You probably have some inkling that the chemicals in plastics, pesticides, cleaning solutions, and other everyday products are bad for you—but just how bad are they? Can they really cause tumors, obesity, birth defects, and developmental disorders as many watchdog organizations attest? The fact that these toxins, known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), are everywhere is nightmarish enough. But nothing sells papers like a bad dream, so every few years the media picks up on a particularly frightening example—and mass hysteria ensues.
Perhaps you remember the scare surrounding dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), an insecticide banned in 1972 for being harmful not only to bugs, but also nearly every other living thing on the planet. More recently, you might have heard about bisphenol A (BPA)—a cancerous compound found in many plastics and can linings—or the controversies surrounding mercury in deep-sea fish and Lord-knows-what in drinking water. Such scares are usually short lived though—as soon as a politician says something hair-brained or a Kardashian embarrasses herself on video, the EDC nightmare of the moment fades into the background. But it doesn’t go away. Indeed, it often gets worse.
Testament to this fact is the Endocrine Society’s recently released “Second Scientific Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals”—a compendium of EDC horror stories so terrifying that it might cause you not to leave your house, were it not for the fact that your house is every bit as toxic as anything else.
Okay, so perhaps I exaggerate. But still, the Endocrine Society’s statement pulls no punches. Based on solid science and an impressive collection of clinical and epidemiological research, it points out that we have a serious, poorly-regulated problem on our hands thanks to a critical mass of insecticides, pesticides, plastics, cosmetics, cleaning products, solvents, and endless other chemicals messing with our hormones and potentially causing everything from obesity to cancer.
What’s an endocrine-disrupting chemical?
Your endocrine system is made up of a series of glands that produce hormones, which are chemical messengers that travel through your body to regulate various bodily functions, including metabolism, mood, and sex drive. They do this by attaching to receptors on cells and activating a specific response. Testosterone, estrogen, adrenaline, and insulin are all well-known hormones.
EDCs mimic hormones in that they also attach to receptors. Unfortunately, they just block them without delivering the right messages. Since you have a finite amount of receptors, this can be a problem. Think of EDCs as spam that takes up all the space in your physiological email server so that pertinent emails can’t get through.
Take phthalates—chemicals added to plastics, including many toys and some food and beverage containers, to make them more flexible and durable. Since phthalates don’t actually bind chemically to plastic, it’s easy for them to leach into the environment, not to mention your lunch or your child’s juice should either of you unwittingly eat or drink from phthalate-laced products. (In case you’re wondering, the Beachbody Portion Control Container Kit is phthalate-free, so feel free to give our color-coded system to your kids as building blocks.)
While phthalates are useful in assuring little Jimmy doesn’t accidentally snap his Maximum Jack action figure in two on Christmas morning, studies have linked them to reduced testosterone. Reduced testosterone, in turn, is associated with a host of issues beyond the, ahem, obvious one, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, according to a study in the journal Diabetes Care. And according to the Endocrine Society’s statement, “a plethora of examples is emerging for increased disease susceptibility later in life as a function of developmental exposures to EDCs that include BPA, phthalates, PCBs, pesticides, dioxins, and tributyltin (TBT), among others.”
If you’re still focusing on that “obesity” thing, the Endocrine Society’s report devotes some major real estate to the EDC/obesity link, going so far as to propose a whole subclass of “obesogens,” or EDCs that may be specifically linked to severe weight gain. So plastic can make you fat. Go figure.
What can you do?
The Endocrine Society’s statement strongly recommends that EDCs and their impact be heavily researched, but given that the government is fairly lax in regulating these chemicals, exposure is a fact of modern life.
With this in mind, your best bet is to take control of the situation by educating yourself about EDCs and learning how to minimize your exposure. The Endocrine Society’s 150-page statement may be a lot to chew on, so you can start with more easily digestible information such as the Hormone Health Network’s Scientific Statement on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals.
Once you’re all knowledged-up, you’ll probably want to actively avoid EDCs. Reducing your exposure is particularly important if you’re pregnant or have young children, whose developing bodies are especially susceptible. Eating fresh (preferably organic) produce and reducing your animal product intake are both smart ideas. (Note: I’m not suggesting you stop eating meat—just dial it back a little.) There are also cleanses and detoxes that claim to help clear toxins from your system, such as Beachbody’s Ultimate Reset. Are these products effective? Honestly, you can’t completely purge a lifetime of chemicals in a few weeks. What’s more, you’ll just reintroduce them to your system if you resume old habits. But don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong advocate of these programs. Learning a few holistic practices, including how to restructure your diet to be healthier, is a great way to start removing EDCs from your life, especially if you’re new to “clean” eating. Avoiding EDCs can be a major lifestyle overhaul, but diet is the foundation.
According to the New York Times, only a fraction of the more than 80,000 chemicals in existence today—EDCs or otherwise—have been tested for safety. There’s no way to live completely off the EDC grid, so there’s no point in stressing out. But it doesn’t hurt to learn as much as you can, and do what you can to limit them in your life.