Environmental chemicals may be potential endocrine disruptors

Research shows that environmental chemicals called phthalates have had harmful effects on lab animals, wildlife and humans.

Michigan State University Extension educators have partnered with MSU breast cancer researchers to share important findings from the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP). BCERP researchers at Michigan State University, along with those at universities and research institutions across the United States are studying the effects of certain environmental factors on the development of breast cancer.

What environmental factors are being studied? There is a growing body of evidence that suggests there are chemicals in our environment that mimic hormones, and these chemicals may interfere with the endocrine system. Research has found that these chemicals have had harmful effects on laboratory animals, wildlife and humans. Scientists refer to these chemicals as endocrine disruptors.

One set of endocrine disruptors being studied by the UCLA BCERP are called phthalates (THA-lates). These chemicals are found in certain types of plastic food and beverage containers and in many personal care products such as cosmetics, fragrance, nail polish, deodorant, hair care products and body lotions. They are also found in plastic and vinyl toys.

While there is limited scientific information available on the potential adverse human health effects of phthalates, scientists are still concerned. That is because endocrine disrupting chemicals present in the environment, even at very low levels, have been found to have negative effects in laboratory animals, as well as in wildlife.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals are believed by scientists to cause the greatest harm to developing bodies. For example, the chemicals may change the timing of when a girl develops breasts or gets her first period. The research is discovering that girls who get their first periods earlier than expected seem to be at greater risk of developing breast cancer as adults.

Human exposure to phthalates can result from direct contact, such as the application of lotions or deodorants; leaching from one product to another, which may happen with the packaging of food or personal care products; and through general contamination of the air, water, food and other parts of the environment.

How can you reduce your exposure to phthalates? Avoid plastic and vinyl products that have the number “3” in the recycling triangle. Instead, choose products made of cloth, porcelain or ceramic, metal and glass. Try to use fragrances, nail polish, deodorant, hair care products, body lotions, cosmetics, detergents and soaps that say “phthalate free” on the label. Look for those that do not have to word “phthalate” anywhere in the ingredient list. This includes ingredients like “di-n-butyl phthalate” or “diethyl phthalate” or “benzylbutyl phthalate.” You may also consider buying fragrance-free products. Phthalates aren’t always listed separately on labels and may just be part of the fragrance in the product ingredients.

More information on this topic is available in the National Institutes of Health publication, “Endocrine Disruptors.”

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