Hormones

The 12 Worst Endocrine Disruptors and How to Avoid Them

These common chemicals can wreak havoc on your hormone system and the many critical roles it plays
BY Emma Suttie TIMEJuly 5, 2022 PRINT

At the turn of the previous century, we began to introduce dangerous and unnatural chemicals into our lives and environment because of promised conveniences and cheaper prices. People jumped at the opportunity to enjoy niceties that generations before them hadn’t. But, as wouldn’t be discovered for years, many of those conveniences would prove deadly, and we’re still discovering the ramifications that these substances have had on our health and planet.

What Are Endocrine Disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals or toxins that affect the human (and often animal) endocrine system, typically by mimicking hormones and disrupting hormone function. Hormones are one of the body’s essential messenger systems and are responsible for triggering some of our most transformative processes, including growth, puberty, and reproduction. Endocrine disruptors can affect hormone levels and hormone production, wreaking havoc on the body.

Endocrine disruptors usually affect development and reproduction and can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and changes in the brain and immune system. We encounter multiple endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our daily lives. They’re found in many everyday products, such as plastic bottles and food containers, the lining of metal food cans, food, toys, detergents, cosmetics, receipts, and pesticides. Because they’re ubiquitous and people are exposed to so many simultaneously, studying their health effects is complex, and the long-term health consequences remain unclear. What seems certain is that these unnatural chemicals harm our health, the health of wildlife, and the environment, as well as contaminate our food and water supply.

The Endocrine System

The endocrine system is made up of a complex network of glands and organs that release hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones control mood, growth, and development, the functioning of our organs, metabolism, and reproduction.

The major glands and organs that make up the endocrine system are the following:

  • hypothalamus
  • pituitary gland
  • pineal gland
  • thyroid and parathyroid glands
  • thymus
  • pancreas
  • adrenals
  • the ovaries
  • the testes

The endocrine system is responsible for a huge number of the body’s processes and is vital to the body’s healthy functioning. Because endocrine-disrupting chemicals can damage the delicate hormone balance the endocrine system regulates, knowing where these chemicals are and how to limit our exposure to them is vital to our health. In addition to avoiding endocrine-disrupting chemicals, getting a lot of exercise and eating a healthy diet are the best ways to keep your endocrine system functioning optimally.

The 12 Worst Offenders

Here’s a list of the 12 worst endocrine disruptors, where to find them, and some of the best ways to avoid them.

BPA

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical used in plastics that can mimic the hormone estrogen, interacting with estrogen receptors in the body and contributing to cancer development and progression. BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1950s. Exposure to BPA has been linked to breast, prostate, and other hormone-associated cancers. BPA has been replaced in some products by BPS and BPF, but scientists are discovering these chemicals may be just as bad.

Where to Find It

  • Water bottles
  • Plastic food containers
  • Thermal receipt paper
  • The coating on the inside of metal food cans
  • Water supply lines
  • Used in some dental and composite sealants

How to Avoid It

  • Use glass or metal water bottles and food containers instead of plastic
  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of canned
  • Don’t take receipts, or minimize handling them
  • Look for BPA-free labels on cans and bottles
  • Ask your dentist about BPAs before having dental work done

Atrazine

Atrazine is a potent endocrine disruptor and one of the most commonly used herbicides in the United States, used mainly to control grasses and broadleaf weeds. Approximately 80 million pounds of it are used annually in the United States alone. Atrazine persists in the environment and is pervasive in ground, surface, and drinking water. Atrazine is so toxic to wildlife and humans that it was banned in the European Union in 2004. It continues to be widely used in the United States.

In humans, atrazine exposure has been linked to tumors; breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers in women; and prostate cancers in men. It has also been linked to delayed puberty and other developmental and reproductive problems. A study from 2011 confirms atrazine’s effects across a range of species, including ours, and found that it both “demasculinizes” and “feminizes” vertebrate male gonads.

