Endocrine Disruptors


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


As the name suggests, endocrine disruptors (also known as endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs) are chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system. The endocrine system is comprised of the series of glands that control metabolic activity and growth functions in humans, mammals, fish, birds and in a variety of other living organisms, and include the thyroid, pituitary, ovaries and testes among other glands.

Hormones direct growth in many of the body’s organs. They play a central role in the formation of the central nervous system and brain. Because endocrine disruptors interfere with this process, they can change the structure of the nervous system and brain, especially in the fetus and in young children, though they can have effects on the endocrine system during any phase of life.

Once in the body, endocrine disruptors may cause the increase or decrease in hormones, interfere with hormone signals, bind to hormones and change their behavior, which can lead to either increase cell growth or a decrease in cell growth. Hormones are the chemical messengers of the body and direct many vital functions. The hormone receptors match those in receptor cells, which leads the hormones to bind with receptor cells. Once attached to the cell, the hormone directs the “behavior” of the cell, turning protein building cells on or off. Because endocrine disruptors can take the place of hormones in the body, they are also referred to as hormone mimics.

The US Environmental Protection Agency maintains a webpage where the endocrine system is described in greater depth, and research related to endocrine disruption and the Endocrine Disruption Screening Program may be found (EPA ENDOCRINE PAGE).

Endocrine disruptors are found in pesticides, fungicides, detergents, pharmaceuticals and some plastics. Given the widespread use of these chemicals, exposure to endocrine disruptors is also widespread. The majority of endocrine disrupting chemicals are human inventions.

A number of websites contain information on endocrine disruptors and scientific evidence on this subjects. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, maintains an ongoing assessment of endocrine disruptors (WHO ENDOCRINE). Another important information resource is the TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange), founded by Dr. Theo Colborn, one of the leading researchers in this area (TEDX). Dr. Colborn’s research on this subject presented in the book, Our Stolen Future, is also updated on the Our Stolen Future Website. Interested readers can search for specific endocrine disruptors on the TEDX website using this LINK. The European Commission on the Environment also maintains a list of priority endocrine disruptors of concern that can be downloaded HERE or on the Danish Ministry of the Environment website as readable, online text HERE.

A recent report on the state of endocrine disruptor science has been produced by the World Health Organization, and is listed below in the “further readings” section. Reference to the consensus statement from scientists on endocrine disruptors is also found in that section.

Further Reading

Bergman, Åke, Jerrold J. Heindel, Susan Jobling, Karen A. Kidd, R. Thomas Zoeller, and S. Kidd Jobling. 2013. State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals 2012: an assessment of the state of the science of endocrine disruptors prepared by a group of experts for the United Nations Environment Programme and World Health Organization. World Health Organization.

Bergman, Ake, Jerrold J. Heindel, Tim Kasten, Karen A. Kidd, Susan Jobling, Maria Neira, R. Thomas Zoeller et al. (2013). “The impact of endocrine disruption: a consensus statement on the state of the science.” Environmental Health Perspectives 121, 4: a104-6.


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