Green Guidance: Avoiding Hormone-Altering Chemicals
Hormone-Altering Chemicals in Everyday ProductsAndrogyny 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 Estée 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).
- Cars, Computers, and Furniture. Flame-retardant chemicals (PBDEs), which have been shown to affect the thyroid and reproductive hormones in rats, are rapidly accumulating in human breast milk. Two now-discontinued blends thought to be the worst (penta- and octa-BDEs) can still be found in the foam padding of pre-2005 furniture and automobile interiors and in some older computers. Many new computers, TVs, and electronics still incorporate other PBDEs. Better choices: Buy PBDE-free or reduced-PBDE models by Apple, HP, NEC, Panasonic, Sony, and Toshiba. Keep car interiors from overheating. Cover rips in car and furniture upholstery. When buying new upholstered items or mattresses, ask for natural-fiber fills and have retailers identify which, if any, flame retardants are used.
- Personal Care Products. Despite the removal of DEHP from some nail polishes, phthalates remain in widespread use by the cosmetic industry, often hidden behind the term "fragrance." Other endocrine disruptors include estrogenic paraben preservatives in shampoos, moisturizers, sunscreens, and cosmetics; glycol ethers; phenylphenol; BHA and lithium carbonate; iodine; and progesterone. Better choices: Avoid "fragrance" and look for items scented with essential oils. Avoid products containing EGPE, DEGBE, PGME, or DPGME.
- Pest Control. Many commercial pesticides include endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as carbamates (used in roach- and silverfish-control products) and organochlorines like vinclozolin, a fungicide linked to hereditary changes in the fertility of male mice. Better choices: Avoid pesticides. Instead, practice "integrated pest management" by sealing cracks, fixing leaks, and cleaning up food residues. Where infestations require treatment, follow least-toxic practices (see birc.org, organiclandcare.net).
Visit www.thegreenguide.com for product reports on baby bottles, flooring, lip and eye makeup, moisturizers, pest control, plastic containers, and toys.
Paul W. McRandle is senior research editor of The Green Guide, published by The Green Guide Institute, which provides the research for this department.