By Richard Lenti
Hormone disrupting chemicals found in everyday products ranging from toys and pesticides to cosmetics and electronics are posing “a global threat” with long lasting health implications, warns a new report by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Health Organization (WHO).
“We live in a world in which man-made chemicals have become part of everyday life. Close to 800 chemicals are known or suspected to be capable of interfering with hormone receptors, hormone synthesis or hormone conversion,” the report says.
“However, only a small fraction of these chemicals have been investigated in tests capable of identifying overt endocrine effects in intact organisms. The vast majority of chemicals in current commercial use have not been tested at all.”
The main culprits, according to the 2 year study, are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which may be linked to a decline in the human sperm count and female fertility, an increase in rare childhood cancers and the disappearance of some animal species.
“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,” said the report.
“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.”
A well-functioning endocrine system regulates the release of certain hormones that are essential for functions such as metabolism, growth and development, sleep and mood.
EDCs enter the environment mainly through industrial and urban discharges, agricultural run-off and the burning and release of waste. People are exposed when they ingest contaminated food, dust and water, inhale gases and particles in the air, or have skin contact with contaminated substances.
Among the most prevalent EDCs in manufactured good are phthalates, used in making plastics soft and flexible. They are found in products that include toys, children’s pacifiers, perfumes and pharmaceuticals, as well as cosmetics like deodorants that are absorbed into the body.
Phthalates are easily released into the environment because there is no covalent bond between the chemical and plastics where they are used. As plastics age and break down, the release of phthalates accelerates.
Another EDC, Bisphenol A, (BPA), is used to harden plastics and found in food and beverage containers, including some babies’ bottles and the coating of food cans.
A key problem, said the study, is that manufacturers of consumer products do not identify many of the chemical components used, allowing researchers to see only “the tip of the iceberg”. Disease risk from the use of EDCs, they stress, “may be significantly underestimated.”
Previous studies on the effect of the chemicals on humans and animals have shown a link to breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, infertility, asthma, obesity, strokes, and Alzheimer and Parkinson’s diseases.
Researchers say babies exposed to EDCs in the womb were especially vulnerable to developing these diseases later in life, as well as behavioral and learning problems like dyslexia.
“We urgently need more research to obtain a fuller picture of the health and environment impacts of endocrine disruptors,” said Dr. Maria Neira, WHO’s Director for Public Health and Environment. “The latest science shows that communities across the globe are being exposed to EDCs, and their associated risks. We all have a responsibility to protect future generations.”
The report also raises similar concerns on the impact of EDCs on wildlife.
In Alaska, exposure to such chemicals may contribute to reproductive defects, infertility and antler malformation in some deer populations. Population declines in otters and sea lions have also been linked their exposure to a diverse cocktail of chemicals including PCBs, the insecticide DDT, and metals such as mercury.
The study makes a number of recommendations to improve global knowledge of these chemicals, reduce potential disease risks, and cut related costs.
They include more comprehensive testing methods to identify other possible endocrine disruptors, their sources, and routes of exposure; an increase in research to identify the effects of EDCs on humans and wildlife; more precise reporting on the chemicals found in products, materials and goods; and improved data sharing between scientists and countries to fill gaps in data, primarily in developing countries and emerging economies.
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