Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
I was first introduced to the idea that there were chemicals in our environment that were detrimental to fertility many many years ago and I brushed it off as a bit of a hippy thing – I mean, there are groups out there who are terrified of any chemical they can’t pronounce right? People who think if they can’t spell the ingredients they must be bad, without realising that absolutely everything in the world is made from some kind of chemical – including naturally occurring substances – they are chemicals too!
I’ve been kind of paralysed into inactivity by the sheer volume of information about this topic out there and how terrifying it can seem… but I’m going to try to break it down a little bit here into some bite-sized chunks…
What are endocrine disrupting chemicals?
Everything you eat—and smell, and touch, and breathe in—is made up of chemicals. Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are chemicals. So is your beloved caffeine. In fact, if you “took the chemicals” out of your food, there would literally be nothing left. “The most toxic chemicals known are natural venoms and toxins,” says Gordon Gribble, PhD, chemistry professor at Dartmouth College.
But, there is a category of substances found in the air, soil, water, food and in manufactured products that can interfere with the body’s normal functioning, including reproductive systems of women and men – these are known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals or EDCs
The person who first talked to me about EDCs was a young guy who, at the time was doing a PhD at Melbourne University with Professor David Gardner as his supervisor. (now the Scientific advisor at MelbourneIVF).
He came to join us for a beer in a beer garden of a Carlton pub and I had a plastic water bottle with me. He pointed to the plastic water bottle and said – ‘well, you obviously don’t want to have children!’
I brushed it off at the time, read a little bit about it, and carried on my merry way…
Fast forward 10 or 12 years, 5 or 6 miscarriages and 2 children later, I came across this same guy presenting at the Fertility Society of Australia meeting in Melbourne last year (FSA2018 ) and I suddenly had a greater interest in them! Could they have, in fact, have been involved in the years of sub-fertility I had suffered myself? Could they have contributed to the fact that I miscarried as many times as I did? Could they be the key to the reducing fertility rates in the world??
I did some more investigation…
What do we know about EDCs?
(taken directly from the Hormone Health Network website)
EDCs are chemicals or mixtures of chemicals that interfere with the way the body’s hormones work.
Some EDCs act like “hormone mimics” and trick our body into thinking that they are hormones, while other EDCs block natural hormones from doing their job. Other EDCs can increase or decrease the levels of hormones in our blood by affecting how they are made, broken down, or stored in our body. Finally, other EDCs can change how sensitive our bodies are to different hormones.
There are some EDCs that occur naturally in food – soy beans and flax seeds, for example, are high in a substance called phytoestrogen which mimics the effects of the female sex hormone oestrogen – but you would need to consume an awful lot of these foods for the phytoestrogen to affect you.
More concerning is that there are around 800 artificial EDC’s in everyday items such as plastics of food containers, personal care items and food products.
Most people have heard of BPA – mostly because when you buy ANYTHING plastic, it usually has a sticker on it, or a little swing tag that proudly proclaims it to be BPA free… hardly anyone I asked knew why we should avoid BPA, just that it was ‘bad’.
BPA is one of these Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. The trouble with these ‘BPA free’ products is that the BPA is often replaced with BPS which is potentially just as bad!
Because of the proliferation of BPA free products, we’re actually pretty good at avoiding it these days… but did you know that till receipts are often covered in it?? Any paper at all with that shiny sheen to it, is likely to be covered in BPA – Hello 1990’s and fax machines!!
We’re also getting better at avoiding plastic in general – mostly in an effort to protect the planet… which is also an excellent pursuit – if we don’t protect the planet, our future fertility is kind of null and void… but there are other EDC’s as well and we need to be avoiding or reducing our exposure to all of them.
Types of EDC and where they are found:
Used in plastics and Food Storage, lining of cans and sales receipts printed on paper with a glossy sheen. BPA leaches from many products into food.
Added to plastics to make them more flexible and durable. Found in toys, footwear, food packaging, medical plastic tubing and personal care products
Used as preservative and in anti-bacterial products, and found in food, cosmetics and personal care products
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
Used in electrical devices and industrial lubricants and found in flame retardants in furniture, by-products of industrial processes such as metal and paper production, wood incineration or heating plastics
Pesticides, herbicides and insecticides
These kinds of products are found in most peoples garden sheds. They are sprayed on many food products and crops sold commercially
Heavy Metals (eg aluminium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury)
Exposure occurs through smoking, air-pollution, dental fillings, consumption of contaminated food and drink, and contact with petrol, industrial and household products.
Textiles, Clothing, Non-Stick Food Wrappers, Microwave Popcorn Bags, Old Teflon Cookware
And what do endocrine disrupting chemicals do?
For obvious reasons I focus on the impact of EDCs on fertility here, but they are also known to disrupt not just the fertility hormones, but loads of others too – they have been linked to numerous adverse health outcomes including endometriosis, early puberty, altered nervous system function, immune function, certain cancers, respiratory problems, metabolic issues, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, growth, neurological and learning disabilities and more!
The presentation that I listened to at FSA last year, focussed on Dr Mark Green‘s research into Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) and their impact on fertility. His research has shown that these chemicals can mimic or block the male and female sex hormones, which can cause:
- changes in hormone levels
- decreased egg and sperm quality
- damage to DNA in sperm
- longer menstrual cycles
- longer time to pregnancy
- increased risk of miscarriage
- earlier menopause.
Research shows that EDC’s are present in 95% of people tested, so we all have some in our bodies.. but that research also shows that people who are infertile have higher levels of some EDCs.