Endocrine Disruptors and the Climate Crisis
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The pervasive use of endocrine disruptors (substances that interfere with the normal functioning of your hormones) and the impact they are having on human health share some striking similarities with the climate crisis, particularly regarding the historical context and our delayed response to the threat.
Here we look at the parallels between the two issues, focusing on how early warnings were overlooked, the consequences of inaction, and the urgent need for a comprehensive response.
What Are EDCs?
I am repeatedly shocked about how few people know or have heard of the term ‘endocrine disruptor’ or endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). I have found this to be true even with medical professionals.
EDCs have become ubiquitous in our environment. There has been an enormous increase in the production of different types of chemicals during the last several decades throughout the world. Of the thousands of manufactured chemicals, it is estimated that over 1000 (!) may have endocrine-acting properties (1).
In females, EDCs have been linked to subfertility, infertility, improper hormone production and menstrual cycle abnormalities (1). Research suggests EDCs may play a role in the seemingly overwhelming burden of hormone-related diseases (1).
In males, EDCs have been linked by numerous studies to the massive drop in sperm count (62%) and reduced testosterone level (25%) that has been seen in the last few decades (3).
Some well-known examples of EDCs include:
- Bisphenol A (BPA): BPA is a synthetic compound used in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. It is commonly found in food and beverage containers, as well as some thermal paper receipts (never touch receipts!). BPA can leach from these products, leading to human exposure. BPA is known to have oestrogenic activity, which means it can mimic the hormone oestrogen and disrupt the endocrine system.
- Phthalates: Phthalates are a group of chemicals used as plasticisers to increase the flexibility, transparency, and durability of plastics, particularly polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They are found in various consumer products, including toys, food packaging, and personal care products. Phthalates have been associated with reproductive toxicity and hormonal disruption.
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): PCBs are a group of synthetic chemicals that were once widely used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment. Although their production has been banned in many countries since the 1970s, they persist in the environment due to their resistance to degradation. PCBs can accumulate in the food chain, leading to human exposure. They have been linked to endocrine disruption, particularly affecting thyroid hormone function.
Lessons From the Climate Crisis
We’ve known of the dangers to human health from endocrine disrupters for decades yet our response has been paltry and consumer awareness remains low (1). This is reminiscent of the climate crisis that was known to be a threat in 1970s but similarly took decades to make it into mass awareness. Here are some of the commonalities between these global threats:
A History of Ignored Warnings
- Early awareness: Just as we have known about the potential dangers of global warming since the 1970s, researchers have been warning about the potential health impacts of endocrine disruptors for decades. Despite these early warnings, insufficient action has been taken to address both problems, leading to a worsening of their consequences.
- Industry influence and disinformation: In both cases, powerful industries have played a role in downplaying the risks associated with their products or activities. Fossil fuel companies have funded disinformation campaigns to undermine climate science, while chemical manufacturers have often downplayed the health risks associated with endocrine disruptors (4). These tactics have contributed to the delayed response to both issues.
- Fragmented policy responses: The regulatory measures taken to address both the climate crisis and endocrine disruptors have often been piecemeal and insufficient. This fragmented approach has made it difficult to enact comprehensive policies that could effectively mitigate the threats posed by these issues.
Consequences of Inaction
- Worsening health and environmental impacts: The delayed response to both endocrine disruptors and the climate crisis has led to a worsening of their consequences. The health impacts of endocrine disruptors, including developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune system problems, have become more pronounced. Meanwhile, the climate crisis has led to more frequent and severe weather events, ecosystem disruptions, and other negative effects (5).
- Intergenerational injustice: In both cases, the consequences of inaction disproportionately affect younger and future generations. Exposure to endocrine disruptors during development can have lifelong impacts on health, while the climate crisis threatens the long-term stability of ecosystems and human societies.
The Need for Urgency and Comprehensive Action
- Preventive measures: Addressing the threats posed by endocrine disruptors and the climate crisis requires taking preventive measures now to minimise future harm. For endocrine disruptors, this means enacting stricter regulations on chemical production, use, and disposal. For the climate crisis, this requires a rapid transition to renewable energy sources, increased energy efficiency, and other measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (5).
- Adaptation and mitigation: Both endocrine disruptors and the climate crisis necessitate adaptation and mitigation efforts. For endocrine disruptors, this includes developing safer alternatives and implementing strategies to reduce exposure (1). For the climate crisis, adaptation involves preparing for the impacts of climate change (e.g., improving infrastructure, developing early warning systems), while mitigation includes efforts to capture and store greenhouse gases (5).
The pervasive use of endocrine disruptors and the climate crisis share a common history of ignored warnings, powerful industry influences, and insufficient action. By recognising these parallels, we can better understand the need for urgent and comprehensive action to protect human health and the environment from these growing threats.
It is our collective responsibility to protect the planet for future generations.
Steps to Avoid EDCs
It is virtually impossible to avoid exposure to EDCs in our current environment. However here are some practical steps you can take to minimise it.
- Limit plastic use: Many plastics contain chemicals that can leach into food and drinks. Opt for glass, ceramic, or stainless steel containers when possible. Don’t store or heat any food or drink in plastic!
- Avoid artificial fragrances: Don’t use artificial fragrances around the home. (Get rid of those nauseating and toxic reed diffusers please!)
- Choose organic food when possible: Conventional produce may be treated with pesticides, some of which can act as endocrine disruptors. Organic food is typically grown without these chemicals.
- Check cosmetics and personal care products: Some cosmetics, lotions, and shampoos contain parabens, phthalates, and other potential endocrine disruptors. Look for products labeled as “paraben-free” or “phthalate-free,” or check product ingredients on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Database.
- Use safer cleaning products: Some cleaning products contain EDCs. Look for products that are labeled as eco-friendly.
- Avoid receipts: Many thermal paper receipts are coated with BPA. If you don’t need a receipt, don’t take one. If you do, try not to handle it more than necessary and wash your hands afterward.
If you have thoughts on the above I’d love to hear from you in the comments. If you’re a founder or investor in the space I’d love to chat with you. You can find my contact details here. I work with a number of companies as a medical advisor.
- Yilmaz B, Terekeci H, Sandal S, Kelestimur F. Endocrine disrupting chemicals: exposure, effects on human health, mechanism of action, models for testing and strategies for prevention. Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 2020 Mar;21(1):127–147. doi: 10.1007/s11154–019–09521-z. PMID: 31792807.
- State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 2012 Summary for Decision-Makers, WHO. Report
- Jeng HA. Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals and male reproductive health. Front Public Health. 2014 Jun 5;2:55. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2014.00055. PMID: 24926476; PMCID: PMC4046332.
- America Misled. How the fossil fuel industry deliberately misled Americans about climate change. Report
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (20 March 2023)