Hormone-Altering Chemicals in Everyday Products

By McRandle, Paul W. | World Watch, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Hormone-Altering Chemicals in Everyday Products


McRandle, Paul W., World Watch


Androgyny on the fashion runway is one thing, but in the Arctic no one wants to see gender-confused polar bears. Yet according to scientists, one in 67 female polar bears in Svalbard, Norway, has developed a stunted penis. The suspected cause is exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, particularly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Elsewhere, the chemicals have been linked to female mollusks growing penises, fish bearing both sex organs, and reproductive difficulties among mammals. In humans, breast milk contaminated with phthalate plasticizers has been shown to alter hormone levels in three-month-old boys, resulting in "incomplete virilization."

With 966 known or suspected endocrine-disrupting chemicals in existence--and often in the environment--elimination is unlikely. The European Union's new REACH legislation, which requires that manufacturers find substitutes for the most dangerous of the chemicals in consumer products, will allow the compounds to be used under "adequate control" rules (as yet undefined). However, the EU has already banned the use of two phthalates, DBP and DEHP, leading companies such as Estee Lauder and Procter & Gamble to remove them worldwide.

To reduce your exposure, here's where to look:

* Food. Many endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as dioxins, concentrate in animal fats. Also, some freshwater fish and farmed salmon can be high in PCBs. Organochlorine agricultural pesticides can be absorbed by fruit and vegetables. And almost all food cans are lined with plastic that contains bisphenol-A (BPA), which has been linked in animal studies to chromosomal damage in egg cells and embryo death. Better choices: low- and non-fat milk and dairy products, lean meat, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, organic produce, unprocessed foods, and products packaged in antiseptic cartons instead of cans. Check local wildlife advisories before consuming freshwater fish.

* Plastic and Vinyl Products. Dioxins are emitted into the environment during the production and incineration of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products. Many vinyl items, like floor tiles, shower curtains, and children's toys, also contain phthalates. Watch for polycarbonate plastic (in the United States and Europe, recycling code #7), often used in water containers and baby bottles; it can leach BPA. Better choices: baby bottles made of glass or polypropylene (#5); water containers made of HDPE plastic (#2); stainless steel thermoses; cork or natural linoleum floor tiles; toys made of unfinished, solid wood (or coated with linseed, walnut oil, or beeswax). …

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