Commentary: 25 Years of Endocrine Disruptor Research – Great Strides, But Still a Long Way to Go

written by Laura N. Vandenberg, PhD
Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director of Environmental Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences

Laura N. Vandenberg

Laura Vandenberg (Credit:

Reprinted with permission from Environmental Health News

Cancer. Diabetes. Autism. Infertility. ADHD. Asthma. As the rates of these diseases increase over time, the public and researchers alike have focused on the role the environment might play in their cause and progression. Scientists in the field of environmental health sciences are not satisfied just to know that the environment contributes to human disease – they want to know how.

This week [ScienceSeptember 18-20], researchers, public health advocates, government officials, and industry spokespersons will meet at National Institutes of Health (NIH) to celebrate 25 years of scientific research on one aspect of environmental health: endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These are compounds that alter the way hormones act in the body, often by mimicking or blocking their actions. Just a few examples of widely used consumer products that contain EDCs are plastics, electronics, flooring, some personal care products, and furniture treated with some flame retardants.

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Toward a Sustainable, Health-based Food System

Elise Miller, MEd

Most of us have heard of Michael Pollan’s ‘An Eater’s Manifesto’: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Excellent advice for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a variety of food choices. The challenge of course is that our current industrialized food system (and related sectors such as advertising) encourages us to eat lots of food-like substances and high on the food chain—and for many in inner cities, finding a fresh vegetable, much less an organic one, can be as rare as gold.

In addition to these challenges, hormone disruptors (also known as endocrine disrupting chemicals) are found in everything from the feed given to animals to the pesticides sprayed on crops to the plastic additives in packaging—all of which we end up ingesting. These chemicals are now associated with a range of health concerns, including obesity, diabetes, certain cancers, neurological disorders and reproductive health problems, as the Endocrine Society described in their recent consensus statement. And then there are issues such as the use of antibiotics in food, the importation of foods that aren’t required to meet US standards, and food-borne viruses like e.coli.

The good news is that organizations on national, state and local levels are beginning to press for a health-based food system. For example, the American Medical Association (AMA) recently adopted a policy resolution “in support of practices and policies within health care systems that promote and model a healthy and ecologically sustainable food system.” In addition, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and The National Research Council (NRC) released a report last week that emphasized the need for local governments to create environments in which people make healthful lifestyle decisions. The statement calls for municipalities to “discourage fast-food restaurants near schools and playgrounds through zoning, provide tax incentives for groceries in underserved areas, and create nutritional standards for government-run after-school programs.” In addition, myriad groups across the country are promoting Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and working with local school districts to develop “farm to school” initiatives that would help local farmers as well as improve the quality of the food served in schools.

The question is whether these actions are enough to shift the economy towards a sustainable, health-based food system given the deeply intertwined and diverse set of players involved in the production and marketing of food. In an ecological or systems biology model, all the interacting factors work in concert, each as a complement to the other and each supporting the system as a whole. Right now at the federal level, the Department of Agriculture doesn’t collaborate with the Food and Drug Administration which doesn’t work with Environmental Protection Agency nor the Department of Housing and Urban Development nor the Department of Transportation, and so on—at times, in fact, some of these agencies even work at odds. Then on the local level, public health departments rarely work with school districts or planning commissions, certainly not in regards to the availability of high quality food.

This of course means we need to coordinate these efforts more effectively on every level if we are to improve the health of current and future generations. If you are interested in learning more about these issues and what we can do to address then, please join us on our next CHE Partner call entitled Food Matters: The Impact of Food Systems on Public Health to be held on September 22, 2009.

