- Endocrine disruptors are harmful chemicals that can be found in food, water and many consumer products.
- They disrupt our hormone system, which can lead to a wide range of significant health harms.
- It’s difficult but not impossible to avoid many endocrine disruptors.
Click here to download a free copy of EWG’s Guide to Endocrine Disruptors.
A class of potent chemicals is wreaking havoc by interfering with our hormone system. They’re called endocrine disruptors and they throw off the regular functioning of the hormone system, causing a wide range of health problems.
These substances can be found in thousands of consumer and industrial products. Food and drinking water are just two of the biggest sources of exposure.
What are endocrine disruptors?
The endocrine system is a network of signaling molecules or hormones, hormone-producing glands, and hormone receptors critical to many of the body’s core functions, like growth and development, reproduction, metabolism, sleep, and stress and immune response.
Endocrine disruptors are natural or synthetic chemicals that can disrupt the hormone system in many ways – increasing the production of some hormones, decreasing the production of others and interfering with their signaling, which can result in health problems.
These harms include reproductive issues like changes to fertility, early puberty and risk of low birth weight, obesity, diabetes, immune system impacts, cardiovascular and respiratory problems, some types of cancer, and neurological and behavioral problems. The developing fetus, infants and children are especially vulnerable, since their physiological systems are still developing.
How we’re exposed
You may have heard of some but not all of these chemicals. Some of the more familiar are pesticides and the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. (See table below for a list of some common endocrine disruptors.)
It’s virtually impossible to avoid exposure to these substances. They’re in almost everything we encounter every day, many times a day – cosmetics, tap water, dust, furniture, cookware, clothing, food including fruit and vegetables that have residues of pesticides on them, food storage containers and packaging.
Some of these chemicals can be detected nearly universally in blood or urine, like PFAS, phthalates, and BPA. Others, like atrazine, – can be found in the drinking water of nearly 30 million people in 28 states, according to a 2018 EWG analysis.
|Chemicals that interfere with the hormonal system|
|Pesticides – many affect the hormonal system, including atrazine and organophosphate pesticides|
|PFAS as a class|
|BPA and BPA alternatives|
|Some UV filters used in sunscreens, such as oxybenzone, may affect the hormonal system|
Effect on the environment
The impact of endocrine disruptors on some wildlife is even clearer than it is with people.
One way these chemicals have been shown to harm animals is the thinning of birds’ eggs, and lower birth rate as a result, after they've been exposed to the pesticide DDT. We’ve also seen reproductive abnormalities, such as male genitalia in female marine mollusks exposed to ship paint containing an endocrine-disrupting chemical.
What the government is doing
It’s the responsibility of the government, not individuals, to make sure we are protected from toxic endocrine-disrupting chemicals. But one of the difficulties we face with endocrine disruptors is the sheer variety of products they’re found in. Almost everywhere you turn, there’s another endocrine disruptor, which makes them hard to regulate.
It also means they fall under the purview of multiple agencies – the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Defense Department. This complicates attempts to regulate the chemicals, but the good news is some agencies are already acting to reduce our exposure to specific endocrine disruptors.
In June 2022, the EPA announced it had drastically lowered the amount of PFAS in water a person can safely be exposed to over a lifetime, from 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, to as low as 0.004 ppt for one of the most notorious chemicals in the PFAS family. That’s a win for consumers – 1 ppt is the equivalent of a drop in a half-million barrels of water, and 0.004 is much, much smaller.
Several important provisions that should reduce use and exposure as well as spur cleanup of PFAS pollution are included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023. But the agencies have not done enough to regulate these toxic chemicals. The agencies, particularly the DOD, must do more to quickly clean up the PFAS contamination that for decades has harmed communities, firefighters and service members.
The EPA banned all uses of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in 2021, but it must quickly lower the allowable amount of other endocrine disrupting pesticides still in use. The chemicals harm farmworkers and people living near agriculturally dense areas, and people who consume pesticide-contaminated foods.
The FDA has agreed to reconsider the safety of BPA use in materials that contact food, such as metal can coatings. And earlier in 2022, the agency began to review the safety of phthalates in food packaging and food production materials. The FDA has lowered the allowable level of lead in apple juice and released a plan to reduce levels of lead and other heavy metals in baby food. But this isn’t enough – the agency must close a loophole that allows food manufacturers, not the FDA, to decide which products are safe for consumers.
The FDA also needs to step up by assessing the safety of sunscreen ingredients and taking action to reduce human exposure to sunscreen chemicals that may affect human health.
Some states are stepping into the gap and regulating or banning some endocrine disruptors where the federal government has not yet acted.
How to minimize your exposure
- Choose clothing, carpeting, furniture and curtains without stain- and water-resistant finishes or fire-retardant treatments.
- Avoid anything made of vinyl – like flooring, which almost certainly contains phthalates.
- Dust and vacuum frequently, using a HEPA filter when possible, as this will help you lower your exposure to phthalates and PFAS, in addition to lead.
Food and cooking
- Consult EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ to reduce your exposure to toxic pesticide residues.
- Eat less meat and dairy, which can contain accumulated chemicals.
- Eat fresh, rather than processed or canned, food whenever possible.
- Filter your water. The right filter for your water can help remove harmful contaminants, including the endocrine-disruptors PFAS and pesticides. Consult the 2021 update to EWG’s Tap Water Database to find out what’s in your water, and then review our water filter guide for help figuring out which one is best for your home. (For many reasons, bottled water is not the best solution under almost all circumstances.)
- Steer clear of plastic wrap and canned foods, and never heat food in a microwave using plastic containers. Use glass in the microwave and stainless steel for storage. Avoid shatterproof plastic, PC 7, which can contain BPA, and flexible vinyl, PVC 3, which contains phthalates. And avoid takeout containers for the same reason.
- Try not to use nonstick cookware, utensils and other objects in the kitchen – look for cast iron, stainless steel, glass and wood instead.
Consumer and personal care products
- Instead of plastic toys and dolls, look for wood toys and cotton or other natural fiber for dolls.
- Read product labels and avoid those that list the mystery blend of chemicals simply called “fragrance.” Phthalates can be found in personal care products but also in cleaning products, diapers and other common consumer items. Phthalates aren’t always listed on ingredient labels, though, so consult EWG’s Skin Deep® and Guide to Healthy Cleaning to find safer products made without endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
- Use EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens to choose a safer sunscreen and avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone listed as the active ingredient.