I’m not a scientist. As someone in the field of personal care products, the issue of endocrine disruption has been one of arch pragmatism. Cosmetics are a nice-to-have product, sunscreens are a need-to-have, but both have such a diversity of offerings that I can afford to be selective. I’ve always been of the mind that if I can choose between something that has some controversy associated with it and something that has no controversy- controversy-free will always win the day. As I said, practical thinking. However, I’ve never fully understood what endocrine disruption could mean for my body and thus it’s always been a bit of an abstract concept. It’s also one that emerged from a more fringe group of intellectualism and science. It’s only been the past 5 years or so that it’s started to get real mainstream traction.
The latest summary from the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, titled “State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals”, is actually from 2012. I’ll admit it’s my first time reading it but I think its impact has been largely lost otherwise there would be more of a collective freak-out going on. Detox has become a common word but do we understand what we are detoxing from, whether we fully can, and how it’s truly impacting our health across generations, eco-systems and species? I’ve heard physicians in different capacities dismiss the impact of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals [EDC’s] repeatedly and often. Many claim, ‘We pee it out! Our bodies are adept at removing toxins on their own,”- their conclusion then is what we put on our skin is moot.
Here are some take-aways from the State of Science documents that dispute that claim. The document is roughly 30 pages but it’s well written and clear enough for all of us to understand. I think what gives this document the ultimate level of credibility is that it’s a survey of all published studies rather than presenting data from a single source. They also have no specific agenda- they’re merely showing what work has been done and what needs to further done. Below are some of the cliff-note snippets but I encourage everyone to read it for themselves.
Key Finding: “Numerous laboratory studies support the idea that chemical exposures contribute to endocrine disorders in humans and in wildlife. The most sensitive window of exposure to EDCs is during critical periods of development such as during fetal development and puberty”. (page 3)
Conclusion: We’ve always been sensitive as to what a pregnant woman uses on her body during that particular time in her life since we are very wary of its possible effect on her unborn child (CyberDERM sunscreens were first created with pregnant women in mind!). I don’t know that as much attention has been paid to children in the pre-adolescent phases. In either case, as the rest of the document goes on to explain, exposure that pre-date these phases might have serious implications.As well, this should affect how we test for endocrine disruption; “Instead of solely studying effects of exposures in adulthood, the effects of exposures during sensitive windows in fetal development, perinatal life, childhood and puberty require careful scrutiny” (page 3).
Key Finding: “A focus on linking one EDC to one disease severely underestimates the disease risk from mixtures of EDCs. We know that humans and wildlife are simultaneously exposed to many EDCs; thus, the measurement of the linkage between exposure to mixtures of EDCs and disease or dysfunction is more physiologically relevant. In addition, it is likely that exposure to a single EDC may cause disease syndromes or multiple diseases, an area that has not been adequately studied” (page 4).
Conclusion: We don’t have fully validated and all –encompassing testing methods to be able to detect these disruptions at these life stages. Endocrine disruption can have subtle effects that do not exhibit right away but can “lead to an increased incidence of diseases throughout life” (page 4). The summary makes mention of some real potential associations between EDC’s and current increases in physiological disorders. For example, there has been a studied association between exposure to dioxins and PCB’s in childhood to reduced semen quality in adult men. It states that there are many associations that have not been proven but there are significant knowledge gaps.
Many of the studies that have demonstrated links between endocrine disrupting chemicals and disorders and diseases are criticized by the scientific community for not being rigorous enough. This summary shows that it’s quite difficult to mount the type of rigorous studies that would normally be accepted, partially due to a lack of testing methodology. Dr. Denis Dudley, the CEO of CyberDERM and physician board certified in Endocrinology and High Risk Obstetrics/Gynecology, has always made the argument that these rigorous types of studies would also be impractical and unethical. Would we ask pregnant mothers to use a cocktail of alleged endocrine disruptors and then track their effects through the mother and child’s life?
Key Finding: “EDC’s act like hormones. Like hormones, which act via binding to receptors at very low concentrations [emphasis added], EDC’s have the ability to be active at low concentrations, many in the range of current human and wildlife exposures. EDC’s can exert effects on more than estrogen, androgen and thyroid hormone action. Some are known to interact with multiple hormone receptors simultaneously. EDC’s can work together to produce additive or synergistic effects not seen with individual chemicals. EDC’s also act on a variety of physiological processes in a tissue specific manner and sometimes act via dose response curves that are non-monotonic (non-linear). Indeed as with hormones, it is often not possible to extrapolate low-dose effects from the high-dose effects of EDC’s. [Page 6]
Conclusion: This is one of the most powerful criticisms against the typical dosage argument presented by most academics. Commonly, data from animal studies is extrapolated to what would be the equivalent human dose. You’ve probably heard the standard response that humans are never exposed to the equivalent amounts in their lifetime with normal use. We’ve all heard the guest expert on TV proclaim something like, “You would need to be exposed to 50x of Y chemical over the course of 50 lifetimes in order to get the same level of exposure”. However, the above finding suggests that low doses of EDC’s can sometimes have more serious effects than high doses. It is not dosage dependent and you can’t extrapolate the data in that way.
This final excerpt is panic inducing and yet hopeful all at the same time, “Timing of exposure is also critical, as exposures during development likely lead to irreversible effects, whereas the effects of adult exposures seem to go away when the EDC is removed” [Page 6]. We need to be incredibly critical of the products that we give to our children as their exposure to EDC’s can have ripple effects throughout their life. For adults, we have a little bit more leeway in recouping our health if we stop now. Therefore, in the words often repeated by Oprah, ‘when you know better, you do better’. We can impact the health of our families and ourselves if we choose to act now- so act now.
Stay tuned for a more technical examination of this issue from Dr. Dudley in his upcoming blog post from The Sunscreen Doc and for some practical tips on what you and your family can do