Diet & LifestyleHealth

12 Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals & How to Avoid Them

Your body is run by a network of hormones and glands that regulate everything you do. This system, the endocrine system, helps control mood, growth, and development, the way our organs work, metabolism, and reproduction.

The bad news, however, is that this system is incredibly sensitive to outside influences. Synthetic chemicals in products like plastic, fragrance, household chemicals, or even the pesticides on food can influence the way your hormones function.

The unfortunate reality is that we’re exposed to these chemicals daily, and unless we’re aware of the products causing the harm, then our endocrine system is under constant attack.

What is the Endocrine System?

The endocrine system is a system of different glands in the body that produce and secrete hormones that the body uses to control the following functions (1)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health:

  • Respiration
  • Metabolism
  • Reproduction
  • Sensory perception
  • Movement
  • Sexual development
  • Growth

Hormones produced by these glands are sent to the bloodstream to be further processed by different tissues in the body to tell them what to do.

Some of the main hormone-producing organs in the body include:

  • Hypothalamus: tries to keep the body in a constant state of homeostasis. It controls body temperature, thirst, appetite, weight, emotions, sleep cycles, sex drive, blood pressure, and heart rate.
  • Pineal gland: regulates the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that is best known for its role in regulating circadian rhythms.
  • Pituitary gland: considered the “master control gland”, controlling the function of most other endocrine glands that trigger growth.
  • Thyroid gland: produces hormones associated with metabolism, energy generation, and mood.
  • Parathyroid gland: helps control calcium metabolism, which determines how strong and dense the bones are.
  • Adrenal gland: produces hormones that help regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress, and other essential functions.
  • Pancreas: produces insulin that helps control carbohydrate metabolism, thus regulating blood sugar levels.
  • Ovaries: in women, the ovaries secrete female sex hormones: estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.
  • Testes: in men, the testes secrete the male sex hormones, testosterone, and produce sperm.

Hormone production is very tightly regulated and can be easily disturbed by endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

What Are Endocrine Disruptors?

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are chemicals or mixtures of chemicals that interfere with the way the body’s hormones work.

These endocrine disruptors are linked with developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems.

These chemicals can influence the way our body functions by (2):

  • increasing the production of certain hormones and decreasing the production of others
  • imitating hormones
  • interfering with hormone signaling
  • turning one hormone into another
  • telling cells to die prematurely
  • competing with essential nutrients
  • binding to essential hormones
  • accumulating in organs that produce hormones

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can interfere with any and all hormone functions in the body, which is why they have been linked to adverse human health effects like (3):

  • Endometriosis
  • Abnormalities in sex organs
  • Early puberty
  • Altered nervous system function and immune function
  • Certain cancers
  • Respiratory problems
  • Metabolic issues
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Growth
  • Neurological and learning disabilities

These chemicals are particularly concerning during fetal development and childhood since there are periods during these early stages that regulate the formation and maturation of organs.

Early-life exposures to these chemicals have been linked to developmental abnormalities and may increase the risk of a variety of diseases as individuals mature into adulthood (4)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

12 Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

The unfortunate reality is that hormone-altering chemicals are everywhere in our environment. They’re in the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe.

Scientists over at the Environmental Working Group curated a list of 12 of the most common endocrine-disrupting chemicals you should avoid at all costs. Here is how they affect your body:

1. Bisphenol A (BPA)

Bisphenol A or BPA is one chemical you’ve likely heard over the years as one to avoid.

BPA is the building block of polycarbonate plastic often used to make food and beverage storage containers. It is also used in epoxy resins and thermal cash register receipts (5)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health

Studies have shown that this chemical leaches from these and other products in contact with food and drink. As a result, these chemicals enter the body where they start instigating various health issues.

This chemical imitates the sex hormone estrogen, tricking the body into thinking it’s the real thing. It has been linked to breast and prostate cancer, reproductive problems like PCOS, early puberty, obesity, and even cardiovascular disease (6)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

According to certain government tests, over 93% of Americans have BPA in their bodies.

