Do You Really Need to Worry about Endocrine Disruptors?

What they are, what you need to know, and how to limit your exposure

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
6 min readAug 21, 2019

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Illustration: Johanna Walderdorff

PPhthalate-free cosmetics, BPA-free cans, fire retardant–free furniture. What are these chemicals, and why does everyone suddenly care if they’re in our household products?

These industrial chemicals are all classified as endocrine disruptors, meaning they can interfere with the body’s hormone — or endocrine — system. Hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and insulin are essential signaling molecules that tell organs what to do. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals scramble those molecular signals, potentially wreaking havoc on reproductive, metabolic, and neurological systems.

“Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can interfere in a variety of ways, including acting as a hormone mimic or a hormone blocker,” explains Heather Patisaul, PhD, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. “They can also change the amount of hormone receptors present in a cell or tissue or change how the body metabolizes its own hormones.”

There are roughly 1,000 known endocrine disruptors. The five categories of chemicals that receive the most attention are flame retardants used in electronics, furniture, and carpeting; phthalates added to plastics to make them flexible and used as solvents in cosmetics and personal care products; bisphenols like BPA that line aluminum cans and paper receipts; perfluorinated compounds used in nonstick cookware; and pesticides sprayed on fruits and vegetables.

“These are chemicals that we’re exposed to as part of daily living,” says Leonardo Trasande, MD, a professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine, and population health at New York University School of Medicine. “They’re in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. They’re used at low levels in a wide array of consumer and personal care products. You can reduce exposure to these chemicals levels, but they are quite ubiquitous in the American lifestyle.”

AAccording to Patisaul and Trasande, endocrine disruptors have been linked to issues with fertility in both women and men, including endometriosis and low sperm count. Higher rates of thyroid dysfunction and hormone-related…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental