Hormone Disruptors: What They Are + Why You Should Care

Written by Margot White

It seems like everywhere we turn, science is telling us hormone disruptors are dangerous and can hurt our health. But let’s back up. What exactly IS a hormone disruptor, what are the problems associated with them, and is there anything we can do to really to minimize our exposure?

Let's break it down.

What are hormone disruptors?

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, hormone disruptors (or endocrine disruptors) are “chemicals that can interfere with the endocrine system and produce adverse effects in laboratory animals, wildlife and humans.”

Proper functioning of our endocrine system keeps our bodies in balance, regulates organ function and ensures proper growth and development. When absorbed into the body, endocrine disruptors can actually change, block, mimic and/or alter our natural hormones. (Yikes!)

Why should you care?

When our endocrine systems are compromised, it puts us at risk for health concerns and diseases including infertility, neurotoxicity, certain cancers, autoimmune disorders, endometriosis and even diabetes and obesity.

Where can you find hormone disruptors?

These chemicals can be in products that we come in contact with everyday including pesticides plastics, flame retardants, toys, personal care and cleaning products ... even our food and water. Some are even naturally occurring such as those found in soy-derived products. Hormone disruptors can be absorbed through ingestion or through the skin. While it's impossible to completely avoid hormone disruptors, here are some simple changes you can make to minimize exposure.

  • Avoid pesticides and choose organic foods when possible.
  • Consider installing a filter for drinking water to remove lead and pesticides
  • Ditch the plastic food containers and if you do use them, never microwave in plastic or put in the dishwasher. Avoid plastics containing BPA as well as canned foods (most contain BPA in the lining).
  • Wash hands after handling receipts — many of them contain BPA.
  • Avoid phthalates. These chemicals are used in plastics and are commonly found in food packaging and toys. They're used in "fragrance,” which can be found in everything from dish soap to shampoo to air fresheners.
  • Read the labels on your personal care products extremely carefully. (Not sure how? Here's a good place to start.)

Hormone disruptors may pose the greatest risk to infants during fetal and postnatal development.

Unfortunately, hormone disruptors can be found in human breast milk and even cord blood. Children — and especially newborns — are more sensitive to environmental toxins as their body systems and neural pathways are still developing.

For example, children who were exposed to too much BPA (a hormone disruptor found in plastics) were likely to experience behavioral issues and increased BMI.

And it gets complicated, because sometimes the effects of exposure may not be apparent until much later in life. In adults, too much exposure to BPA has been linked to cancer, heart disease, and hormonal abnormalities among other things.

Even low levels can be harmful.

The chemical industry argues that the “poison is in the dose” and that there just aren’t enough chemicals in their products to cause health concern. Well science says, that's just not true.

According to the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, “Scientific research is now indicating that there is ‘credible evidence’ that some hormonelike chemicals can affect test animals’ bodily functions at very low levels — well below the ‘no effect’ levels determined by traditional testing.”

In a three-year study conducted by Tufts University, researchers found conclusive evidence that "environmental exposures to endocrine disruptors are associated with human diseases and disabilities.”

There truly needs to be reform in the regulation ad testing of chemicals so consumers are better protected. While groups like Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families are actively seeking to change legislation, it may be years before companies are required to prove the safety of their products before they go to market. Until then, we need to become our own advocates as to what we are willing to expose ourselves and families to.

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