Environmental threats to human health come in all shapes and sizes, from air pollution to toxic waste. One of the lesser-known threats comes from everyday items we use in our households, workplaces, and communities. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are substances that can interfere with the normal functioning of hormones in our bodies, potentially causing a range of health problems. In this article, we’ll explore what EDCs are, where they lurk, and how to protect ourselves from their hidden threats.
What are EDCs?
EDCs are chemicals that can interfere with our endocrine system, which regulates and controls hormones in our bodies. When an EDC enters our body, it mimics or blocks the effects of hormones, disrupting the normal functioning of glands, organs, and tissues. EDCs can affect reproductive, metabolic, behavioral, and immune function, and they’re linked to a variety of health problems.
Types of EDCs
- Bisphenols: Used in the manufacture of plastics, bisphenols can be found in food containers, dental sealants, and water bottles.
- Phthalates: Used in the manufacture of plastics, phthalates can be found in toys, shower curtains, and cosmetics.
- Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): Used in non-stick coatings, PFAS can be found in cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and firefighting foam.
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): Used in electrical equipment and industrial applications, PCBs were banned in the United States in 1979, but they persist in the environment and can be found in fish and other seafood.
- Organophosphate pesticides: Used in agriculture, organophosphate pesticides can be found in fruits, vegetables, and drinking water.
How do EDCs affect our health?
EDCs can interfere with hormone signaling in ways that can lead to a range of health problems. Here are some of the health problems associated with EDC exposure:
- Reproductive and developmental problems, such as infertility, low sperm count, early puberty, and birth defects.
- Metabolic problems, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
- Neurobehavioral problems, such as decreased IQ, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder.
- Cancer, including breast, prostate, and thyroid cancers.
- Immune system problems, such as autoimmune diseases and allergies.
Where do EDCs lurk?
You might be surprised to learn that EDCs are lurking in many of the items we use every day. Here are some of the most common sources of EDC exposure:
Food and drink
EDCs can enter our bodies through the food we eat and the water we drink. Here are some of the most common sources of EDCs in our diets:
- Processed food and fast food, which may contain high levels of phthalates and other EDCs from packaging and processing.
- Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, which may be sprayed with organophosphate pesticides.
- Farmed fish, which can contain PCBs and other EDCs from contaminated water and feed.
- Drinking water, which can contain PFAS and other EDCs from industrial runoff and water treatment.
Personal care products
Personal care products can be a significant source of EDC exposure, especially for women who use a lot of makeup and hair products. Here are some of the most common sources of EDCs in personal care products:
- Phthalates in perfume, nail polish, and hair spray.
- Triclosan in antibacterial soap and toothpaste.
- Parabens in lotions and shampoos.
- Lead in lipstick.
Household products can also be a significant source of EDC exposure, especially for families with young children who spend a lot of time on the floor and mouthing toys. Here are some of the most common sources of EDCs in household products:
- Bisphenols in plastic food containers and water bottles.
- Phthalates in vinyl flooring, shower curtains, and toys.
- PFAS in non-stick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics.
- Flame retardants in furniture and electronics.
How can we protect ourselves from EDCs?
While it’s impossible to completely avoid EDCs, we can take steps to reduce our exposure and protect ourselves from their hidden threats. Here are some strategies for minimizing EDC exposure:
Eat a healthy diet
Eating a healthy diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce our exposure to EDCs in food. Choose organic produce whenever possible, and try to avoid processed foods and fast foods that may contain high levels of EDCs from packaging and processing.
Use safe personal care products
Choose personal care products that are free of phthalates, triclosan, parabens, and other harmful chemicals. Look for products that are certified by third-party organizations like the Environmental Working Group or the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Avoid plastic and non-stick cookware
Avoid using plastic food containers and water bottles, and choose glass or stainless steel instead. Avoid using non-stick cookware, especially if it’s scratched or damaged, and choose cast iron, stainless steel, or ceramic instead.
Filter your drinking water
Use a certified water filter to reduce your exposure to PFAS and other EDCs in drinking water. Check with your local water authority to find out what contaminants are in your tap water, and choose a filter that can remove those contaminants.
Choose safe household products
Choose household products that are free of bisphenols, phthalates, PFAS, flame retardants, and other harmful chemicals. Look for products that are certified by third-party organizations like Green Seal or the EcoLogo Program.
EDCs are a hidden threat to human health, and they are lurking in many of the items we use every day. By taking steps to minimize our exposure to EDCs, we can protect ourselves and our families from the hidden threats that these chemicals pose.
- What are EDCs? EDCs are chemicals that can interfere with our endocrine system, which regulates and controls hormones in our bodies. When an EDC enters our body, it mimics or blocks the effects of hormones, disrupting the normal functioning of glands, organs, and tissues.
- What are the health problems associated with EDC exposure? EDC exposure has been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, metabolic problems, neurobehavioral problems, cancer, and immune system problems.
- Where do EDCs lurk? EDCs can be found in food and drink, personal care products, household products, and the environment.
- How can we protect ourselves from EDCs? Strategies for minimizing EDC exposure include eating a healthy diet, using safe personal care products, avoiding plastic and non-stick cookware, filtering drinking water, and choosing safe household products.
- Environmental Working Group. (2021). Dirty Dozen List of Endocrine Disruptors. Environmental Working Group. https://www.ewg.org/dirty-dozen-list-endocrine-disruptors-2021
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (2021). Endocrine Disruptors. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/index.cfm
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2021). Endocrine Disruptors. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/endocrine-disruption