Where to Find It

  • Corn
  • Sorghum
  • Sugarcane
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Guava
  • Residential lawns
  • Along the sides of roads and railroads

How to Avoid It

  • Buy organic fruits and vegetables
  • Get a water filter that’s certified to remove atrazine
  • Grow as much of your food as possible using clean water to avoid herbicides and pesticides
  • Avoid using pesticides and herbicides on your lawn and garden

Dioxin

Dioxins are formed during many industrial processes and also result from burning chlorine or bromine in the presence of carbon and oxygen, a common occurrence in many combustion processes, including waste incineration or burning oil or wood. Dioxins can disrupt male and female sex hormones in the body. Research shows that exposure to low levels in the womb early in life can permanently affect sperm quality and lower sperm count in men during their reproductive years. Dioxins are long-lived and build up in the body and food chain, are potent carcinogens, can affect immune and reproductive systems, can cause developmental problems, and can interfere with hormones.

Where to Find Them

Dioxins are found in the environment worldwide and accumulate in food chains, mainly contaminating the fatty tissue of animals. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 90 percent of human exposure to dioxin is through the intake of animal fats, mainly meat, dairy products, fish, and shellfish. Milk, eggs, and butter are also at risk of contamination with dioxins.

How to Avoid Them

Avoiding dioxins is challenging since the ongoing release of dioxins has contaminated a considerable percentage of the U.S. food supply. Cutting back on animal products can limit your exposure to these dangerous chemicals, as well as raising your own animals for food.

Phthalates

Studies have linked phthalates to hormone changes, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes, and thyroid irregularities. Phthalates have also demonstrated the ability to trigger death-inducing signaling in testicular cells, making cells in the testicles die sooner than they should.

Where to Find Them

  • Plastic food containers
  • Children’s toys
  • Plastic wrap made with PVC (this has the recycling label No. 3)
  • Some personal care products
  • Nearly anything with fragrance added, especially if it’s just labeled “fragrance”

How to Avoid Them

  • Use glass, fabric, or metal food and water containers
  • Carefully read labels on children’s toys and opt for more natural materials, such as wood and fabric instead of plastics
  • Avoid plastic wrap
  • Use natural personal care products, make your own, or carefully read labels
  • Avoid any products with fragrances, as most of them are loaded with toxic chemicals

Perchlorate

Perchlorate is used as an oxidizer in rocket fuel and, according to government data, now contaminates most of our produce and milk supply. Inside the body, perchlorate competes with iodine, which the thyroid gland (part of the endocrine system) needs to make thyroid hormones. Too much perchlorate can cause fluctuations in the thyroid hormone balance, which is essential to regulate metabolism in adults. This delicate hormone balance is also a critical part of brain and organ development in infants and young children.

Where to Find It

  • A component in fireworks, pyrotechnics, flares, and explosives
  • Contaminated water
  • Contaminated foods

How to Avoid It

  • Use a reverse osmosis water filter
  • Make sure you’re getting enough iodine in your diet (for a healthy thyroid)
  • Eat organic whenever possible or grow your own

Arsenic

Arsenic is a naturally occurring metal found in the earth’s crust. It’s also a poison that exists in our food and drinking water. At high enough levels, arsenic will kill you outright. But in smaller doses, it disrupts hormones and can cause skin, bladder, and lung cancers.

Arsenic also interferes with normal hormone functioning in the glucocorticoid system that regulates how our bodies process sugars and carbs. Disrupting this system has been linked to weight gain and loss, immune system suppression, insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes), osteoporosis, retarded growth, and high blood pressure.

Where to Find It

  • The highest levels of arsenic are found in contaminated groundwater, seafood, rice, rice cereal (and other rice products), mushrooms, poultry, fruit juices
  • You can find online maps showing arsenic concentrations in soil and water in the United States.

How to Avoid It

  • Use a good water filter to avoid arsenic in contaminated water
  • Test your soil for arsenic if you’re growing your own food
  • Eat organic or grow your own food whenever possible
  • White rice has less arsenic than brown rice

 

 

Fire Retardants

Fire retardants contain incredibly persistent chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), and have been found in humans and animals worldwide, even polar bears. They can disrupt thyroid hormone activity, cause memory and learning problems, delay mental and physical development, lower IQ, and reduce fertility.

