Department of Research


SEX-HORMONE POLLUTION

Introduction

In many ways our modern day 'chemical wonderland' has turned into a 'chemical nightmare', and few examples are more startling than those caused by the hormone disrupting artificial chemicals flooding our environment.

These troublesome chemicals go by many names, Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals (EDC), hormone impostors, sex-hormone pollution and gender-benders, but they all do the same thing: distort the reproductive organs of animal life. The pharmaceutical industry deliberately produces chemicals that affect these systems for medical reasons while the chemical industry does it accidentally; but neither one is willing to take any responsibility for the unintended consequences of their products.

But first some definitions. Within the human body the endocrine system includes important organs and tissues that produce and store hormones. These hormones are released directly into the bloodstream and act as signals to activate and regulate metabolism, the reproductive system and other critical functions. So an endocrine disruptor is a substance that interferes, damages or disrupts this natural process. Endocrine disruptors are sometimes called environmental hormones because they're present in the environment, either naturally or from artificial sources (meaning pollution).

Endocrine disrupters are man-made chemicals which mimic those of the body's hormonal system and potentially interfere with human and animal reproduction or development. [9]

Sex hormones are chemicals that affect the functions and development of the reproductive system. Environmental estrogens are those that mimic natural estrogen hormones. Environmental estrogens are chemicals that act like estrogen hormones in living organisms and are omnipresent within the environment. Furthermore, some chemicals actually block the process entirely and are called anti-estrogen (or anti-androgyn as applicable) compounds. Further complicating the picture, different chemicals can have different effects at the various life stages as well as on different species.

Many of the interactions within and between these chemical regulated bodily systems depend on fairly simple chemicals - all potential targets for imitation by artificial and natural substances in large quantities.

Points to Ponder

  1. Known Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals (EDC's) were first manufactured in the 1930s.

  2. Testicular cancer is the most common form affecting young men and the incidences of which have increased three times over the last 30 years in Britain alone.

  3. River and shore fish from Japan to England have gender problems, mostly feminized traits, and the more they test for it the more it is found. It's not absolutely clear how much this is affecting reproduction rates for the fish if at all, regardless it's not a sign of health.

  4. Phthalates and other chemical hazards are so ubiquitous that their presence in the lab equipment has to be factored out of the studies!

  5. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. The capacity for immune response is determined early in development, so damage early in life will persist.

  6. Artificial hormones versus synthetic: "Ms. Kidd says both natural and synthetic estrogen go into the sewage system in urine, but bacteria take longer to break down the synthetic version, which means more of it gets into the fish." [1]

  7. "Britain's water companies have other problems. They have carried out a large program of water pipe renewal. To cut costs existing pipes have been lined inside with plastic rather than being dug up and replaced. This involved the use of epoxy resins containing bisphenol-A, another EDC, to harden the plastic." Where else have these chemicals been added into the water pipes?

Artificial versus synthetic hormones

There is a difference between the artificial version and the natural version of estrogenic compounds. The natural ones are safer and break down in the environment quicker, but overexposure to either one can cause health and reproductive problems. Estrogens in any form are very powerful chemicals and human and animal bodies are finely tuned to respond to very small amounts of these chemicals.

The natural hormones, including plant produced phytoestrogens, have brief life spans and do not accumulate in tissue. They are easily broken down in the human body and usually remain in the bloodstream only minutes or hours until broken up in the liver.

Artificial estrogens on the other hand are persistent and difficult to breakdown. These chemicals have an affinity for fat molecules and will accumulate in body fat and tissue over time. They can also be passed on and accumulated through the food chain process of predator and prey. Combinations of some synthetic estrogens can create synergistic effects. Thus the cocktail of environmental pollution  may be benign in separate compounds but have damaging effects when mixed together.

Sources of EDCs and Sex-Hormone Pollution

Estrogenic chemicals are known to be present in...

  • pesticides (DDT is one notable example) / insecticides / herbicides / fungicides

  • products associated with plastics (bisphenol A, phthalates).

