The Big Food giants, the pesticide and genetic engineering corporations such as Monsanto, the chemical, cosmetics, body care, food packaging, bottled water, and home furnishings industries—they all have a dirty secret.

All of these industries make products that are routinely laced with dangerous, often deadly chemicals called hormone (or endocrine) disruptors. These chemicals can make you (and your children) fat, diabetic, susceptible to cancer and infertility. They can cause damaging mental and behavioral changes. Pregnant women who ingest even tiny amounts of these chemicals can give birth to boys with genital deformities, and girls who will reach puberty at an alarming young age.

All these "Better Living Through Chemistry" companies and their PR firms and trade associations, bolstered by their minions in the mass media and academia, like to reassure us that these toxic, carcinogenic, gender-bending compounds in their products have been thoroughly tested and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulatory bodies.

They spend millions of dollars in advertising and lobbying to convince the public and the regulatory agencies not to worry about what they describe as "a tiny amount" of Roundup/glyphosate/atrazine/2,4 D weed killer, phthalate, flame retardant, triclosan, or other hormone disruptor in your food, plastic toy, water bottle, perfume, mattress, anti-bacterial hand soap, or other household product, (and of course your urine and your blood stream). It's just a little poison. Just like that little bit of lead or pesticide or nitrogen fertilizer residue in your tap water, hormone disruptors are something you can learn to live with, right?

No wonder millions of consumers, especially pregnant women and parents of young children, have lost faith in big corporations and the government, and are switching to organic food and other truly natural, non-chemically tainted products.

There's mounting evidence that genetically engineered and chemically sprayed crops can pose great danger to people's health—danger that starts at the hormonal level. New research shows that the additives (co-formulants) used in glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, may have damaging endocrine-disrupting effects. That's sobering news, given that billions of pounds of Roundup are sprayed on both GMO and non-GMO crops every year, everywhere in the world.

We don't have any trouble understanding the potential of a chemical to cause brain damage, or birth defects, or cancer. But damage to the hormone/endocrine system? That's less obvious to those of us who don't have a clear understanding of the role hormones play in the human body—or how even tiny amounts of agrichemical and industrial compounds can disrupt those hormones, wreaking havoc with our health.

Biology 101: the endocrine system

Before you can understand how endocrine disruptors work, it's crucial to learn first what the endocrine system does. This exquisitely balanced yet complex system of glands and hormones regulates vital functions, such as:
  • Body growth
  • Stress response
  • Insulin production and utilization
  • Intelligence and behavior
  • Sexual development and reproduction
  • Metabolism
  • Immunity
The endocrine glands, which include the thyroid, pituitary, adrenal, pancreas, thymus, ovaries, and testes, release carefully measured amounts of hormones into your bloodstream. These act as natural chemical messengers that travel to different parts of the body in order to control and adjust many life functions.

Once endocrine disruptors enter the picture, this harmonious process is thrown off balance.

What are hormone/endocrine disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors (also called endocrine-disrupting compounds or EDCs) are synthetic, man-made chemicals used in everyday applications and products, such as personal care and household products, agricultural chemicals, plastics and more. These external substances affect your body by mimicking, antagonizing or complexly disrupting specific endocrine pathways.

There are different ways endocrine disruptors can affect your health. In some cases, they can mimic a natural hormone which then fools the body into over-responding to the stimulus. A good example of this would be if you ingested the IGF-1 growth hormone factor found in Monsanto's (now Elanco's) genetically engineered recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). This hormone, injected into dairy cows to force them to produce more milk, can potentially cause the proliferation of cancer cells in humans consume rBGH-derived milk. (More here).

Other hormone-disrupting chemicals can cause the human body to respond at inappropriate times, for instance by triggering insulin production at times when the body doesn't actually need it.

Other EDCs can block growth hormones needed for normal development. Some directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system, causing overproduction or underproduction of hormones. Too much or too little of a hormone, caused by chemicals outside the body that disrupt the endocrine system, can damage your health in multiple ways.

Associated with a wide range of health problems

The adverse consequences of EDCs have been proven by scientific research on laboratory animals, fish and wildlife and human epidemiology. In humans, endocrine disruptors are said to cause reproductive health problems (such as poor sperm quality, abnormalities in male sex organs, infertility, and even precocious puberty), affect immune, thyroid and nervous system function, and even raise your risk of certain diseases like cancer.

The World Health Organization (WHO), along with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), released a report in 2013 on the effects of EDCs. Touted as one of the most comprehensive reports on these chemicals, the findings revealed a wide variety of health problems associated with these synthetic substances. These include:
  • Non-descended testes in young males
  • Developmental effects on the nervous system in children
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children
  • Prostate cancer in men
  • Breast cancer in women
  • Thyroid cancer
Endocrine disruptors have also been associated with other health problems, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and impaired mental development. Unborn children are at a particularly high risk, as animal studies found that exposure to even small amounts of certain EDCs during pregnancy may trigger childhood or adult obesity. There are some EDCs that can target beta and alpha cells in the pancreas, as well as liver and fat cells, which may lead to insulin-resistance and Type 2 Diabetes.

