Endocrine Disruptors Threaten our Reproductive Health
The alarming health threat posed by endocrine-disrupting chemicals including phthalates and bisphenol A was clearly distilled Sunday in a column, It's Time to Learn From Frogs, by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof.
Kristof, who often writes about global conflict, was drawn to the subject after viewing a documentary about polluted waters and the resulting reproductive deformations in frogs, fish and other wildlife living in the ecosystem.
Kristof brilliantly connects these environmental happenings with a similar cause-and-effect playing out in humans.
Endocrine disruptors are found in plastics, cosmetics, food containers, and pesticides – Kristof notes we are even exposed to these chemicals via the large amount of birth control chemicals in the public water system. The health implications are now being found – just as is happening in nature – in the genitals of males.
Now scientists are connecting the dots with evidence of increasing abnormalities among humans, particularly large increases in numbers of genital deformities among newborn boys. For example, up to 7 percent of boys are now born with undescended testicles, although this often self-corrects over time. And up to 1 percent of boys in the United States are now born with hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the penis improperly, such as at the base rather than the tip.
Just as reproductive disorders in amphibians signal a warning to the human world that our ecosystem is out of balance, these genital deformities in newborn boys indicate larger health threats for the general population.
“A lot of these compounds act as weak estrogen, so that’s why developing males — whether smallmouth bass or humans — tend to be more sensitive,” said Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s scary, very scary.”
The scientific case is still far from proven, as chemical companies emphasize, and the uncertainties for humans are vast. But there is accumulating evidence that male sperm count is dropping and that genital abnormalities in newborn boys are increasing. Some studies show correlations between these abnormalities and mothers who have greater exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy, through everything from hair spray to the water they drink.
Kristof points out some of the health implications of endocrine disruptors he found in his research, including:
- Male and female reproductive health
- Endometriosis, a gynecological disorder
- Early puberty in girls
- Insulin resistance and diabetes
- Breast development and cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Thyroid function
- Metabolism and obesity
- Heart health
“The rise in the incidence in obesity,” it added, “matches the rise in the use and distribution of industrial chemicals that may be playing a role in generation of obesity.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is moving toward screening endocrine disrupting chemicals, but at a glacial pace. For now, these chemicals continue to be widely used in agricultural pesticides and industrial compounds. Everybody is exposed.
Kristof wrote in his blog that the EPA must do more to regulate these chemicals. In the meantime, he said, everyone should be very careful about reducing their exposure to phthalates in consumer products.