakash Aryal via Pexels (Public domain).

Endocrine disruptor exposure is ubiquitous

The new report examines four sources of endocrine-disrupting chemicals: plastics, pesticides, consumer products, and PFAS.

Since the Endocrine Society’s last report on this topic in 2014, the scientific understanding of per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) and their link to endocrine-related illness has grown enormously and now comprises its own section of the report. PFAS is a class of chemicals used for stain and water-resistant coatings, and has been found on children’s clothing and food packaging, as well as in the drinking water of almost half of Americans. The 2024 report also expands on evidence indicating that endocrine disruptors can lead to metabolic dysfunctions, including obesity.

Consumers can easily be exposed to endocrine disruptors through furniture, toys and children’s products, food packaging, electronics, building materials, cosmetics, and clothing. However, this information is not being systematically disseminated to physicians or patients who have endocrine-related disorders. Nor is it included on product labels, except for cosmetics, where it can be confusing and unhelpful.

“We [physicians and scientists] need to do a better job of getting resources to the public,” the report’s lead author Andrea C Gore, professor and Vacek chair of pharmacology at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote to Mongabay in an email. “Some physicians I know tell me that they ask their patients, including in fertility clinics, about lifestyle choices. These questions are beginning to include [concerns] over the use of plastics, what people eat, and can lead to conversations to make changes such as not microwaving in plastic, and washing fruit and vegetables.”

But the toxicity issue goes far beyond the kitchen. Although endocrine disruptors like bisphenol A (BPA), get the most attention when they’re in consumer products such as baby bottles, “Exposures to EDCs from plastics occur at all phases of plastics production, use, disposal, and even from recycled plastics,” the report says.

Food packaged in plastic.
PFAS are a class of chemicals used for stain and water-resistant coatings. They’ve been found on children’s clothing and in food packaging. Image by Janet McKnight via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Exposure to endocrine disruptors in plastics is especially problematic in Asia, where the majority of plastic is manufactured under loose environmental and workplace controls, and in developing countries, where plastic waste is typically dumped at the end of its short life cycle.

Global production of plastics skyrocketed in the past 50 years, from 50 million metric tons to 460 million metric tons annually today. Though plastics can contain thousands of additives, many of which are known to be hazardous and many more that are almost unknown to researchers, the new report zeroes in on bisphenols such as BPA, and phthalates, two known endocrine disruptors ubiquitous in plastic consumer products — including bottles, workout clothing, medical supplies, and children’s toys.

Many endocrine disruptors find their way into the human body via food packaging and kitchenware. As an example, the report cites research showing that people are exposed to 60 nanograms a day of toxic flame retardants in plastic kitchen utensils, especially recycled ones. Food packaging is thought to contribute to the levels of both phthalates and BPA in our bodies.

A collection of plastic toys.
A collection of plastic toys. Consumers can easily be exposed to endocrine disruptors through furniture, toys and children’s products, food packaging, electronics, building materials, cosmetics, and clothing. Product labels offer almost no help identifying consumer goods containing EDCs. Image by David Zellaby via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Contaminating air, water and land

Endocrine disruptor exposure from pesticides, air pollutants and industrial waste varies widely from country to country. Highly hazardous pesticides that are banned in the Global North are still being produced and exported to the Global South, where they are taking a heavy toll, according to a new Atlas of Pesticides, with Brazil a leading user and agricultural pesticides linked there to child cancer deaths.

DDT is still produced in India and human exposure occurs worldwide, despite it being banned in many countries, including the U.S. since 1972. Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, has eight of the 10 key characteristics of an endocrine disruptor, according to the report, and has been linked to adverse reproductive health outcomes.

While farmworkers are especially at risk, homeowners can be exposed through use of glyphosate in their gardens and on lawns, and the general population can be exposed through food residue, air, water and toxic dust. An analysis of samples collected in 2013 and 2014 showed that 81% of Americans had detectable levels of glyphosate in their urine, with similar levels in the European Union and Australia.

The report also looked at the hormone-specific health effects of the heavy metals lead and arsenic. Lead, still used in paint in many countries, may contribute to endocrine-related conditions like delayed onset of puberty and early menopause. Arsenic, which has been found in baby foods, “has long been linked to cancer and other health conditions, and more recent evidence shows that arsenic can disrupt multiple endocrine systems,” the report says.

