What Are Endocrine Disruptors?

We could say that endocrine disruptors are a topical issue. They spark discussions among the population and are also a cause for concern due to their effects on both human health and the environment.
What Are Endocrine Disruptors?

Last update: 17 September, 2021

Scientific knowledge about endocrine disruptors has advanced a lot in recent decades. Specific population studies show that a large portion of the population is exposed to them. Experts have detected their presence in human blood, urine, and adipose tissue.

In recent decades, there’s been a rise in the number of cases of some diseases and health problems, which has led experts to question the possible relationship with endocrine disruptors. Below, we’ll analyze this issue.

What are endocrine disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors belong to a broader group, which are endocrine active substances. These are compounds that can disrupt normal hormonal functions. Endocrine disruptors are when this interaction has adverse effects.

The official definition is the one by the World Health Organization. In a 2002 document, the WHO stated that an endocrine disruptor is an “exogenous substance or mixture that alters function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub)populations”.

How do they interfere with our endocrine system?

As we explained above, the main characteristic of endocrine disruptors is that they disrupt normal hormone system functioning. They usually do it in three ways:

  • In some cases, they mimic a natural hormone. Thus, they trigger the same reactions that would have been triggered if your body secreted the hormone.
  • Other times, they can block the hormone receptors in cells that allow them to respond to the signals that the hormones send.
  • Finally, they can disrupt normal hormone synthesis, transport, metabolism, and excretion.

The endocrine system regulates many different bodily functions that, consequently, could be altered in the short or long term. Here are some of them:

  • Musculoskeletal system development
  • Brain development
  • Temperature regulation (thermoregulation)
  • Metabolism
  • Reproductive functions
Two doctors studying a brain.

The negative effects of endocrine disruptors

The negative effects of endocrine disruptors not only affect humans, but also other species, such as birds, reptiles, fish, mollusks, or other mammals.

One of their additional problems is that they sometimes don’t have immediate effects. For example, substances that affect a fetus through maternal ingestion or exposure. The problems that continued exposure to a large number of these types of compounds causes are currently unknown.

Endocrine disruptors have been associated with some human health problems. Some of them are the following:

  • Low sperm count in men
  • Higher incidence of genital birth defects in both girls and boys
  • Higher incidence of some types of hormone-sensitive cancer, such as breast or pancreatic cancer
  • Metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance, diabetes, or obesity

The main endocrine disruptors

Many varied substances can disrupt the hormonal system. Some are found in nature, while others are artificial. One of the main problems is that many everyday products contain them.

Broadly speaking and without going into extensive detail, endocrine disruptors can reach you through the following:

  • Food
  • Cosmetic products
  • Cleaning or everyday products

Endocrine disruptors present in foods

We also find several subtypes among them. Meat, fish, or milk may contain them, if the animals have been treated with hormones. Although it’s forbidden in many countries, it’s become more difficult to regulate due to the globalization of consumption.

Others come from accidental contamination that can occur during the production process. For example dioxins, pesticides, and other phytopharmaceutical products. They can also be found in product presentation and packaging materials, such as inks, glue, paper, plastic, or cardboard. Some of them are the following:

  • Bisphenol A
  • Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
  • Phthalates

Contact through cosmetic products

A few cosmetic products.

Some cosmetic and personal hygiene products contain compounds with hormonal activity. We could categorize some of the known substances in three large groups:

Possible endocrine disruptors in cleaning products and common consumer goods

In addition to cleaning products, we’re talking about common goods such as televisions, telephone and computer screens, sofa upholstery, furniture, etc. In fact, house dust can contain a large amount of these substances.

Reducing the impact of endocrine disruptors

As we’ve explained in this article, we come into contact with many substances that can disrupt our homes on a daily basis. Although it’s impossible to reduce their presence entirely, you can try to minimize this risk with some simple measures:

  • Firstly, choose organic foods whenever possible.
  • Secondly, avoid plastic containers, especially those that contain bisphenol A, styrene, and phthalates.
  • Similarly, choose materials such as glass, ceramic, or wood to store food, as well as for kitchen utensils.
  • In addition, go for natural, paraben-free cosmetics that don’t contain synthetic fragrances. This applies to shampoos and shower gels, as well as deodorants, makeup, or sunscreen. Keep an eye out for the ‘COSMOS NATURAL’ certification.
  • Finally, choose cleaning products and clothes with the ECOCERT Seal of Approval.

Endocrine disruptors are harmful to health

As we’ve mentioned several times in this article, endocrine disruptors are harmful to health. They’re always in the environment, as they’re found in food and its containers, in drinking water, in cosmetic products, and in many everyday products.

It’s important to take small daily measures to minimize their use and your exposure to them. Nevertheless, public policies and regulations are also important.

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