Endocrine Distruptors: Believe the hype?

By: Samantha Hulkower

You've probably heard vague claims in the news that plastics or pesticides or even just tap water are bad for your health. How is the average person supposed to know what is accurate and what is fluffed-up hype, meant to scare you into tuning in to the evening news?

The US Federal Government is paying attention to the issue, which legitimizes the concern and lends some credibility to those on their soap box trying to convince you to only buy free-range bananas, or other slightly excessive sounding environmental branding schemes. With both the Environmental Protection Agency and National Institutes of Health are compiling research on the subject, there is obvious cause for concern. Before we go any further, let's define what an endocrine disruptor is. The endocrine system is responsible in your body for regulating hormones. Endocrine disruptors interfere with the normal functioning of hormones. Hormones are most influential when a fetus is developing through early infanthood - when all of the systems in the body are settling in. Normal hormone production helps with the development of sex organs, the brain, and basically everything in the body. So, if fetuses are being exposed to chemicals that mimic the effects of hormones...you can see how problems could start to arise.

Endocrine disruptors are difficult to avoid. They are a myriad of chemicals - from flame retardants, to pesticides, to plastics, things that are all necessary for safe and effective production in the world. And even if you lead a completely organic life, use only glass containers, and eschew fire retardant products (although that would mean avoiding most upholstered furniture). Some endocrine disruptors are naturally occurring chemicals - such as phytoestrogens which are found in soy plants.

There is also concern that exposure to endocrine disruptors while in utero or as an infant can lead to a greater probability of obesity. The connection to obesity is with BPA, which in the lab has been shown to increase the production of fat cells in mice; mice exposed through gestation and lactation (aka mice breast feeding) gained more weight while eating the same number of calories as mice not exposed.  BPA is hard to stay away from. It's found in clear plastics and resins - so everything from plastic water bottles, to canned food, to plastic wrap, and even those shiny receipts. That being said, if you limit your exposure to packaged foods with BPA you'll probably also lower your risk for obesity just by avoiding junk food!

But we don't have to rely on lab rats to see the effects of endocrine disruptors on animals - all we need to do is look downstream. There have been multiple studies that show that fish that live downstream of sewage treatment plants or other sources of effluents (a fancy word for stuff coming out of a factory and into the environment) have physical changes to them. Most notable is the physical change of the fish in comparison to their gender. That is, female fish appear to be masculine, or even fish that exhibit both male and female reproductive parts (which is not normal for most organisms). What is the reason behind this change?  These types aquatic environments usually test high for endocrine disruptors, which make their way into the water system not just from chemical production, but from everything we dump down the drain, or flush down the toilet.

So there you have it, the low down on what are endocrine disruptors. You can minimize your exposure by storing your food in glass or tin containers, not heating up your food in plastic containers, and looking for alternative products that you put on your body (such as acetone-free nailpolish remover and shampoos or sunscreens without PABAs, all of which are endocrine disruptors). At the end of the day, you can't avoid them completely, but the fact that there are naturally occurring compounds probably means a little exposure isn't the end of the world. But you won't find me swimming downstream with some confused looking fish...

Samantha Hulkower is an Olah Chadasha, living in Jerusalem. She enjoys trying to speak Hebrew, finding the humor in every situation (especially dating), and is looking forward to the day she can successfully argue b'Ivrit. You can also view her blogs Curls of Wisdom on life in Israel, and Derech Eretz Israel, on environmental issues in Israel.

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