Toxins Disrupting our Bodies

Recently, the Canadian government declared bisphenol-A (BPA) toxic, a step I hope the U.S. will soon take since the scientific evidence is mounting that BPA–along with many other endocrine disruptors in our environment–are abundant in our bodies and are having deleterious effects.

One problem with BPA is its ubiquity. It’s a chemical commonly used to line the interior of food and beverage cans, as well as to make plastic bottles and other hard, clear plastics. Ninety-three percent of Americans tested had detectable levels of BPA in their urine. Experts say the substance can clear from adult bodies with efficiency, but our constant exposure to it probably makes this irrelevant.

Even more problematic is that babies, children, and fetuses cannot excrete BPA efficiently, causing it to build up in their systems. Because of these findings, Canada banned BPA from baby bottles, as did several U.S. states, including New York, Connecticut and Minnesota.

Most of us have heard that BPA can be found in certain plastics as well as soda and food cans, but you may be surprised to know where else it lurks: the protective coating put on children’s teeth to prevent cavities, refrigerator shelving, milk and juice containers, microwave ovenware, eating utensils, plastic toys, DVDs, CDs, sunglasses, and receipt paper. It’s also present in some cigarette filters, and thus impacts smokers and others through second-hand smoke.

BPA, a known endocrine disruptor, has been written about quite a bit. We wrote it here, here, and here on Civil Eats. The term endocrine disruptor is tossed around a lot in the media, but what are endocrine disruptors?

Let’s start with a tour of the endocrine system, which is made up of glandular tissue (the thyroid) as well as glands within organs (testes, ovaries, and heart). Like the nervous system, the endocrine system controls and coordinates bodily functions, but unlike the nervous system, which uses electrical signals that respond within split seconds, the endocrine system uses hormones, which have longer-lasting effects that act over hours, weeks, and years. The processes these hormones regulate include: metabolism, the body’s growth and development, and sexual reproduction. As hormones travel in the blood to reach each body part, the specific molecular shape of each hormone fits like a key-in-a-lock into receptors on specific tissues and organs.

BPA mimics the hormone estrogen, which means its molecular structure also fits into receptors specifically designed for estrogen. As you can imagine, when a synthetic compound gets into these receptors and it’s not the hormone your body needs, there are consequences.

Over 200 studies have found that these consequences include: brain development problems, breast and prostate cancer, birth defects, learning and behavioral problems in children, early onset of puberty, and obesity.

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In my last column, I wrote about how children get 40 percent of their calories from junk food. It turns out, it may also be the BPA found in many of these packaged food containers and cans that’s also contributing to the increase in obesity. The Endocrine Society (TES) issued a report showing a correlation between high levels of BPA and obesity. Scientists are now calling substances like BPA and other endocrine disruptors “obesogens” because of the strong link they’ve found between increasing rates of obesity and higher levels of endocrine disruptors in our systems.

Unfortunately, there are a myriad of endocrine disruptors in addition to BPA found in our environment. The cumulative effect of all these hormone-like substances in our bodies is still unknown. But needless to say, they are best avoided.

Here is a list of some other common endocrine disruptors and where they’re found: phathalates, found in vinyl flooring, detergents, soap, shampoo, deodorants, fragrances, hair spray, nail polish, plastic bags, food packaging, garden hoses, shower curtains; perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA), found in grease- and water-resistant coatings like Teflon and Gore-Tex; oxybenzone, found in moisturizers, lip balm, and sunscreen; parabens, found in lotions, hair care products, and shaving products; perchlorate, found in drinking water, on some vegetables, and in soil; decabromodiphenyl ether (DECA), found in flame retardant clothing, furniture, mattresses, carpets, and electronics; pesticides, sprayed on conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, grains, etc; artificial bovine growth hormones, found in commercial dairy products; MSG, found in many packaged foods; and flouride, found in the U.S. water supply and toothpaste.

These are some simple and easy steps that will help you reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors:

  • Eat fresh, whole, organic foods as often as possible to reduce your exposure to pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and artificial bovine growth hormones.
  • Avoid processed foods and beverages, which often contain additives like artificial sweeteners and MSG, and are often in packaged in plastic.
  • Store food and beverages in glass containers only.
  • Do not use non-stick or plastic cookware.
  • Only use natural cleaning products and natural brands of toiletries.
  • Don’t use artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, or other synthetic fragrances.
  • Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric.
  • Filter your tap water.

This article is part of a regular column by holistic nutrition expert Kristin Wartman, in which she examines food, nutrition, and the way the industrial food industry affects our food system and our health.

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Photo: ShakataGaNai via Flickr


Kristin Wartman is a journalist who writes about food, health, politics, and culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Huffington Post and many others. Kristin's first book, Formerly Known as Food—a critical look at how the industrial food system is changing our minds, bodies, and culture—is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. Read more >

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  1. jo anne
    very interesting and helpful (and scary) loving your blog!

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