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Questions and Answers about Endocrine Disruptors

October 19, 2011

What are Endocrine Disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors are chemical compounds, either naturally-occurring or man-made, that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system.

What is the endocrine system?

The endocrine system is one of a number of human body systems that are responsible for various body functions.  It is made up of a series of glands and other tissues that secrete hormones into the blood.  Just as the respiratory system is responsible for regulating the flow of air though our bodies, the endocrine system regulates our body’s growth, metabolism, sexual development and related functions.   

Where are endocrine disruptors found and how are people exposed to them?

Trace amounts of these compounds are just about everywhere in our environment, in things like cosmetics, foods, pesticides, consumer products, and even pharmaceuticals.  Everyone can be exposed to them through normal routines such as breathing, touching and eating, as they enter the body through the lung, skin and the mouth.  Fetuses can be exposed to these chemicals through the amniotic fluid prior to their birth and infants through breast milk because their mothers have been exposed.

What exactly do endocrine disruptors do to the endocrine system?

Basically, endocrine disruptors have the potential to interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine system.  This means that these chemicals could possibly increase, decrease or even stop the natural release of a hormone; they could also possibly prevent the hormone from getting where it needs to go in the body.  Whether or not an untoward effect would occur depends upon how much exposure is occurring and during what life stage (e.g, fetus, infant, teen or adult).
Think of the endocrine system as an elaborate message system. The hormones are the messengers that are sent throughout the body to keep it functioning, and our various organs and systems are the senders and receivers of the messages.  Endocrine disruptors have the potential to  alter these messages.  They can encrypt the message, delay or stop delivery of the message, or stop the creation of the message in the first place.  These disruptions could prevent the body from functioning and responding properly.

How much of these chemicals is a normal person exposed to?

While these chemical compounds are found in many places and in many forms in our environment, they generally are found in such small amounts that human exposure is quite low.  In fact, the average human exposure to any one compound is far below the level that most scientists believe may cause any negative outcome, or “endocrine disruption.”  There is limited scientific evidence to indicate that the low levels people are exposed to normally would lead to any adverse health effect.

Should I be concerned about endocrine disruptors?

The short answer is no; however, a lot of what is currently known about endocrine disruptors involves words such as “potential to” and “may cause.” Scientists around the world are working hard to learn more about endocrine disruptors and any potential adverse health effects they may cause.  Research in laboratory animals currently suggests that endocrine disruptors have the potential to pose the greatest risk to the fetus, infants and young children, as this is when tissues and organ systems (especially the reproductive and nervous systems) are in the most active stages of development.

What can pregnant women and new parents do to reduce any potential risk?

The best advice is for these populations to ensure they are eating and providing a varied and balanced diet, rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy and protein.  For advice specific to endocrine disruptors, however, it is best to consult a physician such as an endocrinologist, obstetrician or pediatrician, or a registered dietitian for actionable advice on more specific concerns.

Sources:

Atlas of the Human Body, American Medical Association

Endocrine Disruptors, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Endocrine Disruption: Background and Overview, Mary L. Hixon, Ph.D.

The Endocrince System: Diseases, Types of Hormones & More, The Hormone Foundation

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