Why are “endocrine disruptors” a concern?

6 03 2015


In 2012, Greenpeace analyzed a total of 141 items of clothing, and found high levels of phthalates in four of the garments and NPE’s in 89 garments – in quantities as high as 1,000 ppm – as well as a variety of other toxic chemicals. Phthalates and NPE’s are among the chemicals known as “endocrine disruptors” (EDCs) – chemicals which are used often and in vast quantities in textile processing.

The endocrine system is the exquisitely balanced system of glands and hormones that regulates such vital functions as body growth (including the development of the brain and nervous system), response to stress, sexual development and behavior, production and utilization of insulin, rate of metabolism, intelligence and behavior, and the ability to reproduce. Hormones are chemicals such as insulin, thyroxin, estrogen, and testosterone that interact with specific target cells.  The endocrine system uses these chemicals to send messages to the cells – similar to the nervous system sending electrical messages to control and coordinate the body.

Diabetes, a condition in which the body does not properly process glucose, is an endocrine disease, as is hypoglycemia and thyroid cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 29.1 million people have diabetes.[1] The three types of diabetes are a good illustration of the two main ways that something can “go wrong” with hormonal control in our bodies. In type I diabetes, his/her pancreas is unable to make insulin. Without insulin, the liver never “gets the message” to take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type II diabetes, the person’s pancreas is making enough insulin, but the insulin receptor sites on the liver cells are “broken” (possibly due to genetic factors, possibly do to “overuse”) and cannot “get the message.” Because the liver is unable to receive the instructions (despite the presence of lots of insulin), it does not take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type III diabetes (AKA Alzheimer’s Disease)[2], it is the neurons in the brain, specifically, which “don’t get the message,” (though it sounds like researchers have yet to determine whether that’s due to lack of the brain-produced insulin upon which they depend, or whether that’s due to receptors on the neurons that either are or become “broken”) and thus, cannot take in the sugar that they need, with the result that, without an alternative fuel source such as medium-chain triglycerides, the neurons will starve.

endocrine disruptor

Over the past 60 years, a growing number of EDC chemicals have been used in the production of almost everything we purchase. They have become a part of our indoor environment, found in cosmetics, cleaning compounds, baby and children’s toys, food storage containers, furniture and carpets, computers, phones, and appliances. We encounter them as plastics and resins every day in our cars, trucks, planes, trains, sporting goods, outdoor equipment, medical equipment, dental sealants, and pharmaceuticals. Without fire retardants we would not be using our computers or lighting our homes. Instead of steel and wood, plastics and resins are now being used to build homes and offices, schools, etc. A large portion of pesticides are endocrine disruptors.

What this constant everyday low-dose exposure means in terms of public health is just beginning to be explored by the academic community. We have learned over time that many chemical substances can cause a range of adverse health problems, including death, cancer, birth defects, and delays in development of cognitive functions. For instance, it is well established that asbestos can cause a fatal form of lung cancer, thalidomide can cause limb deformities, and breathing high concentrations of some industrial solvents can cause irreversible brain damage and death. Only relatively recently have we learned that a large number of chemicals can penetrate the womb and alter the construction and programming of a child before it is born. Through trans-generational exposure, endocrine disruptors cause adverse developmental and reproductive disorders at extremely low amounts in the womb, and often within the range of human exposure.

Recent research is giving us a new understanding of EDCs since Dr. Theo Coburn wrote Our Stolen Future.  Thanks to a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This capability means that we are beginning to understand how even small doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development. In a recent talk at the National Academy of Sciences, Linda Birnbaum, the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, called toxicogenomics—the study of how genes respond to toxins—the “breakthrough” that pushed the study of poisons beyond the “obvious things,” that is, the huge doses that led to “death or low birth weight.”

  1. Age at time of exposure is critical. There is even a new terminology to explain the consequences of exposure to EDCs: “the fetal basis of adult disease”, which means that the maternal and external environment, coupled with an individual’s genes, determine the propensity of that individual to develop disease or dysfunction later in life.  This theory, known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHad, has blossomed into an emerging new field. DOHad paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.
  2. The developmental basis of adult disease also has implicit in its name the concept that there is a lag between the time of exposure and the manifestation of a disorder. In other words, the consequences of exposure may not be apparent early in life.
  3. Exposures don’t happen alone – other pollutants are often involved, which may have additive or synergistic effects.[3]
  4. Even infinitesimally low levels of exposure – or any level of exposure at all – may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window[4]. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses.

