12 Hormone-Altering Chemicals and How to Avoid Them
There is no end to the tricks that endocrine disruptors can play on our bodies: increasing production of certain hormones; decreasing production of others; imitating hormones; turning one hormone into another; interfering with hormone signaling; telling cells to die prematurely; competing with essential nutrients; binding to essential hormones; accumulating in organs that produce hormones.
Here are 12 of the worst hormone disruptors, how they do their dirty deeds, and some tips on how to avoid them.
Some may say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but do you really want a chemical used in plastics imitating the sex hormone estrogen in your body? No! Unfortunately, this synthetic hormone can trick the body into thinking it’s the real thing – and the results aren’t pretty. BPA has been linked to everything from breast and others cancers to reproductive problems, obesity, early puberty and heart disease, and according to government tests, 93 percent of Americans have BPA in their bodies!
How to avoid it? Go fresh instead of canned – many food cans are lined with BPA – or research which companies don’t use BPA or similar chemicals in their products. Say no to receipts, since thermal paper is often coated with BPA. And avoid plastics marked with a “PC,” for polycarbonate, or recycling label #7. Not all of these plastics contain BPA, but many do – and it’s better safe than sorry when it comes to keeping synthetic hormones out of your body.
Dioxins are multi-taskers… but not in a good way! They form during many industrial processes when chlorine or bromine are burned in the presence of carbon and oxygen. Dioxins can disrupt the delicate ways that both male and female sex hormone signaling occurs in the body. This is a bad thing! Here’s why: Recent research has shown that exposure to low levels of dioxin in the womb and early in life can both permanently affect sperm quality and lower the sperm count in men during their prime reproductive years. But that’s not all! Dioxins are very long-lived, build up both in the body and in the food chain, are powerful carcinogens and can also affect the immune and reproductive systems.
How to avoid it? That’s pretty difficult, since the ongoing industrial release of dioxin has meant that the American food supply is widely contaminated. Products including meat, fish, milk, eggs and butter are most likely to be contaminated, but you can cut down on your exposure by eating fewer animal products.
What happens when you introduce highly toxic chemicals into nature and turn your back? For one thing, feminization of male frogs. That’s right, researchers have found that exposure to even low levels of the herbicide atrazine can turn male frogs into females that produce completely viable eggs. Atrazine is widely used on the majority of corn crops in the United States, and consequently it’s a pervasive drinking water contaminant. Atrazine has been linked to breast tumors, delayed puberty and prostate inflammation in animals, and some research has linked it to prostate cancer in people.
How to avoid it? Buy organic produce and get a drinking water filter certified to remove atrazine. For help finding a suitable filter, check out EWG’s buying guide: www.ewg.org/report/ewgs-water-filter-buying-guide/
Did you know that a specific signal programs cells in our bodies to die? It’s totally normal and healthy for 50 billion cells in your body to die every day! But studies have shown that chemicals called phthalates can trigger what’s known as “death-inducing signaling” in testicular cells, making them die earlier than they should. Yep, that’s cell death – in your man parts. If that’s not enough, studies have linked phthalates to hormone changes, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes and thyroid irregularities.
How to avoid it? A good place to start is to avoid plastic food containers, children’s toys (some phthalates are already banned in kid’s products), and plastic wrap made from PVC, which has the recycling label #3. Some personal care products also contain phthalates, so read the labels and avoid products that simply list added “fragrance,” since this catch-all term sometimes means hidden phthalates. Find phthalate-free personal care products with EWG’s Skin Deep Database: www.ewg.org/skindeep/
Who needs food tainted with rocket fuel?! That’s right, perchlorate, a component in rocket fuel, contaminates much of our produce and milk, according to EWG and government test data. When perchlorate gets into your body it competes with the nutrient iodine, which the thyroid gland needs to make thyroid hormones. Basically, this means that if you ingest too much of it you can end up altering your thyroid hormone balance. This is important because it’s these hormones that regulate metabolism in adults and are critical for proper brain and organ development in infants and young children.
How to avoid it? You can reduce perchlorate in your drinking water by installing a reverse osmosis filter. As for food, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid perchlorate, but you can reduce its potential effects on you by making sure you are getting enough iodine in your diet. Eating iodized salt is one good way.
