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6 of the Most Common Endocrine Disruptors—and How to Avoid Them
To follow the news is to know that there are chemicals in our waterways and carcinogens in our food supply. But what and where and how much? That’s where things get murky. Which is why we tapped Nneka Leiba, the director of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group. In her monthly column, Leiba answers our most pressing concerns about toxicity, the environment, and the health of the planet. Got a question for her? You can send it to email@example.com.
The endocrine system—a network of hormone-producing glands—plays a vital role in all phases of development, metabolism, and reproduction. In pregnant women, hormones such as estrogen and testosterone are necessary for prenatal development and maintaining a healthy pregnancy.
Certain substances affect our endocrine system by interfering with hormones’ normal functions. Known as endocrine disruptors, these substances increase production of certain hormones and decrease production of others. Ubiquitous in our everyday lives, these substances are found in common household items such as plastic goods, personal-care products, fragrances, food and food packaging, and even tap water. Studies have linked them to cancer, lowered sperm count, lowered IQ, thyroid disease, birth defects, and other developmental disorders. Babies and children are at the greatest risk for adverse effects.
Here are six of the most common endocrine disruptors—and more importantly, how to avoid them.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Manufacturers use BPA in the production of certain plastics and resins. It is commonly found in the lining of canned foods and other food-packaging materials, certain polycarbonate plastic bottles, and cash register receipts. BPA has been linked to breast and other cancers, reproductive and fertility issues, obesity, and early puberty.
In August, the American Association of Pediatrics warned against microwaving food or beverages in plastic because even trace amounts of BPA can be a problem for a growing body. Glass dishes are a safer option for heating food.
Given the lack of transparency in the market, it’s nearly impossible to know where BPA and other similarly concerning replacement chemicals are being used. But there are ways to reduce your exposure. Here’s how:
Say no to receipts, since thermal paper is often coated with BPA.
Avoid plastics marked with a “PC,” for polycarbonate, or recycling label #7. (Not all of these plastics contain BPA, but many do.)
Substitute fresh, frozen, or dried food for canned.
Never heat food in the can. (Transfer it to a pot or pan for stove-top cooking or a glass container for microwaving.)
Phthalates are plasticizer chemicals found in “fragrance,” PVC plastic, toys, and plastic wrap. Studies have linked phthalates to birth defects in the male reproductive system, lower sperm count, lower sperm motility, miscarriages, and gestational diabetes. A 2014 Swedish study suggests that phthalate exposure shortened the anogenital distance—the distance between the anus and the base of the penis, which some studies have correlated to genital development and testicular function—in Swedish boys. The shorter the distance, the greater the risk of problems, including low sperm count and undescended testicles.
You can reduce your exposure to phthalates; here’s how:
Avoid plastic food containers, plastic children’s toys (some phthalates are already banned in kid’s products), and plastic wrap with the recycling label #3.
Read ingredient labels. Avoid products that list phthalates as an ingredient as well as those that list “fragrance.” Keep in mind that fragrance can show up in unexpected places, like diapers and garbage bags.
The family of fluorinated compounds known as PFAS chemicals includes more than 4,700 chemicals, some linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity, and developmental defects, and others whose health effects are unknown. These nonstick, waterproof, grease-resistant chemicals are used to make cookware, waterproof clothing, coatings on upholstered furniture and carpeting, and food packaging. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PFAS chemicals are found in the blood of nearly all Americans tested.
Drinking water is one of the most common sources of exposure to PFAS chemicals. They could contaminate the drinking water of as many as 110 million Americans nationwide. EWG’s interactive map shows areas of known contamination.
Here’s how to avoid PFAS chemicals:
Buy a water filter to remove or reduce PFAS chemicals from your tap water. Reverse osmosis is the best bet to filter out PFAS chemicals. EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide provides information on the different types of water filters and the contaminants they remove.
Avoid brands like Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Polartec, or Gore-Tex.
Skip the optional stain-repellent treatment on new carpets and furniture. Many of these coatings are made with PFAS chemicals.
