What are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Should You Be Concerned About Them?

Many of us have made the resolution in recent years to cut back on our consumption of single use plastics.  And just last night I spent 20 minutes explaining to my 7 year-old son why he couldn’t buy a third plastic lightsaber.  There are many motivations for these decisions based in both the environmental and health literature.  But the growing evidence around endocrine disrupting chemicals is a main motivation for me and my family.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, are a group of thousands of chemicals found in our environment that are negatively impacting our normal body processes and planting the seeds of disease in our cells.  The impact of these chemicals can be seen not just in our bodies but in those of our children and maybe even for generations to come.

EDCs have been implicated in developmental delays in children, obesity and metabolic syndrome, increasingly early puberty in girls and decreased fertility in men.  These changes can be insidious and may not be apparent for generations–this makes studying them challenging.  

Most of us think of EDCs entering our bodies via the foods we eat and certainly this is a main entry point.  EDCs can leach into foods via plastic packaging and storage containers.  Microplastics consumed by fishes get deposited in their flesh which we then eat.  Antibiotics and hormones given to cows, pigs and fowl make their way into milk and meats.  Residue from pesticides sprayed on crops not only coat the skins of fruits and vegetables but get incorporated into the flesh of some produce.  

But the food supply is not the only source of EDCs.  BPA in many store receipts can enter our bodies via our skin as can chemicals in lotions and cosmetics.  

Given the pervasiveness of EDCs in our environment, how can we limit our exposure to them?

Realistically, we can’t completely eliminate our exposure to EDCs but a few simple changes can significantly reduce our exposure.  

We have almost completely eliminated plastic food and beverage containers.  Pyrex and Glasslock make excellent food storage containers.  My children use bento-style stainless steel lunch boxes (ours our PlanetBoxes, but there are several other brands), stainless steel water bottles and silicon straws.  Back in our baby days we used glass baby bottles and stainless steel sippy cups.  We have replaced plastic wrap with beeswax impregnated wraps and plastic bags with silicon reusable ones.  At home my kids drink from Duralex tempered glass glasses (they rarely break even when dropped and come in sizes ideal for little hands) and eat off ceramic dishes.

If you do use plastic food storage don’t put it in the dishwasher and discard it once it is scratched. Don’t heat food in plastic.

When shopping, I look for glass containers and bottles whenever possible, and opt for Tetrapaks over cans.  I buy milk, meat and poultry raised without hormones and antibiotics.  We have reduced our meat consumption and try to eat vegetarian at least two nights per week.  I do NOT buy all organic fruits and vegetables but I try to as much as possible and I focus on those known to contain high levels of pesticides or where we eat the skin or peel. This list can be helpful.

Cosmetics are trickier.  Labeling is confusing and ingredient lists aren’t standardized.  Look for products labeled as being phthalate, paraben, triclosan and benzophenone free. Opt for physical sunblock with zinc oxide, not chemical sunscreens.  Remember, just because something is “Natural” doesn’t make it healthier.  Though it can be difficult to navigate, the Environmental Working Group maintains a database of cosmetics that can be helpful. 

Wield the influence of your pocketbook.  Consumer demand for products free of EDCs has increased the availability of these items and with time will make them a more economical choice.

If you are interested in reading more about EDCs, I can strongly recommend Sicker, Fatter Poorer by Dr. Leonardo Trasande.

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