Already suspected of causing weight gain, reproductive disorders, and a higher incidence of certain cancers, their reputation is only worsening. Endocrine disruptors—synthetic chemicals that mimic the activity of hormones with hazardous consequences—are believed to be exceptionally dangerous to child development.
Also referred to as “EDCs” (endocrine disrupting chemicals), endocrine disruptors attack the body by mimicking or disrupting the flow of messages from glands in the endocrine system, most notably the hypothalamus, pancreas, pituitary, thyroid, adrenal and reproductive organs. In healthy individuals, the hormones these glands produce serve as communication mechanisms for bodily needs. Endocrine disruptors alter the strength and flow of these signals causing the body to register distorted commands. Endocrine disruptors can enter our bodies in literally hundreds of ways, which is what makes them so difficult to avoid: we ingest them directly through our food, water, medicines, and physical contact with contaminated objects.
The vital role of hormones in human development makes endocrine disruptors an even greater threat to children who are already extremely vulnerable to environmental toxins. Because EDCs have been found to alter development, their effects on children are thought to be far greater than on adults. Notable areas of concern include mental and sexual development in addition to the Federal Government’s main focus, obesity. As of May, the U.S. Government declared war on endocrine disruptors in a piece called “Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation”. In it they cite endocrine disrupting chemicals and specifically a subset called obesogens as having adverse effects on childhood development. These effects are suspected to have a lasting negative impact, which is carried to adulthood. Researchers have found that contact with endocrine disruptors in early years could be responsible for obesity, higher frequencies of congenital malformations in reproductive organs, testicular cancer, decreased semen quality in boys and early onset of puberty in girls. Take into account the vast impact of hormones on development and the list could be endless.
Research has also found that developing fetuses can inherit these incredibly dangerous endocrine disruptors from their mothers. The profound effects endocrine disrupting chemicals can have on children is evident in the reverberating consequences of diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic estrogen hormone also known as “DES”. Prescribed to pregnant women during the 1950’s and 1960’s, DES was used to prevent miscarriages, but instead, it produced numerous health problems for the female children whose mothers had taken it. Researchers found that girls whose mothers used DES had higher incidences of infertility, unusual vaginal cancers, birth defects in the uterus and ovaries and immune system suppression. The mothers’ use of DES continued to negatively affect their children for decades after the synthetic hormone had been prescribed—a frightening testament to the lasting strength of endocrine disruptors.
Moreover, some researchers fear that this generation of children might experience unprecedented health problems as a result of having been exposed to EDCs for many years longer than the generations before them. In other words, the most powerful effects of endocrine disruptors may be yet to come.
Protecting Your Children
One of the most effective ways to curb the levels of toxic chemicals in children is to supply an organic diet. In a study funded by the EPA, a group of Seattle schoolchildren ages 3 to 11 years old were fed an organic diet for five days in a row. After only a few days, researchers found a “dramatic and immediate” decrease in toxicity within the children’s bodies to almost undetectable levels. After the children were switched back to their “regular” diets, the levels of pesticides returned to the levels they had been at prior to the study. Buying organic meat can also make a difference, since chemicals absorbed by animals are stored in their fat, making “conventional” fatty meats, butter and cheese particularly unsafe.
Healthy diet, however, is only part of the solution. Endocrine disruptors are found in many everyday items that children come in direct contact with. Phthalates, a chemical that has been strongly linked to reproductive problems in young boys, is commonly found in baby powder and plastic toys. Bisphenol A, a known endocrine disruptor, is commonly used in plastic water bottles—including baby bottles—a variety of household products and metal food cans. It has been closely linked to higher incidences of breast cancer, prostate cancer and diabetes. The tendency of teething children to chew on their plastic toys is an alarming thought when you realize the potential risk of chemical extraction.
Reducing the contact your children have with endocrine disruptors is challenging but not impossible. Become aware of the materials your food is packaged in: cardboard, paper and BPA-free plastic is preferable to regular plastic or aluminum. If you must purchase food in plastic containers, make sure to never heat them in the plastic, as elevated temperatures are known to increase chemical leakage. In addition, begin buying organic cosmetics, fragrances, and household cleaning products, and avoid using pesticides around the house or on your lawn. Filtering your tap water is also a great way to save money, reduce pollution and avoid these chemicals. Most everyday products have natural alternatives that are free of endocrine disruptors. Purchasing these environmentally friendly options may require a little more effort in the beginning, but will ensure protection from this growing family of endocrine disrupting chemicals.