Dr. Pratima Awasthi* & Ankita Dobhal**
Many chemicals (natural or man-made) mimic or interfere with the body’s hormones. They are called endocrine disruptors. These chemicals are linked with developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems. They are found in many everyday products, including some plastic bottles and containers, liners of metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides.Most common hormone disrupting chemicals or endocrine disruptors are Bisphenol A and Phthalates. These chemical substances can be found in widely consumed food products as they can migrate from food contact materials such as plastic packaging.
What Are Endocrine Disruptors?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Endocrine disruptors or Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) are chemical substances that alter normal functions of the hormone system of living organisms. These chemicals cause adverse health effects in an organism, or its progeny and are associated with altered reproductive function, increased incidence of breast cancer and developmental issues in children.
A wide range of substances, both natural and man-made, are thought to cause endocrine disruption, including pharmaceuticals, dioxin and dioxin-like compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT and other pesticides, and components of plastics such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. Endocrine disruptors interfere with the synthesis, secretion, transport, activity, or elimination of natural hormones.
Food Contact Materials
Food Contact Materials (FCMs)are all materials and articles intended to come into contact with food, such as packaging and containers, kitchen equipment, cutlery and dishes. These can be made from a variety of materials including plastics, rubber, paper, ceramic, metals and ink used in food packaging. The packaging may be a source of contamination as migration can occur from these materials with the transfer of chemicals or particles into the food.
Common Endocrine Disruptors
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the highest volume chemicals produced worldwide. It is usedin the production of certain plastics and resins. It is commonly found in the lining of water pipes, coatings on food and beverage cans, thermal paper, dental sealants, certain polycarbonate plastic bottles, cash register receipts and other food-packaging materials. It can leach out from plastic containers and has endocrine-disrupting properties. BPA has been linked to breast and other cancers, reproductive and fertility issues, obesity, and early puberty. Microwaving food or beverages in plastic can be harmful as even trace amounts of BPA can disrupt endocrine system. Glass dishes are a safer option for heating food.
Phthalates are mainly used as plasticizers in order to increase the flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity of plastic materials. The main application of phthalates is in the fabrication of PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride),and many consumer products including adhesives, paints, packaging, children’s toys, electronics, flooring, medical equipment, personal care products, air fresheners, food products, pharmaceuticals, textiles and plastic wrap. Studies have linked phthalates to birth defects in the male reproductive system, lower sperm count, lower sperm motility, miscarriages, and gestational diabetes.
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring substances in plants that have hormone-like activity. Isoflavones such as genistein and daidzein are found in soybeans, legumes, lentils and chickpeas. Phytoestrogens are so named for their estrogenic activity and have several health benefits. They also have the potential to cause adverse health effects as theymay trigger early puberty, disrupt thyroid function, affect male fertility.
It is a synthetic non-steroidaloestrogen that was used to prevent threatened miscarriage in the first trimester. It has also been used to enhance fertility in farm animals used for meat supply. It can increase the risk of infertility and breast cancer.
They are produced as a by-product in herbicide production and paper bleaching; they are also released into the environment during waste burning and wildfires. Dioxins are carcinogenic.
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB)
PCBs are used to make electrical equipment like transformers, and in hydraulic fluids, heat transfer fluids, lubricants, and plasticizers. PCBs can lead to Intra Uterine growth retardation (IUGR), abnormal skin pigmentation, andlower IQ.
It is a by-product of aerospace, weapon, and pharmaceutical industries found in drinking water and fireworks.Perchlorate blocks iodide uptake and alters thyroid hormone.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polybrominated biphenyls
These are widely used to make flame retardants for household products such as furniture foam and carpets.These chemicals can cause nervous & immune system effects.
Endocrine Disruptors And Human Health
Endocrine disruptors are linked to various disorders and diseases such as:
- Impaired immune function
- Thyroid, neuro-development and neuro-endocrine system disorders.(Neuroendocrine effects: delayed mental development with lower IQ scores, cognitive dysfunction, poorer visual recognition memory and behavioral difficulties)
- Breast cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid and other cancers.
- Sexual development problems such as feminizing of males or masculinising effects on females, etc.
- Reduced fertility and reproductive tract abnormalities
- Male reproductive system: Genital malformations, testicular dysgenesis syndrome and reduced sperm count
- Female reproductive system:Early puberty, endometriosis, Polycystic ovarian disease (PCOD) and infertility
Measures To Lower The Exposure To Endocrine Disruptors
- Eat lower on the food chain
- In general, substitute natural products for synthetic products whenever possible.
- Eat fresh organic products as meat and milk free from rBGH (Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone).
- Use fewer processed, prepackaged foods whenever possible.
- Avoiduse of chemicals or any pesticides.
- Avoid use of makeup, hair sprays & coloring products or nail polish.
- Avoid use of strong chemicals, glues, paints, floor & carpet cleaners.
- Avoid heating food or eat hot food in plastic containers.
- Avoid canned foods unless absolutely a must.
- Say no to receipts, since thermal paper is often coated with BPA.
- Do not give young children soft plastic toys, since these leach potential endocrine disrupting chemicals.
How Food Industries Can Avoid Endocrine Disruption?
- Inorganic produce can have pesticide residues; therefore food industries should focus on developing products obtained through organic farming.
- Use glass, porcelain, or stainless-steel containers, especially for packaging of hot food and drinks.
- Avoid packaging food in plastic containers labeled with the recycling numbers 3 and 7 or the letters “PC” which likely contain BPA, BPS, or BPF.
- Manufacturers should stop using phthalates in their products. Choose packaging products labeled “Phthalate-Free”, “BPA-Free”, and “Parabean-Free”.
- Avoid cooking or processing in non-stick cookware which contain perfluoroctanoic acid.
- Shopkeepers should use hand written receipts in place of thermal paper coated with BPA.
Adding greatly to the complexity, and to the number of chemicals in our environment, are the unknown or unintended by-products that are formed during chemical manufacturing, during combustion processes and via environmental transformations. Safe disposal of waste may help reduce environmental pollution as well as human exposure to certain endocrine disrupting chemicals. Many sources of endocrine disruptors are not known because of a lack of chemical constituent declarations in products, materials and goods. We need to know where the exposures are coming from. Therefore, food labels must clearly mention all the natural as well as synthetic components present inside the packet.
Hormone disrupting chemicals are exogenous agents that interfere with synthesis, secretion, transport, binding, action, or elimination of natural hormones in the body.Major sources of these chemicals are diet, environmental contamination, plastics, medical compounds, etc.Food contact materials like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are a major vehicle for these endocrine disruptors. Major health effects of these EDs are on the reproductive systems of both men and women, early-puberty, increased risk of infertility, obesity, cancers and neuro-development disorders. Measures should be taken to reduce human exposure to these chemicals and to create awareness regarding endocrine disruptors, their sources, ill-effects and preventive measures to reduce their exposure to humans.
- Darbre, P. D. (2017). Endocrine disruptors and obesity. Current obesity reports, 6(1), 18-27.
- Mendes, J. A. (2002). The endocrine disrupters: a major medical challenge. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 40(6), 781-788.
*Dr. Pratima Awasthi, Professor, Department of Foods and Nutrition, College of Home Science, G. B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, Uttarakhand, India.
**Ankita Dobhal, Ph.D. Scholar, Department of Foods and Nutrition, College of Home Science, G. B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, Uttarakhand, India.