Common Sense Steps

Frieda Slavin

Science is rarely certain about anything, and certainly not about most links between environmental exposures and health effects in people. Nonetheless, the evidence showing links to health grows ever stronger as research progresses and becomes ever-more sophisticated:

  • Scientists have generated compelling laboratory evidence revealing adverse effects in animals at low levels of exposure, affecting animal endpoints that are relevant to cancer, birth defects, reproductive effects, immune system dysfunctions, respiratory problems, learning and behavior problems, etc.
  • They have demonstrated that many of the underlying mechanisms causing those effects in animals are similar, if not identical, to human mechanisms.
  • They have documented human exposures to chemicals at levels that produce harm of many types in animals.
  • And they have identified trends in human health and disability that can be predicted on the basis of the above.

But establishing scientific certainty of harm to people is elusive at best and in many cases likely to be impossible before countless people would be affected adversely. After all, epidemiology can only establish harm after an epidemic has occurred. Purposefully carrying out controlled experiments on people is considered, appropriately, unethical. And thus we are left with the plethora of uncontrolled, largely unmonitored experiments currently underway because of ubiquitous exposure.

Given these limitations, and given that our current regulatory system is unlikely to strengthen exposure standards absent much firmer proof, what is a person, or a parent, or a family, to do?

Much good, practical advice is available on the web and in print. Some of the best places to turn for practical advice are listed below. In addition to pointing toward these resources, on this page we will highlight a few old themes (“constants”) and then focus on new issues that are emerging from recent research and analysis.

One general point: As you make choices about products to buy, things to do, food to eat, places to go, bear in mind that government standards for regulating environmental threats to health are at best a bare minimum and at worst completely inadequate and health threatening. So what you choose to do should always at least live up to those standards.

This is because government regulations represent a compromise negotiated between advocates for public health and parties, usually companies or trade associations, with an economic interest in protecting their access to the market. The playing field in which the negotiation takes place is strongly biased in favor of the vested interests, who have succeeded over several decades of lobbying to put in place evidentiary standards for proof of harm that make it very difficult to prevent marketing of new products, or removal of old, even in the face of compelling evidence of plausible harm. Decades of experience reinforce that conclusion.


  • Smoking harms adults, children and the developing fetus. It’s not just the irritation of the smoke itself, it’s also compounds added to the tobacco, the paper and the filter that make their way into your lungs and your bloodstream. Rules #1-3: don’t smoke; don’t inflict second-hand smoke on someone else; and don’t allow smokers to share their second-hand smoke with you or your family, especially your young children.
  • The fetus is remarkably sensitive to alcohol. Avoid alcoholic beverages during pregnancy. Otherwise impacts can last a lifetime.
  • Ozone damages developing lungs. While studies have shown for some time that ozone can trigger asthmatic attacks, the latest research even implicates ozone in the actual causation of asthma itself. When ozone levels rise and local governments issue air pollution warnings, pay attention. Some local newspapers carry regular ozone notices. They are worth reading and heeding.
  • Pollutants in some fish can damage the fetus, undermining development of disease resistance and cognitive development. Heed fish advisories posted by public health agencies.
    New York State Dept of Health: Health Advisories on Chemicals in Fish
  • Some plastics leach biologically-active materials into food with which they come into contact, particularly when heated. If you must use plastic, at least don’t microwave food in it.


Web and print resources

The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition’s HealtheHouse: an interactive resource for parents to learn about simple and effective steps they can take to protect their baby from environmental harm within the home.

The GreenGuide’s product reports: “a one-stop, reliable and easy-to-use shoppers’ guide so that you can make wiser, more conscientious shopping decisions.” Reports available include “flea control,” “insect repellant” and “household cleaning supplies.”

Raising Healthy Children in A Toxic World, a book by Philip Landrigan, Herbert Needleman and Mary Landrigan.

The Resource Guide on Children’s Environmental Health, by the Children’s Environmental Health Network.

Cleaning for Health: Products and Practices for a Safer Indoor Environment, an excellent and thorough review of cleaning products by Inform, Inc.

The Healthy School Network: ways to reduce exposures at school.

The Healthy Building Network: steps to reduce exposures via better selection of building materials and hospital equipment.

A number of organizations offer solid information about ways to reduce pesticide use. Among them: