What are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals?

Eating plastic is bad for you

The endocrine system produces the hormones that shape us into who we are. It regulates our metabolism, development, sexual desires, fertility, sleep, and mood. 

Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) break this natural balance. The way they do it varies. Sometimes, they imitate natural hormones, causing an unnatural surge. Sometimes they block natural hormones in our body, suppressing a key part of ourselves. Sometimes they change our bloodstream by altering how our hormones are created, recycled, and stored. Either way, they throw our bodies off track.

Unfortunately, a huge amount of consumer products have endocrine disrupting chemicals in them. If you’re a normal American, you have endocrine disrupting chemicals in your home and your bloodstream right now. We all do. 

EDCs Wreck Havoc on Our Reproductive Health

Worried couple can't conceive

EDCs hurt our reproductive health across the board. 

Most endocrine disruptors in consumer products change the natural balance between testosterone and estrogen, the male and female hormones. This can cause infertility. Miscarriages, endometriosis, lower sex drive, and lower satisfaction are all tied to higher amounts of EDCs in a person’s bloodstream. 

The biggest single problem is EDCs cause sperm counts and quality to drop. Sperm counts have plummeted by 52% in the last 40 years. On top of that, artificial estrogens lower natural testosterone. Men aren’t as virile as they used to be, thanks to artificial estrogens in common household products.

The Damage from EDCs Keeps Growing

The scariest finding is that the damage might compound over generations. In mice, if each generation is exposed to endocrine disruptors then sperm counts keep dropping, and low fertility can be inherited by their children. 

There’s signs that’s happening to people. The sperm count drop in people shows no signs of leveling off. We’re exposed to endocrine disrupting chemicals every day in household products. If we react to EDCs like mice, male fertility will continue to drop and weak fertility will be inherited by our children. Some scientists are so scared of this they think EDCs could be a threat to humanity’s survival

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals Don’t Just Hurt Us

Empty bird's nest

We also know that EDCs hurt animals. Unfortunately, animals are often exposed to endocrine disruptors by pollution. Because of this, we know that EDCs hurt a huge range of animals. In the wild, EDCs have harmed birds, polar bears, minks, leopard frogs, toads, alligators, baltic gray seals, bottlenose dolphins, fish, sea snails, panthers - pretty much everything. The damage varies, but some of the most common problems were infertility, small, abnormal, or ambiguous genitals, and reduced testosterone. 

Do EDCs Change Our Sexuality?

One interesting finding is that high exposure to endocrine disruptors even changes sexual behavior in animals. Animals exposed to endocrine disruptors are more likely to act homosexual or asexual. 

Interestingly, more young people are identifying as gender fluid, non-binary, or gay. Typically we assume that’s because we are more tolerant, but maybe that’s not the only reason. Maybe it’s because male and female hormones are getting scrambled in our brains while we develop.   

EDCs Harm Children and Men the Most

Endocrine disruptors derail natural development, which is one reason they’re so dangerous to kids. In adults the damage from endocrine disruptors will usually reverse if exposure is stopped. In children, too much exposure to endocrine disruptors can lead to permanent damage. The more sensitive the developmental window, the worse the damage.

Very young boys exposed to EDCs have reduced testosterone and sperm counts that persist into adulthood. Like animals, boys are also at more risk of developing genital abnormalities or having smaller genitals if they’re exposed to EDCs. Girls exposed to EDCs are more likely to undergo early puberty and have more difficulty having children. Surprisingly, children exposed to EDCs are also more likely to have ADHD, anxiety, and autism. 

Male children also behave a little more female when exposed to EDCs. Boys develop spatial skills early and language skills later than girls. However, boys exposed to EDCs do the opposite, developing skills more like girls do. Some scientists suspect that’s the tip of the iceberg, and there will be other differences in behavior later in life. 

Most endocrine disrupting chemicals in household products are artificial estrogens, the female hormone. This makes household EDCs particularly toxic to men and boys. Both genders suffer reproductive harm from endocrine disruptors, but the harm to males is bigger. Estrogenic endocrine disruptors lower sperm counts, sperm quality, and testosterone. Heavy exposure even leads to erectile dysfunction, less interest in sex, and less energy in general. Worse sperm quality can even lead to miscarriages in otherwise healthy women. 

The Most Common Endocrine Disruptors in Your House

Image of plastic garbage

Unfortunately, products with endocrine disruptors are everywhere in the modern world. The reason why so many products have EDCs is that they all do something useful, but just like lead paint, asbestos, or tobacco, they have nasty side effects that we didn’t know about when we first started using them. 