2. Dioxin

Dioxins are mainly by-products of industrial processes when chlorine or bromine are burned in the presence of carbon and oxygen. 

These chemicals can disrupt the delicate balance of male and female sex hormone signaling. They are particularly harmful during prenatal and early-life development where they can permanently affect sperm quality and lower sperm count later in life (7)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

These chemicals are long-lived, meaning they build up in the body and food chain over time. Long-term exposure has been linked to impairment of the immune system and the developing nervous system. They’re also highly toxic and can cause cancer.

3. Atrazine

Atrazine is a herbicide that is used on a majority of the corn crops in the United States. As a result, atrazine-laced runoff from farm fields pollutes streams, rivers, and groundwater, which many depend on for drinking water. 

Atrazine is considered a pervasive contaminant as it resists degradation from heat and sunlight. This means that it persists in the environment for a very long time

Atrazine is well known for its feminization of male frogs (8). Even low levels of the herbicide can turn male frogs into females that produce completely viable eggs. 

Research suggests that atrazine acts by suppressing a hormone called luteinizing hormone (LH), which increases the production of estrogen and prolactin in females and changes testosterone levels in males (8)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health

This herbicide has also been linked to breast tumours (9)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, delayed puberty (10)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, and prostate inflammation in animals (11).

4. Phthalates

Phthalates are used in the production of plastics to make them more flexible. They’re also found in some food packaging, cosmetics, children’s toys, and medical devices. 

These chemicals trigger what’s known as “death-inducing signaling” in testicular cells, which means that it makes them die earlier than they should (12)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health

In addition, studies have linked phthalates to major reproductive damage including birth defects, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm and hormonal changes (13)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health. They have also been linked to obesity (14)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, diabetes (15)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, and thyroid irregularities (16)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health

Some companies use phthalates in their products to make them stick to your body for longer. Things like fragrance (perfumes), hair gels and nail polishes all contain phthalates.

Manufacturers use phthalates because they cling to the skin and nails to give perfumes, hair gels, and nail polishes more staying power. They’re also used in vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, and plastic clothes like raincoats.

5. Perchlorate

Perchlorate is a manufactured chemical that is most commonly used in rocket fuel. It can be found in munitions, fireworks, explosives, airbag initiators for vehicles, matches, signal flares, fertilizers, chlorine cleaners, and pool chlorination chemicals.

Perchlorate dissolves easily, so it often contaminates the food we eat and the water we drink.

Perchlorate inhibits iodine uptake in the body, an essential mineral required for proper thyroid function. This chemical, therefore, reduces thyroid hormone production (17)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health

The thyroid regulates metabolism, growth and development in the body, so if your thyroid hormones are being modified by this chemical, then you’ll experience serious metabolic dysfunction.

6. Fire retardants

Flame retardants have been around for quite some time. They’re used in mattresses, upholstered furniture, foam cushions, baby car seats, insulation, and electronics. 

While much of the extremely toxic flame retardants have been discontinued in the US, they have been replaced by poor alternatives that continue to affect the health of many. 

These chemicals are incredibly persistent and continue to bio-accumulate in humans and wildlife around the globe. 

Animal studies have shown that certain fire retardants can mimic thyroid hormones and disrupt their activity (18). They have also been linked to cancer (19), and attention and IQ deficits in children (20)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

7. Lead

It has been well established that lead is toxic, especially to children. But it is still widely used in some products that people expose themselves to every day. 

Things like paint in older homes and apartments, household dust, water pipes, imported canned food and candies, cheap toys, some cosmetics, and vehicle batteries may all contain some concentration of lead.  

Lead harms almost every organ system in the body. It has been linked to permanent brain damage (21)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, lowered IQ (22)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, hearing loss (23)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, miscarriage (24)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, premature birth (25)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, increased blood pressure (26)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, kidney damage (27)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health and nervous system problems (28)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health

Research also indicates that lead can disrupt the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, the system that regulates our stress response (29)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health. Not being able to properly regulate your stress response can become problematic, especially since this system is implicated in high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, and depression.

8. Arsenic

Arsenic is a nasty chemical, which when exposed to in high enough amounts, can prove fatal. 