  • migration from food can linings (bisphenol a) and plastic packaging (phthalates) [3]

  • pharmaceuticals (birth control pills, hormone medications, cimetidine, DES)

  • ordinary household products (the breakdown product of detergents and associated surfactants, including nonylphenol and octylphenol)

  • industrial chemicals (polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxin and benzo(a)pyrene)

  • also, effects caused by heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium, etc.)

Household detergents

Perhaps the most significant source of artificial hormone pollution comes from detergents.

Half of common household detergents in Taiwan contain hazardous endocrine disrupters and most of them end up in the country's rivers, researchers of the National Science Council (NSC) said yesterday.

These disrupters have polluted the water in some rivers because of lax regulations set for the quality of sewage effluent.

Ding Wang-hsien, an analytical chemist at National Central University [Taiwan], analyzed 90 common household chemical products, including laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent, toilet cleaner, car cleaner and glass cleaner.

Results showed that 42 percent of laundry detergents, 57 percent of dishwashing detergents and 48 percent of toilet cleaners contain nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEO), which break down into a group of toxic and persistent byproducts, such as nonylphenol (NP).

Ding said the threat posed by endocrine disrupters currently lurks at the fringe of public awareness in Taiwan.

"The invisible devastation deserves more attention from the government," Ding said, adding that a Cabinet-level inter-department discussion, which included environmental, health and agricultural agencies, was necessary to trace and regulate endocrine disrupters. [9]

Cosmetics

Kim Erickson believes the adverse effects of toxins is compounded over decades, confusing hormone receptors and slowly altering cell structure. Chemicals are transmitted into the bloodstream in a number of ways: powders have the least absorption, while oily solutions or those designed to increase moisture allow more of the chemical to be absorbed.

Unlike food or drugs, cosmetics and their raw ingredients are not subject to review or independent pre-market approval.

Erickson admits it is too early to know with certainty how serious the long-term impact could be on health, but warns that hormone-disrupting chemicals may lurk in cosmetics which could lower immunity to disease and cause neurological and reproductive damage. 'Many of these same ingredients have been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals,' she said. 'At best, a visit to your neighbourhood cosmetic counter could result in allergies, irritations and sensitivities.' [10]

Birth Control Pills & Hormone (replacement therapy for example) drugs

Women who take birth control pills or hormone therapy are flushing enough hormones down the toilet to make male fish downstream produce eggs, a Canadian study shows. [1]

Industrial Chemicals

One notable example is the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), used to soften plastics, and linked to heart disease, diabetes and liver-enzyme abnormalities, but mainly considered a hazard because it interferes with normal hormones in the bodies of humans and animals.

Representative Edward Markey, said that chemicals showing up [sic] U.S. waterways and drinking water have been linked to deformities in fish, frogs and other wildlife. BPA leaches into the water supply when containers made with the chemical are discarded.

"There are serious concerns that the same chemicals that are responsible for these deformities in wildlife may also have similar effects in humans and may be the culprit for the widespread increase in human disorders such as infertility, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease," said Markey, author of a bill to ban Bisphenol A in food and beverage containers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January [2010] raised its assessment of bisphenol A to a chemical of concern

[National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) director Linda] Birnbaum said there is concern that drinking water might be a "significant route of exposure" for potential endocrine disruptors such as BPA and that even low doses can have an effect on the body. [11]

Nature

Phytoestrogens occur naturally in plants such as clover, soybeans and other legumes, whole grains and many fruits and vegetables.

There is no doubt that each of us are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis, no safe place exists and even if they were totally discontinued they would still reside in body tissues, and in the environment for decades. The issue is how much exposure is occurring and how much damage is this causing to humans, animal life and the environment in general.

Effects

Striking effects of sex-hormone pollution have been detected in aquatic life, especially river and shore fish, most likely from waste-water runoff.

Karen Kidd of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans introduced synthetic hormone from birth control pills into a remote 34-hectare lake in northwestern Ontario, west of Dryden. The male lake trout, white suckers, fathead minnows and pearl dace turned up this fall with proteins that females use to manufacture egg cells, and in some cases with the eggs themselves.

The lake experiment used the amount of hormone that would come from 6,000 women taking the pill, she said.