Here are the most common EDCs and where they are in your house:

Phthalates (pronounced ‘thalate’) - phthalates are an artificial estrogen, which makes them especially toxic to boys. Phthalates have a short half life. That means if you stop exposure to them they will quickly flush out of your body. However, most people have stable levels of phthalates in their blood because we’re constantly exposed. Phthalates impair fertility, reduce testosterone, and decrease the size of genitals in young boys. 

Where it’s found: phthalates do three useful things that make them very common in household products. The first is cheaply preserving scent. That means they are in most bathroom products, listed on the bottle only as ‘fragrance’. If a bathroom product has a scent that wasn’t derived from a plant, it has phthalates. Some of the most common bathroom products with phthalates: shaving cream, deodorant, air fresheners, shampoo - anything with a scent. 

Phthalates are helpful for making products water resistant, which means they’re part of vinyl and PVC. They’re commonly in shower curtains. 

The third thing that phthalates do is make plastics soft and flexible, which means they’re often in kid’s toys. This isn’t a big deal for older children, but younger children have a habit of putting toys in their mouths, risking exposure.  

BPA (Bisphenol A) - is another synthetic estrogen. Men exposed to high levels of BPA have lower sperm counts, lower sperm quality, more ED, and less interest in sex. Women with higher levels of BPA in their blood have a harder time getting pregnant and are more likely to have miscarriages. Additionally, BPA is associated with diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain and ADHD in children. 

BPA is a temporary chemical like phthalates. Stop exposure, and BPA will flush out of your body.

Where it’s found: BPA is useful for making plastics hard along with water resistant tin cans. The most common source of exposure to BPA is food. Microwaving or heating plastic leaches BPA into food. BPA is also in most tin cans that aren’t labeled ‘BPA Free’, and even some that are. Additionally, BPA is in most plastic water bottles and drinking bottles unless otherwise labeled.  

Thankfully, BPA has been banned in most products marketed to infants, like sippy cups.

PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) - PFAS is especially nasty because it is a ‘forever chemical’, once it’s in your body, it stays there. Forever chemicals can be passed to children in breast milk.  

PFAS causes especially serious endocrine disruption. Like most EDCs, it causes fertility damage. However, PFAS can also cause kidney and liver damage, higher cholesterol, cancer, thyroid disruption, and damage to the immune system. PFAS doesn’t just attack reproductive health.

Where it’s found:  PFAS is part of non-stick teflon cookware. When non-stick cookware starts flaking and peeling, heavy exposure occurs. It can also be found in takeout wrappers, especially the ‘waxy’ kind. PFAS is useful for making wrappers that repel grease so it’s common in fast food wrappers.

Less Common EDCs:

  • Parabens - another artificial estrogen like phthalates and BPA. Parabens are used as a preservative in cosmetics, bathroom products, and pharmaceutical drugs. 
  • PCBs are a bad cancer causing chemical and also have endocrine disrupting effects. PCBs can be found in flame retardants, sealants for caulking, adhesives, and wood floor finishes. Now mostly banned in the US. 
  • Pesticides - pesticides become toxic to anyone who has to work with them as part of their job. For most people, you can reduce pesticide exposure by carefully washing your fruits and vegetables before eating them. 
  • Brominated Flame Retardants - found in furniture. Disrupts the endocrine and thyroid system and persists in the body. Heavy dust accumulation can lead to exposure. 
  • Triclosan - an endocrine disruptor found in many ‘antibacterial’ products. It is partially banned in the US. Don’t use an antibacterial product unless you need it.

Do All Scientists Agree that EDCs are Hurting People?

Not yet. There’s no real question that EDCs hurt animals, but some scientists question whether humans are exposed to enough EDCs to cause damage to us. Many leading epidemiologists disagree, and are confident that EDCs are behind the disturbing changes in our reproductive health. 

It’s going to take a long time before all scientists agree, because they can’t test this with controlled experiments. They would have to intentionally expose kids to endocrine disruptors, and that would be unethical. That means scientists can only make observations and draw conclusions. Science through observation is extremely slow. It takes a very long time for scientists to make up their minds. 

The question really comes down to risk. Do you have young children? Do you want to? If so, how much risk to your child’s health would be too much? 

How Can You Avoid Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals?

None of the EDCs do something essential that a healthier alternative couldn’t do. If you want to give up EDCs, you don’t have to completely give up plastic. The reason so many products have them is that most people aren’t aware of the danger. We've made a guide for you to avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals in your home

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.