Obesity, Infertility, and Low IQ Are Just Some of the Ways Household Chemicals Wreck Our Health

Eggs cooking in a nonstick pan, with a side of endocrine disruption. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)
Eggs cooking in a nonstick pan, with a side of endocrine disruption. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

A new analysis published in the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology on Tuesday found that a growing number of endocrine-disrupting household chemicals have been linked to widespread health problems, including infertility, diabetes, and impaired brain development. The researchers examined hundreds of studies published in the past five years to come to their conclusions, which also include listing PFAS as an endocrine disruptor.

A growing body of literature is focused on how everyday chemicals affect the endocrine system. A major catalyst for the surging interest in chemicals that disrupt the was a 2015 study commissioned by the Endocrine Society, which led to the identification of 15 different health problems that have been linked to endocrine disruptors. In 2017, the United Nations published a list of 45 known chemicals that studies show disrupt hormones, including ones found in pesticides, the lining of aluminium cans, cosmetics, and electronics.

But neither of those groundbreaking studies included information about a group of chemicals that scientists understand far better now than they did then: PFAS.

The group of chemicals collectively known as PFAS are used to give tons of household items ranging from nonstick pots and pans to food packaging. The chemicals are already a huge issue because they’re increasingly being found in some supplies of drinking water and they’re commonly called “forever” chemicals because they don’t breakdown. The new analysis shows that there’s ample evidence PFAS are endocrine disruptors.

The authors also looked other, previously listed endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including several chemicals which are used in pesticides, as well as bisphenols, which are a group of chemicals used to manufacture plastics and other products. They found that in the past five years, scientists have linked these chemicals to a list of health issues that’s getting longer. In the past five years, there’s been evidence linking the chemicals to 17 other medical conditions, including obesity, the painful condition endometriosis, and polycystic ovary syndrome, which is a significant cause of infertility.

The authors say new synthesis has also found emerging research linking exposure to PFAS, bisphenols, and some pesticides to the production of infertile semen while other studies have linked both endocrine-disrupting flame retardants and pesticides to mental health concerns such as IQ loss and attention deficit disorder.

This all just provides more evidence that we need to get the use of these chemicals under control. But the U.S. is doing a terrible job of that. In a companion analysis also published Tuesday, the scientists note that current regulations only aim to limit exposure to large doses of chemicals, which is nowhere near good enough.

“Multiple peer-reviewed studies have documented consistent effects at low-levels,” Leonardo Trasande, professor of environmental medicine and population health at NYU School of Medicine and a lead author on the two new analyses, told Earther in an email.

To remedy this, the authors call for the U.S. to overhaul its approach to regulating these chemicals. Trasande said it could look to the European Union, which has done a better job. Countries could establish an international program to identifies hazards. That way, the world can effectively regulate them before they hit the market.