The question now is whether this feminization is affecting the population size or sustainability," she said. "Can males with eggs in their testes reproduce effectively? Can they contribute to the population?"

It will take another summer of adding chemicals, and a couple of years of counting fish afterwards, to know the full effects. [1]

Hormone disrupters threatening the survival of animal populations are also jeopardizing the human future. At levels typically found in the environment, these chemicals act like mug the messengers or impersonate them. They jam signals. They scramble messages. The process that unfolds in the womb and creates a normal, healthy baby depends on getting the right hormone message to the fetus at the right time. Relatively low levels of contaminants that have no observable impact on adults can have a devastating impact on the unborn. To date, researchers have identified at least 51 synthetic chemicals--most of them ubiquitous in the environment--that disrupt hormones in one way or another. Some mimic estrogen, and others interfere with other parts of the body's control or endocrine system, such as testosterone and thyroid metabolism. This tally of hormone disrupters includes large chemical families such as the 209 compounds classified as PCBs, the 75 dioxins, and the 135 furans. It also includes the most heavily used pesticide in American agriculture, atrazine, and the infamous DDT. [4]

Sperm Count

The mechanism for how EDCs disrupt fertility is poorly understood but one study may have found a start.

"Everyday substances in the environment directly affect the ability of sperm to fertilise an egg by triggering the premature release of a chemical cocktail that sperm cells use to penetrate the egg's outer layer, a study has found."

"These findings could be important in understanding how different compounds, known to be present in our environment, might affect sperm function in humans. Given that the environmental oestrogens are very potent and that we are probably being exposed to several at the same time, it is important to know whether they might have cumulative effects," Professor Fraser said. [8]

Early Puberty

Sex-hormone pollution problems have been studied in Taiwan as already mentioned, but another crowded island seems to have even worse problems in this regard. Puerto Rico has served as a prime case study because of its exceedingly high rates of early puberty. Although answers are still inconclusive the debate focuses on chemical pollution and/or diet. Either way these rates of early puberty, which are actually increasing worldwide, have a racial connection. "More striking, 27% of black girls and 7% of whites develop these early puberty signs at age 7 — the second grade — according to a landmark puberty study." [5] Why this is remains uncertain, but at least one case of early puberty symptoms were linked to a brand of shampoo, and once discontinued the effects reversed. The racial connection here is that since black people have different hair than whites, they use different hair care products - thus explaining why only black women were being adversely affected. Bovine growth hormones have also been listed as a potential cause of distorted human development in Puerto Rico and maybe elsewhere too. This most likely occurred from eating the wrong meat or too much meat.

But the main focus of concern are those chemicals called phthalates again and the higher than normal levels found in a test done on Puerto Rican girls. Fetal exposure could be causing early puberty, but cosmetic and chemical industries are adamant that none of their products are causing these negative effects.

Other issues to investigate include the potential for a genetic predisposition to early puberty.

Also, a genetic predisposition of Puerto Rican girls for developing premature thelarche is unlikely. Investigation among this ethnic group in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area did not reveal a similar pattern of early sexual development (8). Moreover, other ethnic groups living in Puerto Rico are also affected by the condition (8). In 1987, the Puerto Rico Department of Health created by law the Premature Thelarche and Early Sexual Development (PTESD) Registry in response to the observed increase in cases (9). This is the only world registry created for the study of premature sexual development in a human population. [6]

Fat could be another cause

Nobody knows what's causing the shift. Fat is the leading theory, because childhood obesity has doubled in the last 20 years and body fat certainly can spur hormones. Some scientists are hunting environmental culprits, and point to a small study from Puerto Rico — where early breast development is such a problem that it can begin at the stunning age of 2 — that casts suspicion on certain chemicals in cosmetics and plastics. Age of menstruation, which dropped from about age 17 in the 19th century to between ages 12 and 13 by about 1960, is holding steady.

