Endocrine disrupting chemicals, also known as hormonally active agents, are chemicals found in our environment that can interfere with the normal function of our body’s endocrine system. These chemicals can be found in almost every type of product we buy, particularly plastics, weedkillers, pesticides and, often, our foods.
The endocrine system controls and adjusts our hormones to maintain our growth, healing, metabolism, fertility, bones and our mood. It is also involved in appetite control, thirst and stress responses. Hormones have different effects in every single cell in our bodies. EDCs can affect the way our hormones are made, how they are transported in our blood stream and around our body, and how our body eliminates them. Therefore, as an endocrinologist, EDCs are extremely concerning.
A well-known example of an EDC is bisphenol A, or BPA, which is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1950s. You will now see plastic bottles labelled “BPA-free”. This is very important because BPA has been associated with health effects on the brain and prostate gland of foetuses, infants and children. It can also affect children’s behaviour. Other research suggests a possible link between BPA and type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Although we don’t test individuals for levels of these chemicals, there is certainly increased prevalence of endocrine disorders and therefore many of the patients that I see may have been affected by these EDCs. This includes patients suffering from conditions such as infertility, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis, sleep disorders, obesity and diabetes. Sperm counts in the Western world have fallen by 50 per cent in the past 40 years. There is also a reduction in sperm quality as well as higher incidences of erectile dysfunction and miscarriage.
Apart from damaging our health in the longer term, EDCs can also affect our development. They are associated with early puberty, birth defects and behavioural problems in children. There has been a huge increase in diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example. There is research showing that this increase is associated with the endocrine disrupters that are found in common plastics.
How do we know this? EDCs have been circulating in our environment, and therefore our bodies, for the past 50 years. These chemicals get stored in our fat cells. Once something is in our fat cells, we pretty much never get rid of them, so, if you were exposed to EDCs as a child, then as an adult they can also affect your offspring. Microplastics have been found in the ocean, fish, our lungs and brains and, most recently, in breast milk.
While BPA is no longer used in baby bottles, it is still used in many plastics, and other types of bisphenols are being used as substitutes. Although these chemicals are stable at room temperature, when heated, they can come out of the plastic. “Paper” coffee cups are an example of containers that are lined with plastics, but then we put hot liquid inside and the chemicals leach into our food and drink.
We can make decisions for ourselves and our families that will impact our future health and that of our descendants. Stop using “paper” coffee cups. Invest in a reusable coffee cup. Stop using Keurig coffee “pods”. I have a percolator at the office and at home I have a Nespresso coffee maker. These pods are made of aluminium and can go in the recycling. When I travel, I look for those that are compostable.
I have always wondered why Bermuda’s restaurants use Styrofoam and plastic for their takeout containers. In Britain, your Friday evening Indian takeaway was always in aluminium with a cardboard top. So much healthier. For food storage, I use Pyrex containers instead of plastic ones. This is particularly important if you use a microwave to reheat your food. Never use a plastic product when reheating food. I try to remember to take my own containers when going out for dinner if I think I’m going to need a doggy bag. I’m also very careful to avoid buying processed and imported food in plastic packaging. When this is brought via ship to Bermuda it will have been sitting in the heat while being transported for who knows how long.
We are lucky in Bermuda that there are water fountains provided by the Government in many locations where you can refill your reusable water bottle with our delicious rainwater for free rather than buying water in a plastic bottle that might have been sitting on a ship in the beating sun. I love sparkling water, so I buy that in glass bottles — again recyclable — if I’m out, but otherwise I make my own using a soda stream. I would love it if Barritt’s would start using glass bottles again. Before my time, you would get ten cents per bottle for bringing them back.
My pharmacist gives me even more opportunities to avoid plastic waste. I return the bottles that my prescriptions come in and they are reused. Every little bit helps and, when I sit on our beautiful Bermuda beaches and see bits of blue outnumbering the pink in our sand, I hope that we will all do our bit to make a change.
• Annabel Fountain, MD is a Bermudian endocrinologist and medical director of Fountain Health. She returned to Bermuda in 2010 and worked for the Bermuda Hospitals Board where she was Director of Endocrinology until November 2017