    Carol Kwiatkowski, director of TEDX

    Carol Kwiatkowski, director of TEDX

  5. EDCs may affect not only the exposed individual but also the children and subsequent generations.[5]

TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Inc.) is the only organization that focuses primarily on the human health and environmental problems caused by low-dose and/or ambient exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals.

TEDX’s work is prevention driven, and it is the only environmental organization that focuses on the problems associated with endocrine disruption attributable to synthetic chemicals found in the general environment. While there are other national, international, and local organizations that address the public health and environmental consequences of toxic chemicals in the environment, none of them expressly emphasize endocrine disruption. By mainly focusing on substances in the environment that interfere with development and function throughout all life stages, TEDX has one of the most complete databases in the world on this topic, available for those concerned about public health and environmental quality. This database was developed because traditional toxicological protocols have used high doses on fully developed tissues and individuals that heretofore missed the consequences of chemical substances on developing tissues.

TEDX is unique because it focuses on the damaging activity of chemicals on biological systems from an entirely new approach. This new approach focuses on the effects of very low and ambient levels of exposure on developing tissue and resulting function before an individual is born, which can lead to irreversible, chronic disorders expressed at any time throughout the individual’s life.

Endocrine disruption takes into consideration the vulnerability of every individual in the population during their most vulnerable life stages. By providing this unique perspective on the actions of endocrine disruptors, TEDX fills in the very large gap in public health protection that traditional toxicology and government regulatory agencies do not fill. Drawing upon its computerized databases on endocrine disruption and coordination with researchers in the field of endocrine disruption, TEDX provides the very latest summaries of the state of knowledge and its meaning for human health and the environment.

 As the TEDX website states:   “The human health consequences of endocrine disruption are dire. Yet, no chemical has been regulated in the U.S. to date because of its endocrine disrupting effects – and no chemical in use has been thoroughly tested for its endocrine disrupting effects.. The U.S. government has failed to respond to the evolving science of endocrine disruption. While much remains to be learned in regard to the nature and extent of the impact of endocrine disruptors on human health, enough is known now to assume a precautionary approach should be taken. TEDX provides concerned persons and organizations with a science-based foundation for individuals to act and promote responsive public policy-making. Moreover, as federal government resources devoted to research on endocrine disruption have diminished due to budget cuts, TEDX must assume an even more prominent role in developing and disseminating information on the human and environmental impacts of endocrine disruption.”

To date, no chemical in use has been thoroughly tested for its endocrine disrupting effects. Traditional toxicological testing protocols were not designed to test for endocrine disruption and to test at ambient or low exposure levels.



[1] http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/statsreport14/national-diabetes-report-web.pdf

[2] De la Monte, Suzanne, and Wands, Jack R., “Alzheimer’s Disease is Tyupe 3 Diabetes – Evidence Reviewed”, J. Diabetes Sci Technol 2008 Nov; 2(6): 1101-1113

[3] Crews D, Putz O, Thomas P, Hayes T, Howdeshell K 2003 Animal models for the study of the effects of mixtures, low doses, and the embryonic environment on the action of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Pure and Applied Chem- istry, SCOPE/IUPAC Project Implications of Endocrine Ac- tive Substances for Humans and Wildlife 75:2305–2320

[4] Sheehan DM, Willingham EJ, Bergeron JM, Osborn CT, Crews D 1999 No threshold dose for estradiol-induced sex reversal of turtle embryos: how little is too much? Environ Health Perspect 107:155–159

[5] Anway MD, Skinner MK 2006 Epigenetic transgenera- tional actions of endocrine disruptors. Endocrinology 147: S43–S49



What are we doing to the children?

15 04 2014

Americans live in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, yet American children are less likely to live to age 5 than children in comparable nations – and I was shocked to find that America has the highest infant mortality rate in the industrialized world.[1]


Our children are especially vulnerable to the presence of toxic chemicals in their lives, and unfortunately this means that our children are sicker than we were as kids.