What do breast milk and polar bears have in common? In 1999, some Swedish scientists studying women’s breast milk discovered something totally unexpected: The milk contained an endocrine-disrupting chemical found in fire retardants, and the levels had been doubling every five years since 1972! These incredibly persistent chemicals, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, have since been found to contaminate the bodies of people and wildlife around the globe – even polar bears. These chemicals can imitate thyroid hormones in our bodies and disrupt their activity. That can lead to lower IQ, among other significant health effects. While several kinds of PBDEs have now been phased out, this doesn’t mean that toxic fire retardants have gone away. PBDEs are incredibly persistent, so they’re going to be contaminating people and wildlife for decades to come.
How to avoid it? It’s virtually impossible, but passing better toxic chemical laws that require chemicals to be tested before they go on the market would help reduce our exposure. A few things that can you can do in the meantime include: use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, which can cut down on toxic-laden house dust; avoid reupholstering foam furniture; take care when replacing old carpet (the padding underneath may contain PBDEs). Find more tips at: www.ewg.org/pbdefree/
You may or may not like heavy metal music, but lead is one heavy metal you want to avoid. It’s well known that lead is toxic, especially to children. Lead harms almost every organ system in the body and has been linked to a staggering array of health effects, including permanent brain damage, lowered IQ, hearing loss, miscarriage, premature birth, increased blood pressure, kidney damage and nervous system problems. But few people realize that one other way that lead may affect your body is by disrupting your hormones. In animals, lead has been found to lower sex hormone levels. Research has also shown that lead can disrupt the hormone signaling that regulates the body’s major stress system (called the HPA axis). You probably have more stress in your life than you want, so the last thing you need is something making it harder for your body to deal with it – especially when this stress system is implicated in high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety and depression.
How to avoid it? Keep your home clean and well maintained. Crumbling old paint is a major source of lead exposure, so get rid of it carefully. A good water filter can also reduce your exposure to lead in drinking water. And if you need another reason to eat better, studies have also shown that children with healthy diets absorb less lead.
Arsenic isn’t just for murder mysteries anymore. In fact, this toxin is lurking in your food and drinking water. If you eat enough of it, arsenic will kill you outright. In smaller amounts, arsenic can cause skin, bladder and lung cancer. Basically, bad news. Less well known: Arsenic messes with your hormones! Specifically, it can interfere with normal hormone functioning in the glucocorticoid system that regulates how our bodies process sugars and carbohydrates. What does that mean for you? Well, disrupting the glucocorticoid system has been linked to weight gain/loss, protein wasting, immunosuppression, insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes), osteoporosis, growth retardation and high blood pressure.
Caution: That sushi you are eating could be hazardous to your health. Mercury, a naturally occurring but toxic metal, gets into the air and the oceans primarily though burning coal. Eventually, it can end up on your plate in the form of mercury-contaminated seafood. Pregnant women are the most at risk from the toxic effects of mercury, since the metal is known to concentrate in the fetal brain and can interfere with brain development. Mercury is also known to bind directly to one particular hormone that regulates women’s menstrual cycle and ovulation, interfering with normal signaling pathways. In other words, hormones don’t work so well when they’ve got mercury stuck to them! The metal may also play a role in diabetes, since mercury has been shown to damage cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, which is critical for the body’s ability to metabolize sugar.
How to avoid it? For people who still want to eat (sustainable) seafood with lots of healthy fats but without a side of toxic mercury, wild salmon and farmed trout are good choices.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)
The perfluorinated chemicals used to make non-stick cookware can stick to you. Perfluorochemicals are so widespread and extraordinarily persistent that 99 percent of Americans have these chemicals in their bodies. One particularly notorious compound called PFOA has been shown to be “completely resistant to biodegradation.” In other words, PFOA doesn’t break down in the environment – ever. That means that even though the chemical was banned after decades of use, it will be showing up in people’s bodies for countless generations to come. This is worrisome, since PFOA exposure has been linked to decreased sperm quality, low birth weight, kidney disease, thyroid disease and high cholesterol, among other health issues. Scientists are still figuring out how PFOA affects the human body, but animal studies have found that it can affect thyroid and sex hormone levels.