Fat is the top theory. The fatter you are, the more your body can convert adrenal hormones into the female sex hormone estrogen. Overweight children's blood harbors more insulin, which also influences maturation. Scientists even are studying whether the protein leptin, produced by fat cells, influences glands that produce sex-related hormones. [5]

Interestingly enough the primary fat culprit emerging from the latest research is high fructose corn syrup, usually the second ingredient by volume in carbonated soda-pop drinks after water, as well as numerous other junk-food items. A sedentary lifestyle coupled with massive intake of soft drinks is the most likely culprit for childhood obesity.

Other studies have shown that puberty may be arriving earlier for American boys as well and that it may lead to higher rates of testicular cancer and other hormonal ailments already being charted within the general population.

Timing Factors

Timing of exposure to sex-hormone pollution is an important factor in causing damaging effects. Body sensitivity to sex-hormones occurs at certain periods in life-cycle development.

The development of the testis occurs almost entirely during early development in the womb. It is in this period that the Sertoli cells differentiate, and any exposure to oestrogen at this time reduces the number of Sertoli cells produced (Jensen et al., 1995). The Sertoli cells are responsible for producing sperm in later life, and it has been shown that the number of Sertoli cells is directly related to the sperm count, so fewer cells will lead to a lower sperm count (Jensen et al., 1995). It is also believed that abnormal germ cells, formed in early development, are responsible for most testicular cancers in later life (Jensen et al., 1995).

The oestrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) was given to > 5 million pregnant mothers in the period between the late 1940s and the early 1970s to prevent miscarriage. Its use was stopped after a high incidence of a rare cervical cancer in pubertal girls exposed to DES in the uterus. It was later found that male offspring also had a higher level of reproductive abnormalities, including low sperm counts (Jensen et al., 1995). The case of DES is a clear indication that exposure of the foetus to external oestrogens can result in reproductive problems later in life (Toppari et al, 1996).

For the adult males, direct toxic effects on sperm production by chemicals such as phthalates could also be an issue. However as far as oestrogenic effects go, it is clear that the final 3 months of pregnancy and the first few months of life will be where any exposure of a male to oestrogens is likely to have the greatest effect. The research showing that metabolites of DDT can block the male hormonal system is worrying. [7]

Solutions

As demonstrated by the case of the hormone polluting shampoo, there are often simple steps that the public can take to prevent, or at least mitigate, the harmful effects. The primary obstacle though is public awareness, people can't act or adequately protect themselves if they don't know or understand what they're dealing with. Sex-hormone pollution and endocrine disrupters are a problem in desperate need of wider public awareness; this is the first step.

The second step is to try and identify what's causing the problem as this research report has already made significant efforts to explain. The third step is to minimize and eventually eliminate the pollution. Researchers in Northern Ireland have already started doing this using photocatalysis to remove these trace chemicals from the water supply. This process involves ultraviolet light and titanium dioxide to neutralize the EDC or sex-hormones in drinking water. But it should be obvious that this doesn't stop the pollution production, it just cleans up the municipal drinking water supply. Also, as mentioned earlier with Britain, some of the water pipes have been coated on the inside with an EDC which would seem to negate much of the benefits of purifying the drinking water if it will only pick up these chemicals between the purification plant and the consumer's tap!

I call for a ban on using nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEO) in detergent manufacturing because their metabolites, confirmed as endocrine disrupters, will effect humans through the food chain," Ding said.
The use of NPEO as nonionic surfactants, or chemical agents that agitate surfaces, in laundry detergents was banned by the Swiss Ordinance for Environmental Pollutants in 1986, after nonylphenol polyethoxylates and major metabolic products were intensively investigated in sewage effluent, sewage sludge and in ambient waters in Switzerland.
[9]

Clearly a step in the right direction is to stop using and producing known EDCs, or at least the most pernicious ones. In many cases these chemicals are already banned in industrialized countries but not elsewhere. In other cases there's simply so many chemicals being used and dumped into the environment that identifying culprits is a very difficult task, and even then any single chemical alone may not be a problem but taken together they can be damaging animal, human or environmental health. Sorting all of this out will take time, money and significant research but it can and should be done. The sooner the better because only when the chemical culprits are identified can legislative and community action be taken to rectify sex-hormone pollution.

