Last updated: Aug 24, 2009
environmental-hormones
Kareem Iliya

You never took the Pill or HRT? That doesnt mean your hormones cant be affected by endocrine disruptors. The chemicals are in what you eat and drink, the air you breathe, and products you use, says Nena Baker, author of The Body Toxic.


Studies link endocrine disruptors to everything from infertility in women and lower sperm counts in men to obesity. Pregnant women are of concern because chemicals passed from mother to child may have an impact on the endocrine system, says R. Thomas Zoeller, PhD, a spokesman for The Endocrine Society and a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Here, the lowdown on where some endocrine disruptors may be hiding.

Tap water
Pesticides and herbicides can seep into the drinking supply through groundwater, and many of them mimic or interfere with estrogen in the body. One of the biggest potential threats is a herbicide called atrazine. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says its safe for people to ingest drinking water at levels of 3 parts per billion, some scientists think this “safe” level is way too high. While they duke it out, buy a pitcher, or an under-the-sink or a faucet-mounted carbon-based filter that nabs atrazine.

Smelly stuff
The chemicals behind those fresh and flowery smells in many household cleaners, air fresheners, and body soaps and lotions often belong to a class of endocrine disruptors called phthalates. Phthalates are so ubiquitous—more than 1 billion tons are made worldwide each year—theyre present in the blood of up to 97 percent of Americans. Studies link phthalate exposure to hormone disruption, particularly genital abnormalities of baby boys whose moms were exposed, and lower sperm counts in men. Many major cosmetics companies are phasing out phthalates; to find out if theyre in your favorite products, visit CosmeticsDatabase.com.



Polycarbonates
Once researched as a synthetic estrogen, bisphenol A (BPA) found a second job as a building block of hard plastics. Today, 6 billion pounds of BPA are made annually, and the stuff appears in the blood of 93 percent of Americans ages 6 and up.

Why worry about BPA in plastics? “Its the only molecule I know of that binds to the three major classes of hormone receptors: androgens, estrogens, and thyroid,” Zoeller says. And it doesnt take much to send body levels soaring. In a recent study, BPA in the urine of Harvard students who drank from polycarbonate Nalgene bottles for one week skyrocketed 69 percent. (Nalgene started phasing BPA out of its hard-plastic containers in April 2008.)

While the American Chemistry Council says BPA poses “no known risk to human health,” others in the know beg to differ. “Hormones work in the body on the order of parts per trillion, so you dont have to have a particularly large exposure to environmental estrogens for them to have an effect,” says Renee Sharp, a biologist with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.–based watchdog group.

To protect yourself, dont put plastics in the microwave or the dishwasher; high temps up the odds of chemicals getting into your food. Better yet, replace plastics with glass or ceramic containers. And because babies and toddlers are at greatest risk of exposure and are most vulnerable to its effects, buy only BPA-free baby bottles, sippy cups, and formula packaging.

Meat
Some experts suspect certain chemicals—particularly hormones in meat—of contributing to earlier puberty in girls. “Im worried about cattle being injected with estrogen. When you eat those kinds of hormones, the body can absorb them,” says Andrea Gore, PhD, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Texas at Austin. If you have limited funds to spend on organic or hormone-free foods, consider putting meat tops on your list.