Endocrine disruptors

Water pouring into glass from plastic bottle
Baby bottle on high chair
Many plastic baby products claim to be free of certain endocrine disrupting chemicals but are made from others that may also interfere with hormones.

What are endocrine disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the body’s hormones, which regulate a variety of functions like metabolism, growth, development, and sleep.

Pharmaceuticals, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT and other pesticides, and plasticizers such as bisphenol A (BPA) are endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors can be found in many common products including:

  • Plastic bottles
  • Metal food cans
  • Detergents
  • Flame retardants
  • Food
  • Toys
  • Cosmetics
  • Water

How do hormones and endocrine disruptors work?

Hormones are chemical messengers produced by glands throughout the body. Normally, hormones travel through your bloodstream to specific “receptor” cells in various organs or body systems. Once there, they trigger a biological effect like growth, energy storage, reproduction or a certain behavior such as a response to fear or stress.

More research needs to be done but animal studies have shed some light on how the processes (or “mechanisms”) of endocrine disruption work. Endocrine disruptors get in the way of normal body functions by:

  • Decreasing or increasing hormone levels
  • Mimicking the body's natural hormones
  • Altering the natural production of hormones

What health problems are related to endocrine disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors negatively affect developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune systems in humans and animals. Endocrine disruptors are linked to lower fertility and higher rates of endometriosis and some cancers. Research suggests that endocrine disruptors may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organs and the nervous system are forming.

How can I reduce my exposure to endocrine disruptors?

Below are a few tips from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to help you avoid some of the most common endocrine disruptors:

  • Arsenic: Use a water filter that lowers arsenic levels.
  • Atrazine: Eat organic produce and get a water filter certified to remove the herbicide, which is used on most corn crops in the US.
  • BPA: Eat organic, fresh fruits and veggies. Canned food often is lined with plastic that has BPA in it. If it’s hard to find affordable, fresh food look for BPA-free packaging in canned foods or buy frozen. Avoid handling receipts, which can be coated with BPA, as well as plastics labeled “PC” for polycarbonate (or recycling label #7).
  • Dioxin: Limit eating animal products. Since much of the American food supply has been contaminated with dioxin, it’s impossible to totally cut it out of your diet. But eating fewer products like meat, fish, milk, eggs and butter will help limit your exposure.
  • Glycol ethers: Avoid products with 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME). Learn more about safer cleaning products.
  • Lead: Get rid of old paint carefully since it’s a major source of lead contamination. Get a good water filter because lead can be found in old pipes. Eat healthy food – studies show that children with healthy diets absorb less lead.
  • Mercury:  Avoid certain seafood. The metal mercury contaminates air and water from burning coal and is found in seafood. For people who want all the healthy fats from seafood (or just like to eat it!), wild salmon and farmed trout are good choices.
  • Organophosphate pesticides: Buy organic if possible. Learn which produce uses fewer pesticides.
  • Perchlorate: Get enough iodine in your diet and use a water filter. You can’t totally avoid perchlorate in your food, since it contaminates much of the produce and milk people consume in the US. But you can reduce its potential effects by eating iodized salt and filtering it out of water.
  • Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs): Skip non-stick pans as well as stain and water-resistant coatings on clothing, furniture and carpets. Ninety-nine percent of Americans have these chemicals in their body probably because they don’t break down easily in the environment.
  • Phthalates: Use glass containers instead of plastic. Buy children’s toys that are labeled phthalate-free. Avoid plastic wrap made from PVC (or with recycling label #3). Read labels on your personal care products and avoid any that simply list “fragrance,” which is a catch-all term that sometimes means phthalates. Look for phthalate-free personal care products with EWG’s Skin Deep Database.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs): Avoid reupholstering foam furniture, which is made with these chemical fire retardants. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, which can cut down on toxic house dust. Be safe when replacing old carpet because the padding underneath may contain PBDEs. 

This information is (mostly) based on an article about endocrine disruptors by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.