In smaller amounts, arsenic can cause skin, bladder, and lung cancer (30)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

The bad news? Most of our water and food is contaminated with it.

Researchers have recently found that arsenic also disrupts our endocrine system by interfering with the function of the glucocorticoid receptor, a steroid hormone receptor that regulates a wide range of biological processes (31). Disrupting this system has been linked to weight gain/loss, protein wasting, immunosuppression, insulin resistance, osteoporosis, growth retardation, and high blood pressure.

9. Mercury

Mercury, a highly toxic heavy metal, ends up in the air and oceans primarily through the burning of coal, oil, and wood. 

This endocrine disruptor mimics estrogen’s effects so much so that it can feminize males and suppress fertility in females. 

The most at-risk group of those who suffer from the toxic effects of mercury poisoning are pregnant women since the metal can concentrate in the fetal brain and interfere with brain development (32)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

Mercury has also been found to bind directly to particular hormones that regulate women’s menstrual cycle and ovulation (33)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

10. Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)

Perfluorinated chemicals or PFCs are stain, water and grease repellent chemicals found in products like waterproof gear, fast food containers and popcorn bag linings. They’re the same chemicals used for non-stick cookware.

The bad news? These chemicals stick to you too.

PFCs are so persistent that it is estimated that over 99% of Americans have these chemicals present in their bodies.

Studies have found associations between PFCs and reduced female fertility and sperm quality (34)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, reduced birth weight (35)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (36)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, increased total and non-HDL (bad) cholesterol levels (37)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health, and changes in thyroid hormone levels (38)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

What’s particularly concerning here is that certain PFCs like PFOAs don’t break down in the environment – ever. So it will show up in the bodies of humans for generations to come.

11. Organophosphate pesticides

Organophosphate pesticides are a type of pesticide that works by damaging an enzyme in the body called acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme is necessary for controlling nerve signals in the body. Without it, our nervous system can run amock.

While these pesticides were originally designed to target the nervous system of unwanted pests on certain agricultural crops, their deleterious effects also happen to trigger unwanted side effects in humans, too.

Studies have found links between these pesticides and the way they affect the human body like interfering with the way testosterone communicates with cells, lowering testosterone (39)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health and altering thyroid hormone levels (40)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

Organophosphate pesticides have also been found to negatively affect brain development and behavior, particularly when exposed prenatally (41)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

12. Glycol Ethers

Glycol ethers are often used as solvents and as an ingredient in cleaning compounds, liquid soaps, brake fluid, and cosmetics. They’re commonly used in glass cleaners, carpet cleaners, floor cleaners, and oven cleaners.

They’re terrible for our hormones, too. Studies have found that glycol ether exposure is linked to low motile sperm count in men (42)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health and can trigger asthma and allergies in those exposed to the chemical from paint in rooms in and around the house (43)✓ Trusted ResourcePubMed CentralHighly respected database from the National Institutes of Health.

How to Avoid Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

The number of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our environment increases exponentially every day. This is why it is becoming increasingly important to learn ways of avoiding them when and where we can.

To make things easier, I’ll outline the Dirty Dozen endocrine disruptors above and how you can reduce your exposure to them below:

  1. Bisphenol A (BPA): instead of purchasing canned food, go for fresh or frozen. Most cans that store food is lined with BPA. Unless noted on the can that it is “BPA-Free”, don’t trust it – or research the company before buying.

    Try to avoid receipts if you can, since thermal paper is often coated with BPA.

    When purchasing plastic, avoid those marked with a “PC,” for polycarbonate, or recycling label #7.

    Also, never put plastic containers into the microwave to heat up food. The plastics from the container, especially chemicals like BPA, will leach into your food and upon consumption, enter your body.

  2. Dioxin: dioxins are found rampantly in most animal foods. One of the best ways of avoiding them are by adopting a diet that focuses mainly on plant-based foods. Products like meat, fish, milk, eggs, and butter are most likely to be contaminated.

