Evidence presented at a global meeting of scientists suggests that endocrine-disrupting chemicals -- like bisphenol A and phthalates -- may be to blame for the diabetes and obesity epidemics that are among the gravest public health threats facing the U.S. and other industrialized nations.
The Endocrine Society said in a prepared statement that the chemicals contribute to health problems by mimicking, blocking, and otherwise interfering with the body's natural hormones. By hijacking the body's chemical messengers, the chemicals can alter the way cells develop and grow.
Bisphenol A is commonly found in the lining of food cans and on cash register receipts, while phthalates are used in plastics and cosmetics. Flame retardants and pesticides also contain endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
"The evidence is more definitive than ever before - EDCs disrupt hormones in a manner that harms human health," said Andrea C. Gore, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the task force that developed the statement. "Hundreds of studies are pointing to the same conclusion, whether they are long-term epidemiological studies in humans, basic research in animals and cells, or research into groups of people with known occupational exposure to specific chemicals."
The threat is particularly great when unborn children are exposed to EDCs, the statement indicated. Animal studies found that exposure to even tiny amounts of EDCs during the prenatal period can trigger obesity later in life.
Similarly, animal studies found that some EDCs directly target beta and alpha cells in the pancreas, fat cells, and liver cells. This can lead to insulin resistance and an overabundance of the hormone insulin in the body risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, the statement said.
The chemicals are so common that nearly every person on earth has been exposed to one or more of them, previous studies have found.
The statement was presented at the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM4), in Geneva, Switzerland, on the importance of using scientific approaches to limit health risks of EDC exposure.
The statement also examines evidence linking EDCs to reproductive health problems, hormone-related cancers such as breast and ovarian cancer, prostate conditions, thyroid disorders, and neurodevelopmental issues. Although many of these conditions were linked to EDCs by earlier research, the number of corroborating studies continues to mount.
"It is clear we need to take action to minimize further exposure," Gore said. "With more chemicals being introduced into the marketplace all the time, better safety testing is needed to identify new EDCs and ensure they are kept out of household goods."
Gore’s statement was endorsed by Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, MD, PhD, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Liège in Belgium.