How to avoid it? Skip non-stick pans as well as stain and water-resistant coatings on clothing, furniture and carpets.
Neurotoxic organophosphate compounds that the Nazis produced in huge quantities for chemical warfare during World War II were luckily never used. After the war ended, American scientists used the same chemistry to develop a long line of pesticides that target the nervous systems of insects. Despite many studies linking organophosphate exposure to effects on brain development, behavior and fertility, they are still among the more common pesticides in use today. A few of the many ways that organophosphates can affect the human body include interfering with the way testosterone communicates with cells, lowering testosterone and altering thyroid hormone levels.
Shrunken testicles: Do we have your full attention now? This is one thing that can happen to rats exposed to chemicals called glycol ethers, which are common solvents in paints, cleaning products, brake fluid and cosmetics. Worried? You should be. The European Union says that some of these chemicals “may damage fertility or the unborn child.” Studies of painters have linked exposure to certain glycol ethers to blood abnormalities and lower sperm counts. And children who were exposed to glycol ethers from paint in their bedrooms had substantially more asthma and allergies.
How to avoid it? Start by checking out EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning (www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners/) and avoid products with ingredients such as 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME).
- ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry). 2004. Toxicological profile for polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp.asp?id=529&tid=94
- ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry). 2009. Public Health Statement for Perfluoroalkyls. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine. May 2009. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp200-c1-b.pdf
- Blount BC, Pirkle JL, Oserloh JD, Valentin-Blasini L, Caldwell KL. 2006. Urinary perchlorate and thyroid hormone levels in adolescent and adult men and women living in the Unites States. Environmental Health Perspectives 114(12): 1865-71.
- Buck Louis GM, Sundaram R, Schisterman EF, Sweeney AM, Lynch CD, Gore-Langton RE et al. 2012. Heavy metals and couple fecundity, the life study. Chemisphere 87(11): 1201-7.
- Corpas I, Castillo M, Marquina D, Benito MJ. 2002. Lead intoxication in gestational and lactation periods alters the development of male reproductive organs. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety 53(2): 259-66.
- De Coster S, van Larebeke N. 2012. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: associated disorders and mechanisms of action. Journal of Environmental and Public Health Article ID 713696. http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jeph/2012/713696/cta/
- Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. September 2004. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp.asp?id=529&tid=94
- Dearth RK, Hiney JK, Srivastava V, Burdick SB, Bratton GR, Dees WL. 2002. Effects of lead (Pb) exposure during gestation and lactation on female pubertal development in the rat. Reproductive Toxicology 16(4): 343-52.
- Du G, Hu J, Huang H, Qin Y, Han X, Wu D, et al. 2013. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) affects hormone receptor activity, steroidogenesis, and expression of endocrine-related genes in vitro and in vivo. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 32(2): 353-60.
- EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2010. Consumer Factsheet on: Dioxin. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. August 2010. http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/CFM/nceaQFind.cfm?keyword=Dioxin
- EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2012. Emerging Contaminants Fact Sheet – Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. May 2012. http://www.epa.gov/fedfac/pdf/emerging_contaminants_pfos_pfoa.pdf
- EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2013. Consumer Factsheet on: Atrazine. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. January 2013. http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/reregistration/atrazine/atrazine_update.htm
- EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2013. Consumer fact sheet on: GLYCOL ETHERS. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. October 2013. http://www.epa.gov/ttnatw01/hlthef/glycolet.html
- EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2003. Suspect Salads. Toxic Rocket Fuel Fond in Samples of Winter Lettuce. https://www.ewg.org/research/suspect-salads
- EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2003. PFCs: Global Contaminants.
- EWG (Environmental Working Group). 2004. Rocket Fuel Contamination in California Milk. https://www.ewg.org/research/rocket-fuel-cows-milk-perchlorate
- Fan W, Yanase T, Morinaga H, Gondo S, Okabe T, Nomura M, et al. 2007. Atrazine-induced aromatase expression is SF-1 dependent: implications for endocrine disruption in wildlife and reproductive cancers in humans. Environmental Health Perspectives 115(5): 720-727.
- FDA (Food and Drug Administration). 2013. Survey Data on Perchlorate in Food – 2005/2006 Total Diet Study Results.
