Endocrine Disruptors and Human Health-Is There a Problem? an Update

By Safe, Stephen H. | Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Endocrine Disruptors and Human Health-Is There a Problem? an Update


Safe, Stephen H., Environmental Health Perspectives


It has been hypothesized that environmental exposure to synthetic estrogenic chemicals and related endocrine-active compounds may be responsible for a global decrease in sperm counts, decreased male reproductive capacity, and breast cancer in women. Results of recent studies show that there are large demographic variations in sperm counts within countries or regions, and analyses of North American data show that sperm counts have not decreased over the last 60 years. Analyses of records for hypospadias and cryptorchidism also show demographic differences in these disorders before 1985; however, since 1985 rates of hypospadias have not changed and cryptorchidism has actually declined. Temporal changes in sex ratios and fertility are minimal, whereas testicular cancer is increasing in most countries; however, in Scandinavia, the difference between high (Denmark) and low (Finland) incidence areas are not well understood and are unlikely to be correlated with differences in exposure to synthetic industrial chemicals. Results from studies on organochlorine contaminants (DDE/PCB) show that levels were not significantly different in breast cancer patients versus controls. Thus, many of the male and female reproductive tract problems linked to the endocrine-disruptor hypothesis have not increased and are not correlated with synthetic industrial contaminants. This does not exclude an endocrine-etiology for some adverse environmental effects or human problems associated with high exposures to some chemicals. Key words: endocrine disruptors, human health, sperm counts, xenoestrogens. Environ Health Perspect 108:487-493 (2000). [Online 12 April 2000]

http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/2000/108p487-493safe/abstract.html

In 1993, Colborn et al. (1) pointed out that large amounts of industrial-derived endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been released into the environment since world War II, and they hypothesized that prenatal or early postnatal exposure to these compounds could result in permanent and irreversible damage to wildlife and humans. Several studies on wildlife populations have documented adverse effects that correlate with exposure to one or more putative endocrine-disrupting chemicals (2-9); however, in many instances it is difficult to assign causality because of the complexity of environmental contaminants and the lack of analytical data that document contaminant levels during critical windows of exposure. Nevertheless, there have been several incidents in wildlife populations that strongly correlate with exposure to specific industrial chemicals; this includes alligators in Lake Apopka, Florida, exposed to a spill of organochlorine pesticides from a chemical waste site (5,8,9). The alligators display a host of morphologic and hormonally related abnormalities of the male and female reproductive tracts, including reduced penis size in males. This reduced penis size in male alligators (5,8,9) and a report (10) which suggested that sperm counts had decreased globally (from 113 x [10.sup.6] to 66 x [10.sup.6]/mL) during 1938-1990 generated considerable public, media, regulatory, and scientific concern about the possible role of environmental exposures to endocrine disruptors and their role in decreased male reproductive capacity and breast cancer in women. In 1995, I critically reviewed the endocrine-disruptor hypothesis; based on the available data, I was highly skeptical about the causal linkage between exposure to environmental (industrial-derived) endocrine disruptors and adverse human health effects (11). Some of this skepticism was related to the relatively low levels of exposure to synthetic endocrine disruptors, particularly those with estrogenic activity (xenoestrogens), as compared to high dietary concentrations of naturally occurring endocrine-active compounds in fruits and vegetables and their derived food products. Since 1995, the endocrine-disruptor hypothesis has spurred new scientific studies that address several relevant issues, and I will highlight and discuss these in this paper. …

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