Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with human hormones.
What are endocrine disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with the production or activity of hormones in the human endocrine system. These chemicals may occur naturally or be manufactured. The term “endocrine disruptors” describes a diverse group of chemicals that are suspected or known to affect human hormones. Effects on human hormones can range from minor to serious depending on the specific endocrine receptor and the amount of exposure. Because these chemicals are found in products you use every day and you are exposed to many endocrine receptors at the same time, it is difficult to determine the public health effects of these chemicals.
The human endocrine system is responsible for controlling and coordinating many body functions, including the production of hormones. The human endocrine system includes the pancreas, pituitary, thyroid, adrenal, and male and female reproductive glands.
Endocrine disruptors interfere with the production, release, transport, metabolism, or elimination of the body’s natural hormones. They can mimic naturally occurring hormones, potentially causing overproduction or underproduction of hormones. They may also interfere or block the way natural hormones and their receptors are made or controlled.
Endocrine disruptors include dioxins, PCBs, DDT, and some other pesticides. Suspected endocrine disruptors include phytoestrogens and fungal estrogens, the herbicide atrazine, phenols such as bisphenol A (BPA), and plasticizers such as phthalates. Many products and industrial processes use and release several naturally–occurring heavy metals that affect hormone actions and reproduction, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.
Some endocrine disruptors known to cause harmful human or wildlife health effects have been banned in the United States. Even some prescription drugs have had unexpected effects on the endocrine system. In 1971, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advised physicians to stop prescribing DES (diethylstilbestrol) because it was linked to a rare vaginal cancer. U.S. production of PCBs stopped in 1977 because of suspected harmful health and environmental effects; exports and imports of PCBs stopped in 1979. The general use of DDT was banned by the U.S. EPA in 1972 because it posed unacceptable risks to the environment and potential harm to human health.
Some endocrine disruptors are persistent organic pollutants (POPs).How might I be exposed to endocrine disruptors?
Chemicals that might be endocrine disruptors are commonplace in daily life. You can be exposed to endocrine disruptors by breathing, eating, drinking, or touching them. Exposure can occur through air, water, soil, food, and consumer products. You may be exposed through contaminated food, contaminated groundwater or drinking water, combustion sources, and contaminants in consumer products.
At home, you can be exposed to minute amounts of possible endocrine disruptors through food, beverages, and medicines. You can be exposed if you use products that contain endocrine disruptors, such as plastics, cleaning products, bottles, and cans. You can be exposed if you eat contaminated species, including contaminated fish. You can be exposed to the herbicide atrazine if you live or work on a farm.
You may be exposed if you use pesticides and other garden chemicals. You can be exposed by leakage from landfill areas. Sewage discharge and runoff may carry pollution that includes endocrine disruptors from factories, fields, and yards into waterways.
At work, you may be exposed to endocrine disruptors if you work at a facility that manufactures products or uses processes containing these chemicals or burns medical waste. You may be exposed if you work on a farm or facility that uses pesticides and herbicides.How can endocrine disruptors affect my health?
Different types of endocrine disruptors can affect your health in different ways. It is important to remember that the amount of exposure to an endocrine disruptor may be as important as how toxic the endocrine disruptor is. According to the World Health Organization’s International Programme on Chemical Safety, there is still uncertainty about some links between human health effects and exposure to endocrine disruptors. Some endocrine disruptors are listed as human carcinogens or as "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens" in the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program. Arsenic, cadmium, and TCDD dioxin are human carcinogens. DDT, lead, PCBs, and phthalates are anticipated to be human carcinogens.
Endocrine disruptors may interfere with the production or activity of hormones in the endocrine system. They may cause reduced fertility and an increase in some diseases, including endometriosis and some cancers. Human health concerns about endocrine disruptors include reproductive effects, such as sperm levels, reproductive abnormalities, and early puberty. Exposure of infants and fetuses to endocrine disruptors can affect the developing reproductive and nervous systems and organs. Other human health concerns include nervous system and immune functions.
If you think your health has been affected by exposure to endocrine disruptors, contact your health care professional.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Web Links from MedlinePlus (National Library of Medicine)
Atrazine (New Jersey Department of Health) (PDF — 590 KB)
Bisphenol A (New Jersey Department of Health) (PDF — 601 KB)
Bisphenol A (BPA) (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) (PDF — 456 KB)
DDT (New Jersey Department of Health) (PDF — 37 KB)
e.hormone home page (Tulane University)
Endocrine Disruptors (Emory University School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics)
Endocrine Disruptors (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)
State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals - 2012 (World Health Organization)
What Are Endocrine Disruptors? (Environmental Protection Agency)
Last Updated: December 2, 2013