By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
Sept. 28, 2015 -- People who are trying to lose weight or manage diabetes should try to change their lifestyle not only to exercise or cut calories, but also to avoid chemicals that may be contributing to their condition, experts say.
"You may have a healthy meal, but if it's in a plastic container, it's leaching chemicals," said Andrea Gore, PhD, a pharmacologist at the University of Texas at Austin in a webinar for reporters on Monday.
Gore is the chair of a task force that issued on Monday a new statement on the harm from hormone-disrupting chemicals. The statement, which is based on a review of more than 1,300 studies, says there's convincing evidence to support a link between hundreds of hormone disruptors and several chronic health problems, including:
- Heart disease
- Hormone-sensitive cancers in women (breast, endometrial, ovarian)
- Prostate cancer
- Thyroid problems
- Poor brain development and brain function in young children
The statement is significant because it comes from a group of doctors that treat people for hormone problems instead of scientists who study the effects of chemicals in animals or on cells.
Gore said the evidence for these effects is now strong enough that everyone should take steps to avoid chemicals that block or mimic the action of hormones in the body.
She also called on doctors who are treating patients for infertility to tell their patients to avoid hormone disruptors, which are known to decrease semen quality and interfere with how ovaries work. She said doctors who are counseling pregnant women and the parents of young children should also warn about chemical exposures.
"In particular, we're worried about fetuses, infants, children, etc.," she said, because exposure to the chemicals during development could set the stage for disease down the road.
Avoiding these kinds of chemicals is easier said than done, however, since no one knows how many of them exist or exactly how they're being used. That's because chemicals aren't tested for safety before they used in products that are sold to consumers.
There are about 85,000 chemicals known to be used in the U.S. No one knows how many might disrupt hormones.
"Not all of them are EDCs [endocrine-disrupting chemicals], but if even 1% of them were EDCs, that would be 850 chemicals," Gore said.
Some of the best-known hormone-disrupting chemicals include:
- Bisphenol A (BPA) and bisphenol S, which are used in some plastics, metal food cans, and cash register receipts
- Phthalates, a class of chemicals that are used to soften plastic and also used in some perfumes, soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics
- Some pesticides, like DDT
- Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical
"They act at very low doses," she said.
The statement calls for better safety testing to determine which chemicals could pose problems, tighter regulation, and more research on the health effects.
Environmental health experts cheered the new statement.
"I'm thrilled," said Richard Stahlhut, MD, a visiting research scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
"The endocrinologists had to be the first ones on board, and fortunately, they are," he said. "If they're not on board, then maybe people like me are crazy," said Stahlhut, who studies the hormone-disrupting effects of chemicals like BPA.
Chemical manufacturers said the statement went too far.
"The statement incorrectly characterizes as settled the still-unproven hypothesis regarding risks of low levels of exposure to particular chemicals. In doing so, the [Endocrine] Society discounts the extensive reviews by experts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority that were unable to substantiate the health significance of the so called low-dose effects," said the American Chemistry Council in a statement.
"Furthermore, the Endocrine Society's report fails to differentiate between chemicals that are 'endocrine-active,' meaning they interact with the endocrine system, and those that are 'endocrine disruptors,' meaning that the levels of exposure associated with that interaction cause scientifically-proven adverse health effects," the statement said.
Some retailers and manufacturers aren't waiting for the dust to settle on the chemical debate.
On Monday, Bloomberg News reported that Target is expanding the list of chemicals it would ask suppliers to take out of their products. The expanded list will included nearly 600 chemicals on Health Canada's roster of prohibited cosmetic ingredients. It will include triclosan, which is found in antibacterial soaps and some toothpastes.
Walmart also has a list of substances it asks retailers to avoid, though it doesn't post the list publicly, Bloomberg reported.
Until more is known, Gore said consumers could reduce their exposure to known endocrine disruptors by avoiding bottled water in plastic bottles and being careful not to heat or microwave food in plastic containers.
Stahlhut said people who are concerned about chemical exposure should try to do the best they can, but because it's impossible to avoid all potential exposures, to "Try to be Zen about it. Don't drive yourself crazy."
He said he tries to eat and drink out of stainless steel or glass containers instead of plastic. He especially tries to avoid heating food in plastic. He said he tries to avoid chemicals in the nonstick coatings by cooking in cast-iron pans. And he steers clear of soaps and toothpaste with triclosan.
"Make the easy choices when you can. Make the harder choices when you can afford it," he said.
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