    Since some pesticides and herbicides contain the chemical, it is advised to eat organic when you can. If you can’t afford all organic, avoid items with the highest number of pesticide residues, or purchase them organic. For other produce items that aren’t sprayed as often or as much, it’s okay to purchase them in conventional form. That way, you’ll avoid a huge percentage of nasty chemicals, while still being easy on your wallet.

    Another thing you can do is when cleaning, avoid chlorine bleach. It forms dioxin after contact with organic compounds.

  3. Atrazine: one of the simplest ways of avoiding atrazine is by investing in a high-quality water filter like the Berkey. Buying organic produce is also wise, as the herbicide is rampant in conventional agriculture.
  4. Phthalates: try to limit your exposure to plastics, especially those labeled with numbers 3 or 7 on them. Instead of plastic, you can use glass, ceramic, or stainless steel containers for food and drink.

    Avoid cheap children’s toys imported from countries where phthalates are not already banned for use in kids’ products.

    Some personal care products also contain phthalates, so read the labels and avoid products that list “fragrance” as an ingredient. Fragrance can be made up of a long list of over 3,000 chemicals, many of which contain phthalates.

  5. Perchlorate: you can reduce perchlorate in your drinking water by installing a reverse osmosis filter. It is nearly impossible to avoid perchlorate in food entirely, so it is advised to ensure you get enough iodine in your diet. Seaweed products like kelp, dulse, and nori are a great source of iodine.
  6. Fire retardants: most products in our home contain fire retardants, so it is impossible to avoid them entirely.

    One thing you can do, however, is invest in a high-quality air filter like the Intellipure. The Intellipure cleans the air 40 times more efficiently than standard HEPA air filters and the patented DFS (Disinfecting Filtration System) technology removes 99.99% of harmful viruses, fungi, molds, and bacteria, leaving nothing but fresh, pure, healthy air.

    Other options are using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, which can cut down on toxic dust, avoid reupholstering foam furniture, and being careful when replacing old carpet.

  7. Lead: avoiding lead can be as simple as keeping your home clean and well maintained. If you live in an older house and you notice the paint is crumbling, make sure to dispose of it carefully.

    Investing in a good water filter, like the Berkey, would also be wise to avoid lead contamination from old water pipes (especially important if you live in an older house).

    Studies have also found that those who eat healthier absorb less lead from their diets overall.

  8. Arsenic: to avoid arsenic from entering your body, make sure your water isn’t contaminated. If it is, filter accordingly.

    Rice also happens to be one food that is particularly high in arsenic. To avoid it, you should rinse and soak your rice before cooking in more water. You can also opt for rice from companies like Lundberg who routinely test their rice and maintain “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” levels of arsenic in their products.

  9. Mercury: most of the mercury that enters our bodies comes from seafood. If you must consume seafood, make sure you choose wild-caught Alaskan salmon, Atlantic mackerel, or Pacific sardines over other high-mercury or low-nutrient farmed fish options.
  10. Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs): avoid non-stick pans like Teflon and other cookware as well as water or stain-resistant coatings on clothing, furniture, and carpets.

    And since most microwaved popcorn bags are lined with PFCs, opt for homemade popcorn on the stove or air-popped instead.

  11. Organophosphate pesticides: one of the only ways to avoid these chemicals is by choosing organic over conventional produce and grocery items. Try growing your own, or checking out a local farmer’s market for cheaper options.
  12. Glycol Ethers: avoid these chemicals by making your own non-toxic cleaners, and avoid products with ingredients like 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol.

You can also include more hormone-balancing foods in your diet to help support a healthy endocrine system like ashwaghanda, maca and avocado.

The Bottom Line

Hormone-disrupting chemicals are found in everything from the food we eat, to the water we drink and the air we breathe. The good news is, however, is that if we take certain precautions, we can stop them from entering our bodies to help protect our endocrine system.

Doing things like avoiding plastics, eating organic and drinking filtered water are just a few of the many ways you can keep these endocrine-disrupting chemicals from harming you and your loved ones.

overweight woman next to thyroid vector with text - the 'dirty dozen' hormone disruptors you absolutely must avoid

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