Although several PBDEs have now been phased out, they’re incredibly persistent and will continue contaminating humans and wildlife for generations to come.

Flame retardants are so pervasive that a 1999 Swedish study regarding women’s breast milk found that the milk contained something they hadn’t expected: the endocrine-disrupting chemical found in flame retardants and that the levels had been doubling every year since 1972.

Where to Find It

  • Furniture
  • Carpeting and upholstery
  • Children’s pajamas—always look at the labels. Tighter-fitting children’s pajamas tend to not be sprayed with flame retardant chemicals and will usually say so on the label.
  • Baby products
  • Automotive foam cushioning
  • Strollers
  • Nursing pillows
  • Televisions and computers
  • Adhesives
  • Rubber and plastics
  • Paints and varnishes

How to Avoid It

  • Allow new furniture, carpeting, and the pads underneath carpets and mattresses to off-gas as much as possible before being in the house with it
  • Check labels carefully on children’s clothing and other products (especially those worn next to the skin)
  • Use a HEPA filter on your vacuum, which can cut down on toxic dust
  • Avoid reupholstering furniture (those fabrics likely contain fire retardants), and be careful when replacing old carpeting
  • Always read labels carefully when buying any of the products listed above, especially for children who are particularly susceptible to fire retardants’ toxic effects

Glycol Ethers

Glycol ethers are a large group of organic solvents used industrially and in our homes as glass, carpet, floor, and oven cleaners. Studies show that rats exposed to glycol ethers suffered testicular atrophy or shrinkage.

Because many of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals are found in paints, painters are particularly susceptible to their harmful effects.

A study from the University of Sheffield shows that men working as painters and decorators exposed to glycol ethers are 2 1/2 times more likely to have poor sperm quality and a low motile sperm count. Another study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found blood abnormalities and anemia in shipyard painters exposed to ethylene glycol ethers in the paint they used.

Where to Find It

  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Cosmetics
  • Sunscreen
  • Inks
  • Dyes
  • Paints
  • Brake fluid
  • Liquid soaps
  • Cleaning products (glass, carpet, floor, and oven cleaners)
  • Adhesives

How to Avoid It

This is a tough one, as these chemicals are in many of the products we use daily.

  • Use natural cleaning products with ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda. There are many DIY recipes for natural cleaning products online.
  • If you use store-bought cleaners, read labels carefully and avoid products with ingredients such as 2-butoxyethanol and methoxydiglycol
  • If you’re painting, you can look for nontoxic paints free of glycol ethers.
  • There are more and more cosmetic brands with nontoxic ingredients.

Organophosphate Pesticides

Organophosphate pesticides are a group of man-made chemicals that target the nervous system of insects and are the most widely used insecticide. They’re used in agriculture, homes, gardens, and by veterinarians for treatments on pets. Studies have linked exposure to organophosphate pesticides to an increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer.

Other studies found that agricultural workers working with these pesticides had an increased risk of several hormone-related cancers, including breast cancer, thyroid cancer, and cancer of the ovaries.

Exposure to organophosphate pesticides can affect how testosterone communicates with other cells in the body, lower testosterone levels, and alter thyroid hormones.

Where to Find It

  • Flea and tick collars
  • Shampoos, sprays, and powders for dogs and cats
  • Garden pest control products
  • No-pest strips
  • Fruits and vegetables (from pesticide use)

How to Avoid It

  • Buy organic fruits and vegetables
  • Use natural products for fleas and ticks on pets
  • Use natural products on your lawn and garden

Perfluorinated Chemicals

Perfluorinated chemicals are so ubiquitous and enduring that 99 percent of Americans have them in their bodies. Even though three chemicals in this category were banned in 2016 by the Food and Drug Administration, many are entirely resistant to biodegradation, which means we’ll continue to be exposed long into the future.

Exposure is linked to decreased sperm quality, low birth weight, high cholesterol, kidney disease, and thyroid disease.

Scientists are still studying how these chemicals affect the human body, but animal studies show that they affect thyroid and sex hormone levels.

