A typical American comes in regular contact with some 6,000 chemicals and an untold number of potentially toxic substances on a less frequent basis. There are about 75,000 chemicals regularly manufactured and imported by U.S. industries, so you could be exposed to any number of them. Disturbingly, many of them have never been fully tested for safety.
Some of the most pervasive chemicals are used in plastic products, and are known as "endocrine disruptors." These chemicals are similar in structure to natural sex hormones, thereby interfering with their normal functions.
On February 19, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a report co-produced with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), titled: "State of the Science of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals."
The report suggests a ban of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may be needed to protect the health of future generations. The joint study is touted as the most comprehensive report on EDCs to date, highlighting a wide variety of health problems associated with exposure, including:
- Non-descended testes in young males
- Breast cancer in women
- Prostate cancer in men
- Developmental effects on the nervous system in children
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity in children
- Thyroid cancer
According to the report:
The diverse systems affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals likely include all hormonal systems and range from those controlling development and function of reproductive organs to the tissues and organs regulating metabolism and satiety. Effects on these systems can lead to obesity, infertility or reduced fertility, learning and memory difficulties, adult-onset diabetes or cardiovascular disease, as well as a variety of other diseases."
The High Price of "Convenience" Products
The joint study flags several of the most common culprits, including bisphenol-A (BPA), PCBs, phthalates and agricultural pesticides. According to the report, animal studies have demonstrated that there's "very strong evidence" BPA can interfere with thyroid hormones. Brain damage, decreased intelligence, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism were also found to be potential side effects. BPA is one of the world's highest production-volume chemicals and is widely used in the production of:
- Plastic water bottles
- Tooth sealants
- Plastic gallon milk bottles
- Canned foods and soda cans (most have plastic lining in the cans)
- Plastic microwavable plates, ovenware, and utensils
- Baby toys, bottles, pacifiers, and sippy cups
Beware that many manufacturers have simply replaced BPA with bisphenol-S (BPS), an equally toxic chemical. Studies now show BPS is showing up in human urine concentrations at levels similar to those of BPA -- an indication that manufacturers are simply switching one for the other, while still being able to advertise their products as "BPA-free." A 2012 study found 81 percent of those tested from the United States and seven Asian countries had BPS in their urine.
An even more recent study has raised the alarm on BPS, showing the chemical estrogenic activity comparable to estradiol, the most potent human estrogen. It was also found to potentially be capable of enhancing estradiol-mediated cell signaling, making it a particularly potent endocrine disruptor. Furthermore, the study showed BPS can induce apoptosis (cell death) and interfere with cellular secretion of prolactin (PRL) -- a hormone that regulates hundreds of biological functions, including metabolism, reproduction and lactation.
Another chemical used in the manufacturing of plastics is phthalates, which make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible and resilient. They're also one of the most pervasive endocrine disruptors so far discovered. These chemicals have increasingly become associated with changes in the development of the male brain as well as with genital defects, metabolic abnormalities and reduced testosterone in babies and adults. Phthalates are found in, among other things:
- Processed food packaging
- Lubricant and adhesives
- Beauty products like nail polish, hair spray, shampoo, deodorants, and fragrances
- Shower curtains
- Vinyl flooring and wall coverings
Three More Common Chemicals to Avoid
Åke Bergman, chief editor of the report, said:
Research has made great strides in the last 10 years showing endocrine disruption to be far more extensive and complicated than realized a decade ago. As science continues to advance, it is time for both management of endocrine disrupting chemicals and further research on exposure and effects of these chemicals in wildlife and humans.
If you've been a longtime reader of my blog posts or newsletter, the findings of this UN report come as no surprise. Rather it's a "better late than never" type confirmation that the evidence truly has stacked up to the point of being undeniable. Those of you who took action when these fears were initially raised are now years ahead of your friends and family. In addition to BPAs and phthalates, the following three are among the most widely used chemicals around that should be avoided as much as possible:
- PFOA: Non-stick cookware is the primary source of dangerous perfluorinated chemicals (PFOAs). Non-stick pans quickly reach temperatures that cause the coating to begin breaking down, releasing toxins that have been linked to cancer, birth defects and thyroid disease into the air in your kitchen. I highly recommend you throw away this type of cookware immediately and replace it with either ceramic or glass.
- Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde, most commonly known as embalming fluid, serves a number of purposes in manufactured products. It is actually frequently used in fabrics to give them a variety of "easy care properties" as well as being a common component of pressed-wood products. Formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in animals, and may cause cancer in humans. Other common adverse health effects include fatigue, skin rashes, and allergic reactions. Choosing all-natural materials for your clothing and furniture can help cut down on your exposure. It would be also be wise to avoid all aspartame, as well as bottled or canned fruit juices, as they have methanol, which your body converts to formaldehyde.
- PBDEs: These flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to altered thyroid levels, decreased fertility and numerous problems with development when exposure occurs in utero. PBDEs are commonly found in household items like upholstery and television and computer housings. Fortunately, several states now ban the use of PBDEs, so there is some progress toward reducing exposure.
What Can You Do to Reduce Unnecessary Chemical Exposure to Your Family?
Rather than compile an endless list of what you should avoid, it's far easier to focus on what you should do to lead a healthy lifestyle with as minimal a chemical exposure as possible:
- As much as possible, buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic foods to reduce your exposure to pesticides and fertilizers.
- Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab-tested for purity.
- Eat mostly raw, fresh foods, steering clear of processed, prepackaged foods of all kinds. This way you automatically avoid artificial food additives, including dangerous artificial sweeteners, food coloring and MSG.
- Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap and canned foods (which are often lined with BPA-containing liners).
- Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).
- Only use natural cleaning products in your home.
- Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group has a great database to help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals. I also offer one of the highest-quality organic skin care lines, shampoo and conditioner, and body butter that are completely natural and safe.
- Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances.
- Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
- When redoing your home, look for "green," toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric, or install a glass shower door. Most all flexible plastics, like shower curtains, contain dangerous plasticizers like phthalates.
- Limit your use of drugs (prescription and over-the-counter) as much as possible. Drugs are chemicals too, and they will leave residues and accumulate in your body over time.
- Avoid spraying pesticides around your home or insect repellants that contain DEET on your body. There are safe, effective and natural alternatives out there.
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