- Giammona CJ, Sawhney P, Chandrasekaran Y, Richburg JH. 2002. Death receptor response in rodent testis after mono-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate exposure. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 185(2): 119-27.
- Gilbert ME, Rovet J, Chen Z, Koibuchi N. 2012. Developmental thyroid hormone disruption: prevalence, environmental contaminants and neurodevelopmental consequences. Neurotoxicology 33(4): 842-52.
- Griswold MD. 1988. Protein secretions of sertoli cells. International Review of Cytology 110: 133-56.
- Hardin BD, Goad PT, Burg JR. 1986. Developmental toxicity of diethylene glycol monomethyl ether (diEGME). Fundamental and Applied Toxicology: Official Journal of the Society of Toxicology 6(3):430-9.
- Hayes TB, Stuart AA, Mendoza M, Collins A, Noriega N, Vonk A. 2006. Characterization of atrazine-induced gonadal malformations in african clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) and comparisons with effects of an androgen antagonist (cyproterone acetate) and exogenous estrogen (17β estradiol): support for the demasculinization/feminization hypothesis. Environmental Health Perspectives 114(Suppl 1): 134-141.
- Hayes TB, Khoury V, Narayan A, Nazir M, Park A, Brown T, et al. 2010. Atrazine induces complete feminization and chemical castration in male African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(10): 4612-4617.
- Iavicoli I, Fontana L, Bergamaschi A. 2009. The effects of metals as endocrine disruptors. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Part B, Critical Reviews 12(3): 206-23.
- INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale). 2006. Collective Expert Report: Glycol ethers: New toxicological data.
- Kato S, Fujii-Kuriyama Y, Ohtake F. 2007. A new signaling pathway of dioxin receptor ligands through targeted protein degradation. Alternatives to Animal Testing and Experimentation 14(special issue): 487-494.
- Kitamura S, Suzuki T, Ohta S, Fujimoto N. 2003. Antiandrogenic activity and metabolism of the organophosphorus pesticide fenthion and related compounds. Environmental Health Perspectives 111(4):503-8.
- Kitamura S, Sugihara K, Fujimoto N, Yamazaki, T. 2011. Organophosphates as Endocrine Disruptors. Anticholinesterase pesticides: metabolism, neurotoxicity, and epidemiology (eds T. Satoh and R. C. Gupta), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, USA.
- Lacasaña M, López-Flores I, Rodríguez-Barranco M, Aguilar-Garduño C, Blanco-Muñoz J, Pérez-Méndez O et al. 2010. Association between organophosphate pesticides exposure and thyroid hormones in floriculture workers. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 243(1):19-26.
- Laks DR. 2010. Luteinizing hormone provides a causal mechanism for mercury associated disease. Medical Hypotheses 74(4): 698-701.
- Liao C, Kannan K. 2011. Widespread occurrence of bisphenol A in paper and paper products: implications for human exposure. Environ Sci. Technol. 45(21): 9372-9.
- Lilienthal H, Hack A, Roth-Härer A, Grande SW, Talsness CE. 2006. Effects of developmental exposure to 2,2′,4,4′,5-pentabromodiphenyl ether (PBDE-99) on sex steroids, sexual development, and sexually dimorphic behavior in rats. Environmental Health Perspectives 114(2): 194-201.
- Main KM, Kiviranta H, Virtanen HE, Sundqvist E, Tuomisto JT, Tuomisto J, Vartiainen T, Skakkebaek NE, Toppari J. 2007. Flame retardants in placenta and breast milk and cryptorchidism in newborn boys. Environmental Health Perspectives 115(10): 1519-26.
- MDH (Minnesota Department of Health). 2006. Consumer Factsheet on: Dioxins. Minnesota Department of Health. October 2006. http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/risk/chemhazards/dioxins.html
- Meeker JD, Ferguson KK. 2011. Relationship between urinary phthalate and bisphenol A concentrations and serum thyroid measures in U.S. adults and adolescents from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2007-2008. Environmental Health Perspectives 119(10): 1396-402.