Where to Find It

  • Some grease-resistant paper, fast food containers & wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers
  • Water and oil repellents
  • Foams used in fighting fires
  • Metal spray plating
  • Nonstick cookware and cooking utensils
  • Stain and water-resistant coatings on clothing, furniture, and carpets
  • Cleaning products

How to Avoid It

  • Avoid non-stick pans and utensils
  • Eat fresh, organic foods whenever possible and avoid processed and fast foods
  • Avoid products labeled “stain” or “water-resistant”
  • Use natural cleaning products or carefully read the labels of store-bought cleaners

Mercury

Mercury is a naturally occurring, but toxic metal released into the air and oceans primarily by burning coal. You can eat it by consuming seafood that has been contaminated with mercury.

Pregnant women are most at risk from its toxic effects, as it’s known to concentrate in fetal brain tissue and can interfere with brain development. Mercury has also been shown to damage cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, critical for the body’s ability to metabolize sugar.

Where to Find It

Practically all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. Still, as smaller fish are eaten by larger fish higher up the food chain, mercury concentrations increase, making large, predatory, deep-ocean fish such as sharks and swordfish contain the highest levels.

How to Avoid It

  • Avoid eating large fish such as sharks, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerels too often
  • Stick to eating smaller fish, such as salmon, shrimp, cod, and sardines
  • When eating fresh fish, look for advisories for lakes and streams where you’re fishing

Lead

Lead harms almost every organ in the body and has been linked to an extensive list of health problems, including permanent brain damage, lowered IQ, hearing loss, miscarriages, premature births, increased blood pressure, kidney damage, and nervous system problems.

One of the most common forms of lead exposure is lead-based paints, used in millions of U.S. homes before 1978. These paints contain high levels of lead and are particularly toxic to children. Many toys and some furniture in the same era were painted with lead-based paints, although goods imported from China in recent years have had notably high lead levels.

Research has shown that lead can disrupt the hormone signaling regulating the body’s primary stress response system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This system is involved in high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, and depression.

Lead is particularly destructive to the human nervous system, especially in children. A 2013 study found that lead had adverse effects on the behavior and development of children.

Where to Find It

  • House paints–found mainly in older homes and buildings built before 1978
  • Makeup, such as lipstick (especially darker shades), eyeliner, and hair dye
  • Old water pipes
  • Imported canned goods
  • Some children’s toys

How to Avoid It

  • Keep your house or space clean. Be careful of old crumbling paint, which can create toxic dust
  • Wash children’s hands often and regularly wash toys
  • Wipe dusty surfaces with a damp cloth regularly to eliminate lead dust from crumbling paint in older homes and apartments
  • Get a good water filter that’s authorized to remove lead
  • Run cold water. If you have old pipes that might contain lead or lead fittings, run the cold water for a minute before using it. Don’t use hot tap water for cooking or to make baby formula

**Children with healthy diets absorb less lead

Conclusion

The health consequences of these chemicals can be overwhelming, especially since endocrine disruptors are so pervasive in the products we use. Fortunately, you can significantly reduce your exposure by changing your purchasing habits. It also helps to be aware of the broader problem.

Tyrone Hayes, a  biologist and professor of integrative biology at the University of California–Berkeley, researches atrazine. He noted in his TedX talk that studies already completed by the CDC and others have found that women who conceive during peak atrazine contamination “are more likely to have babies with birth defects including malformed genitals in the male babies.”

But Hayes quotes a response from the EPA explaining that the agency deals with such problems by assigning a monetary value to the disease impairments and shortened lives caused by a chemical and weighing these against the benefits of keeping a chemical in use.

And sometimes the EPA’s math can get tilted by the efforts of industry.

Hayes faced a systematic effort by Syngenta, the primary manufacturer of atrazine, to discredit him and his work, an effort eventually revealed in a lawsuit. Federal agencies may struggle to protect Americans, and large corporations may not believe they are doing significant harm. But at the end of the day, it’s the choices of everyday Americans that shape the country and determine which business and products thrive—and which disappear.

Emma Suttie
D.Ac, AP
Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living—a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.
You May Also Like