That is due to many different things, but one component can be found in changes to our environment. Since the middle of the last century, we have allowed a slew of chemicals (numbering now over 80,000) to be used in products – chemicals which were untested, many of which we now know to be harmful. In 2009, tests conducted by five laboratories in the U.S., Canada and Europe found up to 232 toxic chemicals in 10 umbilical cord blood samples of newborns. Substances detected for the first time in U.S. newborns included a toxic flame retardant chemical called Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) that permeates computer circuit boards, synthetic fragrances (Galaxolide and Tonalide) used in common cosmetics and detergents, and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFBA, or C4), a member of the notorious Teflon chemical family used to make non-stick and grease-, stain- and water-resistant coatings for cookware, textiles, food packaging and other consumer products.  Additionally, laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Rachel’s Network have detected Bisphenol A (BPA) for the first time in the umbilical cord blood of U.S. newborns. The tests identified this plastics component in 9 of 10 cord blood samples from babies of African American, Asian and Hispanic descent. The findings provide hard evidence that U.S. infants are contaminated with BPA beginning in the womb.

Our immune systems can only take so much –  when the toxic burden reaches capacity we end up with the epidemic rates in inflammatory conditions like allergies and asthma.   Many experts feel that compromised immune systems have also contributed to the rise in autism, which needs no further dramatic numbers to define its horrific rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control – today, 1 in every 20 children will develop a food allergy and 1 in every 8 will have a skin allergy.[2] Allergies are a result of impacts on our body’s immune system. It is estimated that as much as 45% of children have type 2 diabetes.[3]

You would think that we’d rise up to protest these assults on our kids. But Greenpeace has a new report about the chemicals found in children’s clothing, entitled “A Little Story About Monsters in Your Closet”[4] . ( Click here to read the report.)  Their latest investigation revealed the presence of hazardous chemicals in clothing made by 12 very well known brands; from the iconic kid’s label Disney, to sportswear brands like Adidas, and even top-end luxury labels like Burberry.

The shocking truth is that no matter what type of kid’s clothes we shop for, there’s no safe haven – all of the tested brands had at least one product containing hazardous toxic monsters – toxic chemicals which mess with the normal development of our children’s bodies.

Greenpeace bought 82 items from authorized retailers in 25 countries, made in at least 12 different regions and found traces, beyond the technical limits of detection, of a number of banned and dangerous chemicals, including:

  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), chemicals found in 61% of the products tested and in all brands, from 1 mg/kg (the limit of detection) up to 17,000 mg/kg. NPEs degrade to nonylphenols (NP) when released into the environment; they hormone disruptors, persistent and bioaccumulative.
  • Phtalates, plastics-softeners banned in children’s toys because of toxicity and hormonal effects, were found in 33 out of 35 samples tested. A Primark t-shirt sold in Germany contained 11% phthalates, and an American Apparel baby one-piece sold in the USA contained 0.6% phthalates.
  • Organotins, fungicides banned by the EU and found in three of five shoe samples and three clothing articles (of 21 tested). Organotins impact thePe immune and nervous systems of mammals.
  • Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) were found in each of 15 articles tested; one adidas swimsuit tested far higher than the limit set by Norway in 2014 and even by adidas in its Restricted Substances List.
  • Antimony was found in 100% of the articles tested; antimony is similar in toxicity to arsenic.

Greenpeace is calling on textile companies to recognize the urgency of the situation and to act as leaders in committing to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals and to our governments to support these commitments to zero discharge of all hazardous chemicals within one generation.

But it probably is most important that we, consumers with the all mighty dollar, demand that brands and governments make the changes that our children deserve. If you vote with your dollars, change will happen.

Click here to get the “Little Monsters: Field Guide to Hazardous Chemicals” from Greenpeace.

[1] World Health Organization (2013): World Health Statistics 2013.

[2] http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/02/childhood-food-skin-allergies-on-the-rise/

[3] Alberti, George, et al, “Type 2 Diabetes in the Young: The Evolving Epidemic”, American Diabetes Association, http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/27/7/1798.long

[4] http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/Global/eastasia/publications/reports/toxics/2013/A%20Little%20Story%20About%20the%20Monsters%20In%20Your%20Closet%20-%20Report.pdf

APEOs and NPEOs in textiles

24 01 2013

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEOs – often called alkyphenols or alkylphenyls) are surfactants which have an emulsifying and dispersing action, so they have good wetting, penetration, emulsification, dispertion, solubilizing and washing characteristics. This makes them suitable for a very large variety of applications: they’ve been used for over 50 years in a wide variety of products. In the textile industry, they are used in detergents and as a scouring, coating or waterproofing agents, in printing pastes and adhesives, and in dyeing. The most important APEO or alkylphenol ethoxylates for the textile industry are NPEO (nonylphenol ethoxylates) and OPEO (octylphenol ethoxylates) due to their detergent properties, but there are a big family. About 90% of the produced APEO are in fact NPEO.