Cut back on fast food, which often comes in PFAS-treated wrappers and food packaging.
Pop popcorn on a stovetop. Microwaveable popcorn bags are usually coated with PFAS chemicals on the inside.
Do not use nonstick pans and kitchen utensils that are manufactured with PFAS chemicals.
Atrazine is widely used on the majority of corn crops in the US. Consequently, it’s a pervasive contaminant, found in water systems serving nearly 30 million Americans in twenty-seven states. Researchers have found that exposure to even low levels of the weed killer atrazine can turn male frogs into females that produce viable eggs. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency reviewed, but chose to ignore, recent science and human health studies linking atrazine to such ailments as childhood leukemia and Parkinson’s disease. Atrazine has also been linked to breast tumors, delayed puberty, and prostate inflammation in animals. Some research has linked it to prostate cancer in people.
Here’s how to avoid atrazine:
Get a drinking water filter certified to remove atrazine.
Buy organic produce.
Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™, which can help you find the items that have the fewest pesticide residues.
For decades, Americans have been exposed to flame retardants in mattresses, upholstered furniture, foam cushions, baby car seats, insulation, and electronics. These chemicals have been linked to hormone disruption, cancer, and attention and IQ deficits in children. Though the most toxic ones have been phased out in the US, they have been replaced by poorly studied alternatives that also could harm health.
Flame retardants migrate from products to indoor air and house dust. You can inhale them, ingest them, and absorb them through your skin. Biomonitoring studies have found flame retardants in the bodies of Americans nationwide, and children often have higher levels than adults.
You can reduce your exposure to flame retardants; here’s how:
Check item labels, often located under cushions or on the bottom of the piece of furniture, to make sure it was made without flame retardants. Foam furniture and mats made without chemical flame retardants should say so on the label. (If you purchased your furniture before 2015, there’s a good chance the manufacturer treated the cushion foam with toxic flame-retardant chemicals.) If you don’t see a label, by all means, ask the manufacturer whether flame-retardant chemicals are in the upholstered product.
Wash your hands frequently using soap and water. This is especially important before meals and for babies and young children who put their fingers in their mouths.
Vacuum with a HEPA filter and dust with a wet rag frequently to prevent flame retardants and other harmful chemicals from building up in your home.
Take proper precautions when replacing old carpet as the padding underneath may contain fire retardants. Keep children away from the area where the work is being done, keep the dust contained, and clean up with a HEPA vacuum when the work is completed.
Perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, is an endocrine disruptor that interferes with the thyroid gland. When perchlorate gets into your body, it competes with the nutrient iodine, which the thyroid gland needs to make thyroid hormones. These hormones regulate metabolism in adults and are critical for proper brain and organ development in infants and young children.
Perchlorate contaminates the drinking water of almost 17 million Americans. After years of pressure from EWG and other groups, the EPA finally decided in 2011 to set an enforceable drinking-water standard for the chemical. But the EPA has failed to propose or set a standard and had to be sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council before agreeing to finalize a rule before the end of next year.
Perchlorate also contaminates food. The Food and Drug Administration detected the chemical in three quarters of the twenty-seven types of food sampled. The greatest sources of perchlorate were dairy products, because cows, like breastfeeding mothers, accumulate perchlorate in their milk.
Here are ways to avoid perchlorate:
Install a reverse-osmosis filter to reduce perchlorate in drinking water.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid perchlorate in food because contamination is so pervasive. But you can reduce its potential effects by making sure you are getting enough iodine in your diet. Eating iodized salt is one good way.
As the director of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group, Nneka Leiba, MPhil, MPH, translates complicated scientific topics, particularly ones dealing with the effects of everyday chemical exposures on our health, into easily accessible tips and advice. Leiba has become an expert in a wide range of issues, including the safety of ingredients in cosmetics and other consumer products, and drinking water quality. She earned graduate degrees in zoology and public health from the University of the West Indies and Johns Hopkins University, respectively.