Ask the Diet Doctor: Are You Taking in More Chemicals than You Think?
What you need to know about scary endocrine disruptors that lurk in everyday products
Q: What exactly are endocrine disruptors? And do I need to worry about chemicals that mimic estrogens like BPA?
A: First, let's do a quick review: Natural estrogens, female sex hormones, are responsible for female sexual development and play an essential role in fertility, pregnancy, and lactation. However, in males and females excess estrogens can cause birth defects, abnormal sexual development, problems with the nervous system and immune system, and even cancer.
Many synthetic chemicals (endocrine disruptors) have estrogen-like activity when absorbed into the body. These environmental estrogens can interfere with the action or production of the natural hormones and disrupt normal processes that are essential to reproductive health, cardiovascular function, and weight control.
More research is necessary on the direct relationship between endocrine disruptors and certain health issues like obesity and infertility, but the associations drawn from past studies are enough to make anyone cautious about their exposure to these chemicals.
Are you at risk? Here's what you what you need to know about three major endocrine disruptors:
BPA is one of the most widely produced chemicals in the world. For years it was included in essentially every plastic water bottle and food container, but growing concerns about the negative health effects led consumers to demand BPA-free plastics, which are now the norm.
But there's a lesser-known source of BPA: The lining of cans for foods such as beans and tomatoes. Some companies like Eden Organics advertise BPA-free canned beans and tomatoes, but the majority of products you'll find at the supermarket are not BPA free.
BPA can act similarly to estrogen in your body while also disrupting thyroid hormone function. BPA has been linked to increased risk of diabetes, obesity, and impaired reproductive function. Plus, increased prenatal exposure to BPA has been tagged as a possible driver of childhood obesity. Fortunately, unlike some endocrine disruptors, BPA is not stored in body fat and it doesn't stay in your body once exposure stops.
Similar to BPA, phthalates are used in plastic and are found in everything from food packaging to shampoo to children's toys. Phthalates are also used to prolong the scent of fragrant cleaners and soaps. Phthalates do not seem to have strong estrogen-like characteristics, but women are generally found to have higher levels of phthalates than men, and elevated levels of phthalate byproducts has been linked to increased body size.
A 2012 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that exposure to phthalates changes how the muscle cells of your heart function, potentially leaving them more susceptible to injury from heart attacks while also disrupting how cardiac cells communicate and work together. Like BPA, once your exposure to phthalates is reduced, phthalate levels in your body will also decline.
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
PCBs belong to a family of more than 200 man-made organic chemicals known as "persistent organic pollutants" because they do not readily break down and therefore may remain for long periods of time cycling between air, water, and soil. PCBs can accumulate in the leaves and above-ground parts of plants and food crops. They're also taken up into the bodies of small organism and fish. As a result, anyone who eats the fish may also be exposed to PCBs. In fact, it is estimated that almost all of our exposure to PCBs is through dairy, meats, and fish (another major contributor is dust).
To limit your exposure while also managing the fat in your diet, choose leaner cuts of meat and trim excess fat whenever possible. Because PCBs accumulate over time, older people generally have higher levels of PCBs in their bodies. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, young people today have lower levels of PCBs than those of previous generations, thanks to the increased efforts to remove PCBs from the environment over the past several decades.
Takeaway: The removal of BPA-containing plastic water bottles from the commercial space is proof that consumer demand has a large impact on the use of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the products we buy. For this reason, raising awareness is a crucial first step.