Recently I gave a lecture at one of my favorite cancer support organizations, the Wellness Place in Palatine. The topic focused on the increasing influence of chemicals in our environment and their effects on health -- especially a group of commonly used chemicals classified as endocrine disrupters.
It has been proposed that these chemicals have a profound effect on many common illnesses including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The data suggests that the increase in these areas corresponds with the increasing level of various endocrine disrupters in our lives.
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The term "endocrine disrupter" entered the scientific literature in the mid-1990s. At that time, some scientists were seeing unusual developmental effects, especially in frogs, salamanders and other aquatic life.
They found increasing numbers of animals with four hind legs, two heads, underdeveloped limbs and changes in gender ratios. These changes were linked to industrial pollution of the water by endocrine disrupters. These discoveries in simpler animals, like amphibians, suggested that these chemicals could also affect, perhaps in other ways, more complex animals like humans.
Endocrine disrupters are commonly found in many everyday items. One common endocrine disrupter is the widely used chemical, bisphenol A. BPA is a very useful chemical that gives modern plastics many of their wonderful properties, especially rigidity. It is found in plastic pipes and bottles and epoxy resins. BPA is also often used to line the inside of the can in canned foods and soft drinks.
BPA can be found in medical and dental devices, dental fillings and sealants, CDs and DVDs, household electronics and eyeglass lenses. It is banned in Canada, the European Union and the U.S. for use in baby bottles because of real concerns of toxicity in children. Interestingly, it is not banned from use in cans of infant formula.
Chronic BPA exposure is associated with obesity, prostate and breast cancer, thyroid problems and studies in mice suggest it may impact female reproductive tract development and future fertility in offspring.
Another common class of endocrine disrupter are phthalates (pronounced thalates). These can be found in toys, cosmetics, food packaging, garden hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, wallcoverings, lubricants, adhesives, detergents, nail polish, hair spray, air fresheners and shampoo.
They are also found in some pharmaceutical medications and dietary supplements. Like BPA, phthalates are believed to increase the risk of obesity, several cancers and low birth weight infants.
In 2008, Congress banned six phthalates from children's toys at concentrations greater than 0.1 percent. This may seem like a low number, but even this amount of phthalate exposure can be significant. Unfortunately, phthalate-laden toys are readily available at major retailers.
It is impossible to avoid these chemicals, but you can limit exposure. Fresh food is better than canned food. Limit canned soda. Buy American since imported toys rarely have the same level of manufacturing regulation. Natural soaps and shampoos are readily available. Organic foods and products contain fewer endocrine disrupter chemicals. An excellent informational resource is the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org).
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is www.alt-med.org.