Why Endocrine Disruptors Should Be a Household Word

In the past week, there have been a lot of news reports and blog chatter about BPA, also known as bisphenol-A. Finally, government agencies, consumers, and manufacturers are starting to take this toxin seriously. But BPA is only one member of a very nasty family--one we should all come to know more about.

Despite my many years of working to protect the environment and public health, I still have trouble understanding the alphabet soup of toxicology--knowing my perfluorooctanic acid (in nonstick cookware and stain resistant fabric) from my polybrinuibated diphenylethers (in flame retardant bedding and furniture).

Still, most of us are familiar with a short list of common, really nasty pollutants: lead, mercury, PCBs, even the old standard, DDT. Now there is a new family of toxins worthy of being awarded this household-name recognition: endocrine disruptors.

Why, among all the pollutants to choose from, should endocrine disruptors become a part of our daily lexicon? For three main reasons. 

  1. They are pervasive. They are present in everyday products ranging from lotion, shampoo, and air fresheners to baby bottles, plastic food containers, and soft plastic toys. 
  2. They interfere with one of the most sensitive systems in our bodies: hormones. My colleague, Dr. Gina Solomon, told me that this is what worries her most about endocrine disruptors. A chemical that damages an organ like the liver is unfortunate, but less troubling because the liver is tough and can regenerate. Hormones are different. They act in tiny doses. With just the smallest amount, hormones regulate the function of sexual and reproductive organs, neurological development, and even the rate of metabolism.

    In such a delicate environment, even a modest exposure to an endocrine disruptor gets registered by the body. Over time, it can interfere with the fundamental programming of our bodies and send us off on an unhealthy track of development. For instance, exposure to phthalates--an endocrine disruptor found in shampoo, lotion and many items carrying a fragrance--has been shown to lower sperm counts in men. Worse, endocrine disruptors can lead to cancer.
  3. Endocrine disruptors pose the most danger to the most vulnerable among us: developing babies and small children. A baby girl is extra sensitive to exposures of bisphenol-A--an endocrine disruptor found in most plastic baby bottles and cans of baby formula--because her breast buds are just developing. The endocrine disruptor has the potential to alter her breast cells, making her more likely to develop breast cancer later in life.

These are some of the things we know about endocrine disruptors. But frankly, we need to learn a lot more. We need more comprehensive scientific studies to examine the interplay between this family of toxins and human health.

Hopefully, regulation will follow more data. Right now there is no law regulating endocrine disruptors. No standard for exposure has been set; no rule has been passed to require manufacturers to list them on their ingredient labels.

NRDC is fighting to change that. We are trying to get companies to join with us in the call for much needed science and regulation. Because if endocrine disruptors are going to join the list of well-known pollutants, they should get the benefit that goes along with that status: binding regulation. Lead, mercury, PCBs, arsenic, all of those have been regulated. The laws are not perfect for those toxins, but at least we have started to reduce our exposure to them. NRDC wants to do the same with endocrine disruptors.

In the meantime, educate yourself, find out what products contain endocrine disruptors, and demand your stores offer you safer products.