The three critical issues in making APEOs and NPEOs in the environment of particular concern are:

  1. They are everywhere. They’re in receipts, canned foods and couches, paint and spot cleaners. They’re in the dust in our homes, our blood and urine, in breast milk and in the cord blood of newborns. Concentrations of NP and its parent compound NPEO have been measured worldwide in surface waters, sediments, sewage, the atmosphere, aquatic organisms, and even in typical human food products. And most disturbingly, these concentrations of APEOs are on the rise.(1) The U.S. EPA has noted rising levels of alkylphenols in water samples taken from streams and rivers throughout the U.S.
  2. The life cycles indicate long term, continued environmental contamination. APEOs are slow to biodegrade and they tend to bioaccumulate. They also move up the food chain and ultimately to us. Though APEOs themselves are not carcinogenic, teratogenic or mutagenic, research has shown that when they do degrade, their byproducts have a higher toxicity, estrogenic activity, persistence and tendence to bioaccumulate than APEOs themselves.(2)
  3. They have been shown to be toxic to aquatic organisms and an endocrine disruptor in higher animals, and therefore they pose a risk to humans. As an environmental hormone disruptor, these new substances can invade the human body through a variety of channels, with estrogen-like effects, and are harmful to normal hormone secretion, leading to reduced sperm count in men. Research published in the September 2006 edition of Toxicological Sciences shows that the human placenta responds to alkylphenyls in the first trimester.(3) The result may be early termination of pregnancy and fetal growth defect.(4)

Think of using fish to replace the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Because most mills do not treat their wastewater, the effluent containing these APEOs is discharged directly into our groundwater, where it is a major source of hormone disruption in fish species. The classic example is intersex attributes in fish (suppression of testes growth in males), with other reproductive effects and anomalies; in one study, egg production of zebrafish, exposed to wastewater effluent contaminated with APEOs, was reduced by up to 89.6% (5) ; other studies found a reduced percentage of fertilized eggs, reduced embroyo survival, and abmormal embroys (6) . These results and other studies indicate that the reproductive potential of native fishes may be compromised in wastewater-dominated streams due to the presence of alkylphenyls (7). Other studies have determined that fish, when exposed to these environmental estrogens, cannot regulate their internal homeostasis (called osmoregulation, which is related to the ability of fish to prevent dehydration or waterlogging , and buffers them against the effect of fresh or sea water). These studies of APEOs in US rivers have led scientists to conclude that fish are currently being impacted – they’re our canaries.

  1. Researchers at UC Davis  found that offspring of  fish in San Francisco estuary had underdeveloped brains, inadequate energy supplies and dysfunctional livers. They grew slower and were smaller than offspring of hatchery fish raised in clean water.

    Researchers at UC Davis found that offspring of fish in San Francisco estuary had underdeveloped brains, inadequate energy supplies and dysfunctional livers. They grew slower and were smaller than offspring of hatchery fish raised in clean water.

Wastewater treatment facilities theoretically have the capabilities of effectively breaking down APEOs, but they are often not designed to remove them from the effluent. Most often sewer sludge contains these APEOs.

In the U.S., these chemicals are basically unregulated, nor is there any restriction on their use. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has focused research efforts on determining acceptable levels of these compounds in water and identified NPEs as well as the chemical nonylphenol (NP) for further study because of concern about their impact on the environment and us. Why has nothing been done? Because as you might imagine, this is big business, and the chemical lobby has not only impeded regulation but has even tried to block research.(8) The lack of action on the part of environmental regulators in the United States stems largely in part from the research conducted by the Alkylphenol and Ethoxylate Research Council formed by the Chemical Manufacturers Association to conduct studies on APEO (APE Research Council, 2001). To date this panel has disputed all claims that NP concentrations in waterways of the United States are above concentrations where a significant effect would be realized. The Alkylphenol and Ethoxylate Research Council also contests the estrogenic potential of NP (APE Research Council, 2001) (9).

