Endocrine Disruptors

The Truth About the EPA

Many of the chemicals in our environment are not benign. Even in practically unmeasurable tiny amounts, many can wreak havoc on our hormones, immune system, and nervous system. And we really have no idea how multiple different chemicals interact in the body, yet we are living within a soup of environmental chemical interactions!

So why isn’t the government trying to protect us by banning these chemicals that are causing so much harm? Well, they tried. Back in 1976 the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was created to ensure that harmful chemicals are banned for public use. The major issue is that the TSCA does not require chemicals to be assessed for safety BEFORE being introduced in the marketplace. That’s, right, they take an “innocent until proven guilty” approach for every single chemical that is on the market today.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must PROVE that a chemical is harmful; however, they don’t have the staff or funding to conduct the research to do so. As a result, the EPA has only been able to take action on FIVE chemicals out of the 84,000 used in industry today.

One of the most well researched EDC (and banned in the United States as of 2013) is bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is a chemical commonly used in the production of plastics and acts as a xenoestrogen. Xenoestrogens are chemicals that imitate estrogen  and can activate or block estrogen receptors in various tissues of the body, including the ovaries, uterus, and brain. Chemical xenoestrogens are serious environmental hazards that can disrupt hormone function in both men and women and accumulate and persist in our fatty tissue for decades.

Even more disturbing, the FDA was late to banning BPA an entire year after companies stopped using it in their products (specifically plastic infant bottle manufacturers. That’s not acceptable for an agency that should be using the most up-to-date science to protect the health of the American people.5

Here are some concerning statistics:

  • 84,000 chemicals in commerce in the US and 700-1000 more added each year
  • The vast majority of chemicals have not been assessed for safety
  • 25% of global disease is caused by environmental exposures that can be averted! 2
  • 13% of disease in the US is caused by environmental exposures 3
  • 33% of disease in children under 5 is caused by environmental exposures
  • Infertility and subfertility rates are on the rise which affect 12% of the population 4
  • PCOS, uterine fibroids, and endometriosis are on the rise
  • Male fertility issues also seem to be increasing worldwide

Another source of environmental toxins that is often overlooked is your drinking water. 11 Industrial dumping, pesticide runoff, leaky storage tanks, and government mandates have created big problems for our drinking water. Common toxins that may be fluoride, chlorine, mercury, lead, etc.  The section below on water will help you find a water filter right for the area in which you live.

This is by no mean a complete list of all the toxins that might be in your drinking water. For more information on the quality of water in your area, check out EWG’s Tap Water Database.

Effects on Health & Hormones

As we’ve learned thus far, some environmental chemicals act as endocrine disruptors. Your endocrine system is comprised of glands that secrete hormones. These hormones regulate nearly every body function during every stage of life. To picture how your hormonal system works, think of a thermostat in your home. The thermostat senses that the temperature in the room is low, so it sends a signal to the heater to increase the temp. The same analogy is true when your brain senses a particular hormone is low (or high) and sends out a message to the gland to  increase the production of said hormone. This is called a feedback loop and it’s how your hormonal system functions on a daily basis.

EDCs can block or mimic natural hormones in the body and disrupt how this sensitive feedback loop operates. A Tufts University professor, Sheldon Krimsky, in his book Hormonal Chaos, the Scientific and Social Origins of the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis, has extensively reviewed the research in this field.  Low levels of these toxins, levels far below what are considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency, interfere with our normal hormone balance, including sex hormones, which may lead to early puberty in girls and an increase in hormonal disorders. Toxins can affect many of the major weight-control hormones including thyroid, estrogens, testosterone, cortisol, insulin, growth hormone, and leptin. Toxins interfere with our stress response (autonomic nervous system), and alter the normal circadian rhythms that control our eating behavior.10

A Low Dose Does Not Equate to Safety

It is important to remember that the small dose does not mean a small response. In fact,  endocrinology and pharmacology are built upon the understanding that the body is designed to respond to compounds in the body at extremely low doses! Most pharmaceuticals are delivered in ‘parts per billion’ doses. 1PPB = 1 teaspoon diluted in a 600,000 gallon Olympic sized swimming pool! For example the NuvaRing works to completely alter the ecosystem of the uterus and cervix and may even shut down ovulation with just 0.035 ppb progestin.