Monsanto's Roundup pesticide in a store.
Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, has eight of the ten key characteristics of an endocrine disruptor, according to the report, and has been linked to adverse reproductive health outcomes. Image by Global Justice Now via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

EDCs poorly regulated

In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a program to assess pesticides used on food for endocrine disruption. But “to date the agency has tested very few pesticides and found none to be endocrine disruptors,” the report says. While the United States at the federal level does ban some phthalates in children’s products, the U.S. FDA has no requirements for endocrine disruptor testing and allows BPA and several phthalates that are known endocrine disruptors to be used legally and intentionally in food packaging. (The plastics and chemical industries point to the FDA’s lax policy as proof of plastic’s safety.)

style=”font-size: small;”> style=”font-size: 12pt;”>When asked for comment for this story, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said it had not had the chance to thoroughly review the new report but that the Council didn’t believe the link between endocrine-disrupting chemicals and human disease had been sufficiently established to merit action. “Taking action even when causality has not been sufficiently established is inconsistent with risk-based U.S. chemical regulation laws,” an ACC representative wrote in an email to Mongabay. “It is also inconsistent with the judicious use of limited public health resources.

style=”font-size: small;”> style=”font-size: 12pt;”>The ACC pointed to the EPA’s recently revamped Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP), which just closed the comment period on several types of pesticides. The EPA, “found that existing regulatory levels are protective in most cases. This is an important result that demonstrates some endocrine-mediated risks are likely not as significant as some initially envisioned when the EDSP was launched over two decades ago,” the ACC representative wrote. (In a comment submitted in February to the EPA, the Endocrine Society critiqued several aspects of the EPA screening program as insufficient and overly narrow.) style=”font-size: small;”> style=”font-size: 12pt;”>The Plastics Industry Association did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comments for this story.

The European Union has started to take the threat of endocrine disruptors more seriously, adopting criteria for their identification in biocides and pesticides. In 2020, the EU called for several actions, including a ban on endocrine disruptors in consumer products.

When the European Food Safety Authority offered its opinion supporting a proposed reduction of the tolerable daily intake level of BPA in food contact materials, the American Chemistry Council responded that “low-dose effects [were] based on very few, lower quality experimental animal studies.”

EDC use continues almost completely unabated, especially in non-Western countries. Because EDCs are not labeled and so widespread, it’s impossible for even the most educated public to avoid endocrine disruptors. That is why IPEN, which focuses its work in developing nations, is calling for global agreements to restrict and ban these chemicals.

IPEN says it hopes that the international plastics treaty, currently in negotiation, will address hazardous chemicals in plastics. However, some nations, including the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are resisting that process. “Where you have plastics, you have EDCs,” Brosché, IPEN’s science adviser, said at a Feb. 26 press conference. “We know the problem will become much worse without international action.”

Citations:

Gore, A.C., La Merrill, M.A., Patisaul, H.B., and Sargis, R. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals: Threats to Human Health. The Endocrine Society and IPEN. February 2024

Åke Bergman, Jerrold J. Heindel, Susan Jobling, Karen A. Kidd and R. Thomas Zoeller State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals. WHO and UNEP. 2012

ACOG Committee. (2013). Exposure to toxic environmental agents. Fertility and Sterility, 100(4), 931-934. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2013.08.043

Whitehead, H. D., & Peaslee, G. F. (2023). Directly fluorinated containers as a source of perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids. Environmental Science & Technology Letters, 10(4), 350-355. doi:10.1021/acs.estlett.3c00083

Smalling, K. L., Romanok, K. M., Bradley, P. M., Morriss, M. C., Gray, J. L., Kanagy, L. K., … Wagner, T. (2023). Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in United States tapwater: Comparison of underserved private-well and public-supply exposures and associated health implications. Environment International, 178, 108033. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2023.108033

Alden Wicker
Alden Wicker
  Alden Wicker is an award-winning journalist, sustainable fashion expert, and author of To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – and How we can Fight Back. Her writing has appeared in Mongabay, Wired, the New York Times, Vox, Quartz among others.
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