In Europe, the use of NPEO has been banned or voluntarily restricted since 1986. Since 1998, the use of APEO in detergents has been forbidden in Germany – and since January 2005 the EU directive 2003/53/ EG has forbidden the use of NPEO in higher concentrations than 0.1% in product formulations. However it will take years before there is progress in phasing out APEOs completely, as was done by Norway in 2002.(10)

Although forbidden in the EU, many companies have production sites or suppliers outside Europe, where the use of NPEO is not forbidden. Textile eco-labels such as the EU flower and Öko-Tex 1000 have also forbidden the use of APEOs.

But voluntary certifications and the prohibition in some countries is not enough to stem the tide, as Greenpeace found recently. Their Detox Campaign was designed to expose the links between clothing brands, their suppliers and toxic water pollution around the world. The Greenpeace studies found that these NPEs aren’t just expelled into wastewater – they also remain in the finished textile. The chemicals found in the finished clothing of top name brands (Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Victoria’s Secret, among others) included nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). Concentrations of NPEOs were found in 89 garments (just under two thirds of those tested) at levels ranging from just above 1 part per million up to 45000 parts per million in the top name brand items tested (Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Victoria’s Secret, H&M, Gap among others) (11); over 20% of the items tested had more than 100 parts per million.

To see the PBS series on Frontline entitled “Poisoned Waters”, click here.

[1] Zoller, Uri, “Endocrine disrupting APEOs in Isreal/Palestinian water resrouces: What should it take to prevent future pollution?”, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/228493491_ENDOCRINE_DISRUPTING_APEOs_IN_ISRAELIPALESTINIAN_WATER_RESOURCES_WHAT_SHOULD_IT_TAKE_TO_PREVENT_FUTURE_POLLUTION
[2] Wessels, Denise, “Policy Brief: Endocrine Disrupters in Wastewater Alkylphenol Ethoxylates and the City of Indianapolis Combined Sewer System”,
[3] Bechi, N., Estrogen-Like Response to p-Nonylphenol in Human First Trimester Placenta and BeWo Choriocarcinorna Cells, Toxicological Sciences, 93(1), 75-8 1 (September, 2006).http:lltoxsci.oxford~ournals.org/cgi/content~full/93/1l75.
[4] Potential adverse effects of NP and NPEs on human health is also discussed in Vazquez-Duhalt, Nonylphenol, an integrated vision of a pollutant, Applied Ecology and Environmental Research 4(1): 1-25 ISSN1589 1623, http:lIwww.ecology.kee.hu~pdf/O401~001025.pdf. Widespread exposure of the U.S. population to NP has been demonstrated. Calafat, A., Kuklenyik Z., Reidy J., Cauhll S., Ekong J., Needham L. 2005. Urinary Concentrations of Bisphenol A and 4-Nonylphenol in a Human Reference Population. Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 113, p. 391. NP at high doses has been llnked to breast cancer in mice. BBC News. 2005. Chemical Link to Breast Cancer.http:llnews.bbc.co.uW1/hl/healthl676129.strnin 612005.
[5] Tyler, C.R. and Routledge, E.J., “Oestrogenic effects in fish in English rivers with evidence of their causation”, Dept. of Biology and Biochemistry, Brunel University, UK, Pure and Applied Chemistry, Vol 70, No. 9 pp. 1796-1804, 1998.
[6] Dickey, Philip, “Troubling Bubbles: Alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactants”, Washington Toxics Coalition
[7] “Response to comments submitted by the Alkylphenols and ethoxylates research council”, by Victoria Whitney, Deputy Director, Division of Water Quality, State Water Resources Control Board, Sacramento, California, June 20, 2011 ALSO SEE: Tyler, C.R. and Routledge, E.J., “Oestrogenic effects in fish in English rivers with evidence of their causation”, Dept. of Biology and Biochemistry, Brunel University, UK, Pure and Applied Chemistry, Vol 70, No. 9 pp. 1796-1804, 1998.
(8) Kristof, Nicholas, “Warnings from a Flabby Mouse”, New York Times, January 19, 2013.
[9] Porter, A. and Hayden, N., “Nonylphenol in the Environment: A Critical Review”, Dept of Civil and Encironmental Engineering, University of Vermont.
[10] Norris, David and Carr, James, “Endocrine Disruption: Biological Bases for Health Effects in Wildlife and Humans”, Oxford University Press, 2006
[11] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/Campaign-reports/Toxics-reports/Big-Fashion-Stitch-Up/