Here’s an incomplete breakdown of some of the conditions associated with various low-doses of contaminants:

  • Endocrine disruptors can interfere with DNA methylation and protection leaving your more prone to cancers and diseases
  • Endocrine disruptors may cause oxidative stress in cells walls and other tissues of the body rendering them as inactive or even inflammatory.
  • Heavy metals and organochlorides affect the nervous system causing anxiety, insomnia, ADHD, chronic fatigue, autism, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s dementia.
  • Endocrine disruptors in plastics and pesticides affect our hormones leading to thyroid disease, diabetes, PCOS, and infertility.

It is important to note that if you have symptoms or conditions suggesting environmental toxicity, particularly symptoms of chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or autoimmune conditions, or known toxin exposures, then working with either an environmental, preventative medicine, or integrative-functional medicine physician is a good place to start for sound advice on how to appropriately detoxify.

Effects on Children Development

From conception on, our babies get more than just our genes; through maternal-fetal transfer, they receive a constant toxic streaming download of the body burden of chemicals we have accumulated throughout our own lives and which we are exposed to in pregnancy. Pregnancy itself increases the mobilization of a number of stored chemicals and heavy metals, for example, lead, which cross the placenta and get to baby.

It is also documented that a mother’s stores of common fat-soluble environmental chemicals including PCBs, and dioxins released during pregnancy, can expose the fetus to harm. A very recent study found that pregnant women and their fetuses are being exposed to triclosan and its cousin, triclocarbon, both endocrine disruptors, through the use of antibacterial soaps, toothpastes, and over 2,000 common consumer products. And a 2009 study by the Environmental Working Group found 232 toxic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborns.6

Endocrine disruptors can affect the way hormones function in our bodies, and this can have a major impact on fetuses still in the process of sexual differentiation and development. We know that rates of birth defects of the sexual organs of babies, particularly boys, have increased dramatically in recent years. Every single one of the women tested in this study had triclosan in their bodies, and half of newborns tested were also exposed to triclosan.6

Pregnancy can turn the generally inert pool of toxins stored in our bodies into a risk for our babies long after our own toxic exposure has ended, and can concentrate chemicals in our babies when there is ongoing exposure. It appears that these have consequences in development at the time of exposure, and have the potential to set off a number of genetic and metabolic events that continue to pay forward throughout our children’s lives. And we know that the earlier the exposure in pregnancy, the greater the harmful impact on baby’s development.7 Here is a source that explains the important time frames of fetal development.

Women Trying to Conceive

Whether to do prenatal testing for body burden toxins is less clear. The testing done by integrative and functional medicine doctors is expensive and there isn’t clear correlation between the levels found on the tests and the impact this might have on baby. Nonetheless, having your doctor test for heavy metals, particularly lead, mercury, and arsenic, might be quite reasonable and the results may serve as an indication of your toxic body burden, and can also shed light on whether you are still actively being exposed to heavy metals. If cost is not an issue, you could consider doing prenatal testing for commonly known environmental toxins within available test panels to get a sense of how high your body burden is, give yourself a period of time to avoid exposures, and use foods and supplements to try to support natural detoxification processes, and retest. But it’s important not to get too troubled by the testing, because again, the meaning of the levels in an otherwise healthy person is unclear.

Additionally, it is important to know, that it is unclear whether specific detoxification programs done within a few months of conception might actually mobilize stored toxins into the bloodstream making them more likely to enter the developing baby’s circulation at a vulnerable time. Thus timing becomes an important consideration. If you plan to do a detoxification program, I recommend starting 6 months to 1 year prior to the planned conception time, allowing 3 months between the end of detoxing and when you get pregnant. Unfortunately, pregnancy itself can initiate a ‘detox’ of stored toxins, so giving yourself a year preparation prior to preconception can be extremely beneficial.