- Mocarelli P, Gerthoux PM, Needham LL, Patterson DG Jr, Limonta G, Falbo R, et al. 2011. Perinatal exposure to low doses of dioxin can permanently impair human semen quality. Environmental Health Perspectives 119(5): 713-718.
- Nagano K, Nakayama E, Oobayashi H, Nishizawa T, Okuda H, Yamazaki K. 1984. Experimental studies on toxicity of ethylene glycol alkyl ethers in Japan. Environmental Health Perspectives 57:75-84.
- Patisaul HB, Roberts SC, Mabrey N, McCaffrey KA, Gear RB, Braun J, Belcher SM, Stapleton HM. 2013. Accumulation and endocrine disrupting effects of the flame retardant mixture firemaster® 550 in rats: an exploratory assessment. Journal of Biochemical and Molecular Toxicology 27(2): 124-36.
- Post GB, Cohn PD, Cooper KR. 2012. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an emerging drinking water contaminant: a critical review of recent literature. Environmental Research 116(24): 93-117.
- Richburg JH, Nañez A, Gao H. 1999. Participation of the fas-signaling system in the initiation of germ cell apoptosis in young rat testes after exposure to mono-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 160(3): 271-8.
- Rogers JA, Metz L, Yong VW. 2013. Review: endocrine disrupting chemicals and immune responses: a focus on bisphenol-A and its potential mechanisms. Molecular Immunology 53(4): 421-30.
- Rossi-George A, Virgolini MB, Weston D, Cory-Slechta DA. 2009. Alterations in glucocorticoid negative feedback following maternal Pb, prenatal stress and the combination: a potential biological unifying mechanism for their corresponding disease profiles. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 234(1): 117-27.
- Rubin BS. 2011. Bisphenol a: an endocrine disruptor with widespread exposure and multiple effects. The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology 127(1-2): 27-34.
- Soldin OP, Braverman LE, Lamm SH. 2001. Perchlorate clinical pharmacology and human health: a review. Therapeutic Drug Monitoring 23(4): 316-31. Review.
- Stanko JP, Enoch RR, Rayner JL, Davis CC, Wolf DC, Malarkey DE, Fenton SE. 2010. Effects of prenatal exposure to a low dose atrazine metabolite mixture on pubertal timing and prostate development of male Long-Evans rats. Reproductive Toxicology 30(4): 540-9.
- Tonacchera M, Pinchera A, Dimida A, Ferrarini E, Agretti P, Vitti P et al. 2004. Relative potencies and additivity of perchlorate, thiocyanate, nitrate, and iodide on the inhibition of radioactive iodide uptake by the human sodium iodide symporter. Thyroid: Official Journal of the American Thyroid Association 14(12): 1012-9.
- Walter H. Watson, James D. Yager. 2007. Arsenic: extension of its endocrine disruption potential to interference with estrogen receptor-mediated signaling. Toxicological Sciences 98(1): 1-4.
- Wolff J. 1998. Perchlorate and the thyroid gland. Pharmacology Review 50(1): 89-105.
- Wolstenholme JT, Rissman EF, Connelly JJ. 2011. The role of bisphenol A in shaping the brain, epigenome and behavior. Hormones and Behavior 59(3): 296-305.
- Ya Wen Chen, Ching Yao Yang, Chun Fa Huang, Dong Zong Hung, Yuk Man Leung, Shing Hwa Liu. 2009. Heavy metals, islet function and diabetes development. Islets 1(3): 169-176.
- Yamano T, Noda T, Shimizu M, Morita S, Nagahama M. 1993. Effects of diethylene glycol monomethyl ether on pregnancy and postnatal development in rats. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 24(2): 228-35.
- Zhu X, Kusaka Y, Sato K, Zhang Q. 2000. The endocrine disruptive effects of mercury. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine 4(4): 174-83
- Zota AR, Park JS, Wang Y, Petreas M, Zoeller RT, Woodruff TJ. 2011. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, hydroxylated polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and measures of thyroid function in second trimester pregnant women in California. Environmental Science & Technology 45(18): 7896–7905.
- 3 Ways Endocrine Disruptors Destroy Your Health
- Report: French Lawmakers Call Attention to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
- 9 Ways to Balance Your Hormones Naturally
- 6 Reasons BPA is a Toxic Poison