A recent study, ‘State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals – 2012′, by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) describes the latest scientific understanding of the adverse health effects of EDCs on humans and wildlife. The report notes:
Of special concern are effects on early development of both humans and wildlife, as these effects are often irreversible and may not become evident until later in life.
Where are EDCs found? There are many hundreds, possibly thousands, of chemicals that may disrupt the healthy functioning of endocrine systems. Such EDCs include certain metals, solvents and other chemicals used in cosmetics, personal care products, plastics (food containers, toys, kitchen utensils), surface coatings, flame retardants, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibacterials, and more.
What are the common adverse health effects of EDCs? Many endocrine-related diseases and disorders are on the rise, including reproductive problems, neuro-behavioral disorders, global rates of breast, endometrial, ovarian, prostate, testicular, and thyroid cancers, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Why is wildlife health an important indicator? Endocrine systems, which produce hormones that control major physiological processes from embryonic development and organ formation to the control of tissue and organ function in adulthood, are very similar across vertebrate species. This means that endocrine system disruption has serious health consequences, and we must be highly attentive to wildlife health for the sake of ecosystems as well as what we can learn about the effects of EDCs on human health.
Why is exposure to low concentrations of EDCs a problem? Very low concentrations of hormones can initiate important biological effects. There are various U-shaped dose-response curves indicating dynamic ranges in which hormone dosages have much greater effects. It follows that lowering but not eliminating exposure to EDCs may actually increase disruptive effects.
How long might the effects of EDC exposure during development persist? Hormone actions during development may be considered irreversible ‘programming events’ that will influence the functions of physiological systems throughout (and perhaps not visibly until) adulthood, with possible effects on offspring. Fetal programming events from exposure to EDCs can predispose the adult to a number of chronic diseases, and may plausibly affect the health of several subsequent generations that were never directly exposed.
Why are the adverse health effects of EDCs so diverse? In addition to specialized endocrine glands such as the pituitary, thyroid, adrenal and gonads, many other organs that are part of other body systems, such as the heart, body fat, muscle, liver, kidneys, and intestines, have secondary endocrine functions and produce hormones. EDCs are thought to affect physiological systems ranging from development and function of reproductive organs to adult onset diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
We’re causing this threat, in large part, so we can and must solve it – soon! EDCs pose a global threat to human health and ecosystems that appears as serious, complex and challenging as climate change. Let’s re-think the chemicals we use, pursue green chemistry, improve product labeling to inform consumers about all products, develop immediate preventive approaches to protect the most vulnerable, examine our healthcare strategies, enhance ecological protections, introduce environmental risk pricing as an economic incentive to drive sustainable practices, and continue to advance the type of research described in this illuminating study.