I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by having to look sceptically at so many products – from foods and personal care items to furnishings when choosing them for myself and Isabella. You can’t help but wonder if chemicals were such a problem, surely there would be huge issues around the world right now, whereas people seem to be surviving just fine whilst still using all these toxic products in their everyday lives. So why am I in a spin about the cumulative exposure to toxins that others seem to be consuming and apparently thriving on quite well?
The World Health Organisation has published a report which concludes that the world isn’t doing as well as it would seem. Infertility, cancers, reproductive malformations, impaired thyroid and brain function, obesity and impaired metabolism are on the rise and emerging scientific evidence is pointing to our exposure to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) as one of the causes.
Over my next few posts I’m going to give you a summary of the latest research findings in as bite sized chunks as possible. My source is a 300 page World Health Organisation report. Once I’ve covered why and how these chemicals are a problem, I’ll move onto posts of how to reduce your exposure to them in everyday life.
What are these chemicals?
The chemicals I’m referring to are man-made industrial chemicals which fall into a group called Endocrine Disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These mimic or interact with hormones in the body or their receptors. Hormones and their signals are critical to the normal functioning of every tissue and organ in the body. Effects on these systems can lead to obesity, infertility, learning and memory difficulties, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as a variety of other diseases.
What are these EDCs?
There are close to 800 of these EDCs and they are present in things we use everyday: personal care products, cosmetics, plastics, textiles, food additives and contaminants, pesticides, metals, pharmaceuticals and construction materials. BPA and phthalates which we have discussed previously are EDCs.
How are we exposed to them?
Exposure to EDCs occur through food, dust and water, the inhaling of gases and particles in the air and from skin contact. Children are more exposed to these chemicals compared with adults as they have increased hand-to-mouth activity and a higher metabolic rate. EDCs can also be transferred from a pregnant mother to her developing baby through the placenta and are also transmitted through breastmilk.
Doesn’t the dose make the poison?
Previously it has been believed that if the dose of any chemical was small enough, there was a level at which it wouldn’t cause harm. Unfortunately with EDCs this safe level doesn’t exist. This is because EDCs act in a huge variety of ways and they can have an additive effect with our own hormones and each other. This means that exposure to a range of these chemicals at low levels has the same effect as exposure to one chemical at a higher level.
Are children more at risk?
EDCs are thought to have a bigger impact when exposure occurs at certain developmental stages of life such as fetal development and puberty. Exposure when a tissue is developing can cause permanent changes that lead to increased incidence of diseases throughout life, even though they are not evident as birth defects. So for a baby, exposure can lead to irreversible effects whereas the effects of adult exposure seem to go away when the EDC is removed.
Some tissues such as the brain and the reproductive system continue developing for decades after birth. When a tissue is developing, it is more sensitive to the action of hormones and thus EDCs. So reducing EDC exposure from the womb all the way to the teenage years is particularly important.
Scientific evidence from both human and animal studies support that exposure to EDCs during fetal development and puberty plays a role in the increased incidences of reproductive diseases, endocrine-related cancers, behavioural and learning problems, infections, asthma, and perhaps obesity and diabetes in humans.
Chemicals with endocrine disrupting properties are linked to disease in scientific lab studies. How have the effects of EDC exposure been shown on a world wide scale?
- Endocrine related disorders are on the increase in both humans and wildlife.
- Global rates of endocrine-related cancers (breast, endometrial, ovarian, prostate, testicular and thyroid) have been increasing over the past 40–50 years. (Testicular cancer rates have increased by 400% in some countries!)
- Up to 40% of young men in some countries have low semen quality and it has been decreasing for the past half century. Apparently the average young Scandinavian male has more than 90% abnormal sperm!
- The incidence of genital malformations, such as non-descending testes and penile malformations in baby boys has increased over time.
- Preterm birth and low birth weight has increased in many countries.
- Neuro-behavioural disorders associated with thyroid disruption affect a high proportion of children and have been increasing.
- Breast development is occurring earlier in young girls which is a risk factor for breast cancer.
- Obesity and type 2 diabetes have dramatically increased worldwide over the last 40 years.
We live in a world in which man-made chemicals have become a part of everyday life. Research is showing that these diseases and disorders are occurring at our current levels of exposure to EDCs. A pretty confronting reality to accept! The last thing we want is for things we use in everyday life to have the ability to lead to harmful effects for us and our children!
Why isn’t something being done about it?
Over the last 10 years, it has been established that endocrine disruptors can work together to produce additive effects, even when combined at low doses that individually do not produce observable effects. This means that is has been very difficult to study direct cause and effect relationships and so science has had to wait until now, when there is enough evidence.
We know of about 800 EDCs, however the problem is that most chemicals in current commercial use have not been tested at all! Until a proper testing strategy is worked out, a government could ban one EDC only for it to be replaced by another in the same product. Commercial industries are very powerful and obviously don’t want their products banned or to have to put in huge funds for research to change formulations, so they oppose the science with all their might. It’s been likened to the cigarette and cancer link denial all over again.
What can I do to reduce my, my baby’s and my family’s chemical exposure?
At the moment, the only thing we can do is to educate ourselves and make sure we choose products carefully. Every move we make towards decreasing ours and our baby’s cumulative exposure to chemicals is an important one. To kick start you on your journey, I’ve written a guide of ‘9 Easy Ways To Reduce Your Chemical Exposure At Home’ which you get as a bonus when you sign up to my newsletter.
I often find I have to remind myself of Maya Angelou’s quote “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” All we can do is to try our best. Every little change we can make is a victory and makes a big difference when you look at cumulative exposure over time. I too am just at the beginning of this journey and feel thoroughly confronted by the task ahead! But the science is there, so I feel blessed to be finding out about it now rather than later! Knowledge is power and I know that every little thing that I can do to reduce my family’s chemical exposure today counts.
So join me on my journey as I identify the EDCs in everyday products and give tips and alternatives, so that we can all keep moving in a healthier direction together.