Big issue – hormone disrupting chemicals

Make no mistake, you will soon hear more about hormone disrupting chemicals, or endocrine disruptors as they are also called since hormones constitute the body’s endocrine system. So we thought that now is a good time to give you a brief introduction to this growing problem issue for public health and the environment.

World Health Organization changes its mind on endocrine disruptors (Photo: Wikimedia)

World Health Organization changes its mind on endocrine disruptors (Photo: Wikimedia)

If we first go back about ten years in time international organisations had a rather cavalier attitude to endocrine disrupting chemicals. Scientists had started to sound warning bells, but there was yet no critical mass of information. Thus, in 2002 a report published by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), which is a joint programme of such esteemed authorities like the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Labour Organization, raised the problem. However, they basically dismissed it due to lack of evidence of causal links between observed changes and actual levels of the chemicals.

The tone is different in a new report published in 2012. In the intervening period, organisations like the Endocrine Society, the European Commission and the European Environment Agency have published scientific reviews drawing renewed attention to concerns to public and wildlife health. Further, the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology and the Pediatric Endocrine Society have called for action on endocrine disruptors and their effects. In an update to the initial IPCS report, it is now claimed that increasing scientific evidence suggests that endocrine disrupting chemicals actually are a cause for global concern, and that more research is critically needed to understand these chemicals and their human health effects in more depth. It is also stated that their environmental health impacts could be of similar concern with negative effects on organisms like fish in polluted water and plants living near industrial sites. Effects on early development of both humans and wildlife are highlighted as special concerns, as these effects are often irreversible and may not become evident until later in life.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic hormones in the human body and have the capacity to interfere with tissue and organ development and function. This effect may alter susceptibility to different types of diseases throughout life. It can cause pregnancy complications, cancers, thyroid disorders and metabolic problems in adults. In infants and young children the impact of such chemicals is more severe because their bodies and brains are developing so quickly that endocrine disturbances have a disproportionate impact. It is clear that a large number of non-communicable diseases have their origin during development with exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals one of a number of important risk factors for disease. Included are some of the major human diseases that are increasing in incidence and prevalence around the world.

Around 800 chemicals are expected endocrine disruptors (Photo: tk-link)

Around 800 chemicals are suspected endocrine disruptors (Photo: tk-link)

This sounds like doom and gloom as we are exposed to perhaps hundreds of environmental chemicals at any one time. Potential endocrine disrupting chemicals can be found in a huge range of consumer products as well as pesticides, herbicides, industrial pollution and more. Close to 800 chemicals are known or suspected to be capable of interfering with hormone receptors, hormone synthesis or hormone conversion. However, only a small fraction of these chemicals have been investigated in tests capable of identifying overt endocrine effects in intact organisms. That makes addressing their presence in the environment difficult. The United Nations is suggesting tighter regulations on the use of such chemicals, reminiscent of bans on compounds like PCBs in the past. These bans were used to limit new emissions of compounds known to be harmful to human or environmental health, and could be used again to prevent exposure to hormone disruptors and protect the environment.

But they would take time and energy to implement. Even as some companies have chosen voluntarily to start refraining from use of chemicals like bisphenol A and phthalates, others have lagged behind, and eliminating them from the environment could be a lengthy process. The United Nations report points to the simultaneous need for more action to address immediate known issues, and more research to uncover issues that haven’t been identified yet, in the hopes of staying one step ahead.

This is a global threat that needs to be resolved. The European Food Safety Authority was given a mandate in 2012 to define scientific criteria to identify endocrine disruptions in humans and the ecosystem. It is providing its contribution to this area in a soon to be published opinion and a stakeholder meeting. The opinion will feed into the current review of the European Union’s strategy on endocrine disruptors as well as EFSA’s ongoing and future scientific work in assessing substances such as food contact materials, pesticides and contaminants in food and feed.

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3 thoughts on “Big issue – hormone disrupting chemicals

  1. Thank you for calling attention to this important issue, which actually goes back to Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Her book called attention to the adverse effects of DDT and its degradation products on the reproduction of aves. Concerns grew when DDT was found in human milk in Sweden. Among other counteractions, the industry had threatened to sue her and her publisher. So 50 years later and after every animal on the planet is contaminated with DDT and other endocrine disruptors, a growing scientific consensus now appears to have vindicated Dr Carlson’s foresight. It should be noted that she died of breast cancer in 1964.

  2. I agree Gerry, it is about time that this issue is getting the attention it deserves. But it is also a very complex issue so we have to get the facts right. Let’s see what conclusions the EFSA opinion will present.

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