More research is definitely needed to pin down the exact chemical culprits and get a more accurate picture of what's really going on. A serious hindrance to full understanding of the issue of sex-hormone pollution is the fact that although numerous studies have, and are being conducted, very little is being connected together to form a holistic picture. Responsibility and legal action are also notably absent. Who is going to clean up the mess? Who's going to pay the medical bills and who will force the companies producing these chemical, be they for cosmetics or detergents or whatever, from making more and force them to switch to safer alternatives? In the meantime these pernicious chemical are having a direct and destructive effect upon human health and the environment.

Sex-hormone pollution is a serious issue that is slowly gaining the attention it deserves in scientific and policy making communities but significant research and environmental protection measures need to be taken in the short term. Valid strategic solutions truly require a substantive shift in thought, values and general philosophy, away from simply creating a substance to generates a specific intentional effect and leaving the unstudied repercussions for the lawyers and the dead fish to deal with. The move has to be made towards actually including the consequences within the original equation.

Indeed this is a new form of pollution -- it's not intentional but it's as dangerous and persistent as many intentional pollution problems. Sex-hormone pollution is not as clear-cut as just tossing old transformers into a pit and burying them to leach out PCBs or tossing old computer parts into a pile where the seep heavy metals into the water supply. This form of pollution is direct product of poor planning and values that place immediate effect above long-term consequences. It must finally be realized that no chemical miracle exists, every drug merely trades one symptom for another and every chemical effect has a counter-effect somewhere and at sometime. These consequence have to be factored into the chemical production equation, and also accounted for both in economic terms as well as human and environmental health costs.

Freydis, 2002


The influx of environmental hormones into our bodies happens mostly through our food. Dioxin, nonylphenol, bisphenol A, endosulfan and other environmental hormones are found in seafood, meat and vegetables, and the reason they are there is because of food containers. Plastic has been mentioned as a probable cause for many years. Environmental hormones like diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate (DEHA) are added to plastic to make it soft, and they flow into the food from various containers.

This theory was supported by the results of a study of environmental hormones in bottled water released by the Ministry of Environment on Thursday. Analysis was conducted on 582 domestic and imported bottled water products last year. DEHP was detected in 146 products, or 25.1 percent, and DEHA was detected in 149 products, or 25.6 percent. "It is very possible that environmental hormones contained in plastic bottles and caps were absorbed into the water," a government official said. ...

The number of chemicals that are classified as environmental hormones by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is between 67 to 143. The one that international researchers are most worried about is polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). It is contained in many products that are made of plastic or fiber, such as the casings of televisions, computers and other household appliances, and carpets. PBDE is added to products to make them fire resistant, but the substance can be inhaled into the body while using them.

Fragrances, hair spray, hair mousse, and nail polishes are also sources of environmental hormones. Contaminants such as diethyl phthalate (DEP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) from these products flow into our bodies through our lungs or skin. According to the Korean Women's Environmental Network on Thursday, DEP and DBP were detected in 11 perfume and nail products out of 13. These products should be withdrawn, the group said.

From: Dangerous Hormones Found in Water Bottles, Perfume, Chosun Ilbo (South Korea), June 1, 2007.


News


References

1. Birth control pill causing problems for fish: DFO Gender-bending effects: Synthetic estrogen absorbed by fish downstream, Tom Spears, Ottawa Citizen January 5, 2002

2. Boys entering puberty earlier By Joyce Frieden, UPI Science News, 13 September 2001

3. Friends of the Earth

4. Our Stolen Future - Early signs of puberty linked

5. Early puberty: Obesity, environment suspected (AP) 08/13/200

6. Children's Health Article Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 108, Number 9, September 2000 Identification of Phthalate Esters in the Serum of Young Puerto Rican Girls with Premature Breast Development

7. The Complexity of the Body

8. Common chemicals can reduce male fertility By Steve Connor, The Independent, 03 July 2002

9. Detergents end up in Taiwan's rivers By Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times

10. Make-up kit holds hidden danger of cancer Amelia Hill Sunday April 7, 2002

11. U.S. examining possible effects of bisphenol A, by JoAnne Allen, Reuters, February 25, 2010.


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Updated: February, 2013
Created: 2002