How Environmental Toxins Can Impact Your Health

Researchers have identified nearly 800 chemicals of concern
woman filling the washing machine with soap

When you hear “environmental toxins,” visions of nuclear plants and smoke-spewing factories come to mind. To learn these toxins might be in your car or makeup is a hard pill to swallow. But, really, how toxic are these chemicals? Endocrinologist Shirisha Avadhanula, MD, offers details in this Q&A.

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Q. How do environmental toxins affect our health?

A.  The exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), also called hormone disrupting chemicals, in the environment are ubiquitous. Our endocrine system includes different glands — like the thyroid or pituitary gland — that produce hormones. These hormones help regulate body functions. Toxins are artificial chemicals that interfere with the proper functioning of our hormones.

EDCs cause disruption at the cellular level at any point during the hormonal process, from the gland that produces the hormone to the tissue that receives it and many points in between. We still have much to learn about how the disruption occurs, but we know it happens. Studies have linked EDCs to cancer, heart problems and reproductive concerns.

Q. How common is exposure to EDCs?

A. I recently read that we’re unknowingly exposed to hundreds of EDCs each day — they are truly everywhere. Since we know of nearly 800 chemicals that are suspected to be hormone disruptors, I think it’s safe to say that EDCs are becoming a global health crisis. Your daily touchpoints may include:

  • Air bags.
  • Cigarette smoke.
  • Cosmetics.
  • Food.
  • Detergents.
  • Packaging.
  • Plastic cups and plates.
  • Toys.

We know these chemicals are in our bodies because studies have detected EDCs in blood, urine and breast milk. They accumulate over time through consistent exposure to tiny amounts.

Q. What is the link between endocrine disruptors and cancer?

A. The prescribing of diethylstilbestrol (DES, a synthetic estrogen) to several million women to prevent threatened miscarriages between 1940 and 1971 lead to the development of clear cell carcinoma in daughters born to mothers who were exposed to DES.

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Obviously, that medication is no longer used, but it was a canary in a coal mine when it comes to EDCs and cancer. EDCs likely play a role in:

  • Ovarian cancer.
  • Prostate cancer.
  • Breast cancer.

How do EDCs impact pregnancy and reproduction?

A. In the 1900s, sheep farmers saw a reduction in herd reproduction with no known cause. They realized a compound in the feed was causing infertility in the sheep.

Since then, scientists learned that exposure to a now-banned chemical known as PCB impacted fertility in rats. Research suggests that EDCs can disrupt any stage of biological reproduction. But we need more studies to determine whether EDCs may contribute to:

  • Earlier onset of menopause.
  • Diminished sperm quality.
  • Fertility difficulties.

Q. Are there other known health concerns related to hormone disruptors?

A. We have evidence that EDCs are linked to:

  • Diabetes: Scientists have found a relationship between the chemical DDE and diabetes. DDE is produced when the body breaks down DDT (a pesticide banned in 1972 but still present in our natural environment) as well as EDC levels and obesity.
  • Heart disease: Some animal models have shown that EDC’s may have a negative impact on cardiovascular health.
  • Obesity: Exposure to BPA (an industrial chemical found in plastics), phthalates (also used in plastics), arsenic and several other EDCs are shown to have effect on metabolic disorders (such as diabetes and obesity) in cellular and animal models.

How do we identify and avoid environmental toxins?

A. Quite honestly, it’s unrealistic to avoid them completely. I recommend being a thoughtful consumer of what you place on or in your body to decrease your exposure. 

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Many brands are making a conscious effort to avoid chemicals. This trend will continue when consumers demand more natural products by buying from responsible producers. The Environmental Working Group is a great resource and offers helpful consumer guides.

When choosing products, look for labels that say:

  • Paraben-free.
  • Phthalate-free.
  • BPA-free.

Other potentially beneficial steps:

  • Drink tap water rather than bottled water (tests show bottled water often contains harmful chemicals and bacteria).
  • Avoid pesticides by choosing organic foods when possible.
  • Choose natural cleaning products for your home.

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