On 19 February, theUnited Nations Environment Programme(UNEP) and theWorld Health Organization(WHO) released theState of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals– a landmark report that researches the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on public health. Although some EDCs occur naturally, EDCs are generally synthetic chemicals found in many household and industrial products such as pesticides, electronics, personal care products and cosmetics, or as additives or contaminants in food.
EDCs are known to enter the environment through industrial and urban discharges, agricultural run-off and the burning and release of waste. As a result, people can become exposed through the ingestion of food, dust and water, inhalation of gases and particles in the air, and skin contact.
The report explains that human health depends on a well-functioning endocrine system to regulate the release of certain hormones that are essential for functions such as metabolism, growth and development, sleep and mood. Some substances known as endocrine disruptors can change the function(s) of this hormonal system increasing the risk of adverse health effects, such as non-descended testes in young males, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, developmental effects on the nervous system in children, attention deficit and hyperactivity in children, and thyroid cancer.
Yet, many synthetic chemicals remain untested for their disrupting effects on the hormone system. “Close to 800 chemicals are known or suspected to be capable of interfering with hormone receptors, hormone synthesis or hormone conversion. However, only a small fraction of these chemicals have been investigated in tests capable of identifying overt endocrine effects in intact organisms,” the study states.
There is reason for concern, as the report finds significant increases in reproductive problems in some regions of the world, as well as increased incidences of endocrine cancers, and decreases in human fertility rates within only one generation.
The report is also concerned with the effects on wildlife, noting that like human beings, wildlife has become increasingly exposed to EDCs, leading to e.g. reproductive defects and infertility among animals.
The report cautions that, in addition to chemical exposure, other environmental and non-genetic factors, such as age and nutrition, could also be among the reasons for any observed increases in disease and disorders. It therefore calls for more testing, research to better understand the associations between these chemicals and public and animal health effects. The study further calls for better reporting and information systems on chemicals in products, materials and goods; and for more collaboration and date sharing between scientists and between countries to fill gaps in data, primarily in developing countries and emerging economies.