Lurking in your home right now?

What really makes endocrine disruptors so dangerous is how ubiquitous they are. There are hundreds of these pervasive chemicals today. Your body can absorb them through inhalation, through your skin or by ingesting them directly from food. And they are everywhere—in food tainted with pesticides, personal care products, antibacterials, electronics, textiles and clothing. Plastics, laundry detergents and cleaning products, and even office supplies may all contain EDCs.

So that means that the food you eat, the water you drink, the bed you sleep in, and even the cookware you use every day may be exposing you to some type of endocrine disruptor.

What are the most common hormone disruptors to watch out for? These include:
  • Pesticide residues in foods. Most non-organic grocery store or restaurant foods, including produce, processed foods, meat and animal products contain pesticide residues, many of which are endocrine or hormone disruptors.
  • Flame-retardant chemicals like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are used in household goods, furniture, and even mattresses. These are said to mimic thyroid hormones, which can lead to decreased fertility. Exposure to PBDEs in utero and during childhood was also associated with neurodevelopmental delays in school-age children.
  • Phthalates, commonly used in personal care products like perfumes, hair spray, mousse and gel, and lotions are gender-bending chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine systems of animals, leading to testicular cancer, infertility, and genital deformation.
  • Bisphenol-A (BPA) mimics estrogen and may cause brain damage, hyperactivity, poor immune function and prostate health and early puberty. BPA is one of the most widely used chemicals, found in plastics, receipts, and canned goods (it coats 75 percent of cans in North America). Its supposedly "safe" counterpart, bisphenol-S (BPS), is harmful as well.
  • Triclosan, found in antibacterial products, soap, and certain toothpaste brands, can alter hormone regulation, interfere with fetal development and increase your risk of cancer.
Are you consuming EDC-loaded foods?

Going back to pesticides, remember that unless you're consuming raw, organic fruits and vegetables from trustworthy sources that don't use pesticides, then you're at risk of exposure to endocrine disruptors.

One study clearly demonstrates this. Conducted by British scientists and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the study revealed that many agricultural pesticides disrupt male hormones. The study found that 30 of 37 widely used pesticides tested by researchers either blocked or mimicked male hormones. Sixteen of the 30 had no known hormonal activity until now, while 14 had some previous evidence of this effect. None of these 16 pesticides are included in the EPA's Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program, which will test 200 chemicals in food and water for their hormone-disrupting abilities.

Of the tested compounds, fenitrothion, an organophosphate insecticide used on orchard fruits, rice and other grains, vegetables, was the most potent in terms of blocking androgens. Unsurprisingly, the EPA plan to study fenitrothion faces strong opposition from the pesticide industry.

R. Thomas Zoeller, chairman of the Biology department at the University of Massachusetts, said the British study was very important, as it reveals that the pesticides most prevalent in the human population affect the androgen receptor:
"Considering all the evidence that human male reproduction is exhibiting troubling secular trends (sperm count and quality, hypospadias, cryptorchidism, testis cancer), this is highly troubling."
Exposure to EDCs isn't limited to consuming pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables. Meat, dairy and other animal products may put you at risk of EDCs. Animals raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) typically consume antibiotics, hormones and other industrial chemicals that may have hormone-disrupting properties. Even farmed fish and seafood harvested from polluted waters and exposed to heavy metals may also have dangerously high levels of endocrine-disrupting contaminants.

How to reduce your exposure

As the saying goes, prevention is always better than cure. According to the 2013 WHO and UNEP report, the effects of EDCs may not show up until decades later - when it may be too late.

Instead of waiting for the effects of EDCs to strike, you should make a conscious effort to avoid them in the first place. Here are some of the easiest ways to do this:
  • Reduce your exposure to EDC-containing pesticides and fertilizers by buying only organic produce and 100% grass-fed, free-range, organic meats. Avoid processed, prepackaged foods as well, as these are common sources of BPA and phthalates.
  • Buy products that come in glass jars or bottles, rather than plastic containers or cans.
  • Use only natural cleaning products at home. Better yet, make your own. Baking soda, vinegar and lemon are some ingredients you can use.
  • Opt for organic personal care brands, like shampoos, toothpaste, cosmetics and antiperspirants. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a comprehensive database on safe and high-quality products that are free of EDCs and other potentially harmful chemicals.
  • Avoid products with artificial fragrances like fabric softeners, dryer sheets and air fresheners. Opt instead for those that are fragrance-free.
The best way to avoid endocrine disruptors is to choose products that are made by companies that support sustainability, and that are Earth-friendly and certified organic. By making smart consumer choices, you can limit your exposure to these damaging chemicals and protect your health in the long run.

About the author

Elaine Catherine R. Ferrer is a contributing writer to the Organic Consumers Association and Mercola.com.

Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association.