How much time do you spend thinking about your hormones? For most of us, conversations about hormones are limited to a few topics: teenagers, monthly cycles or menopause. But hormones are crucial for our bodies to operate optimally—for both genders and throughout our lives. Unfortunately, many common chemicals are scientifically proven to alter the way our brains produce and work with hormones. Hormone-disrupting chemicals can alter the actions of hormones by mimicking or blocking natural hormones, or by boosting hormone production. Disruptions to our bodies’ natural hormone balance affects us in multiple ways: Hormones affect our ability to reproduce, to regulate sugars, to concentrate and to maintain a healthy immune system.
Hormone-altering chemicals are common in our world. Some are naturally occurring, but most are man-made. Our scientific understanding of these substances varies: Some have not been widely studied, while others have been studied but are still not well understood. Understanding how your family comes in contact with these chemicals allows you to safeguard your home, reduce your exposure and improve your health.
This term refers to a large group of clear liquid chemicals that have a variety of uses, including as a solvent for lacquers, paints, perfumes and varnishes, and as an ingredient in cleaning products, foods, antifreeze and cosmetics. Some evaporate quickly and can rapidly reach hazardous levels in the air.
Most people become exposed to glycol ethers when using one of these products, either when they inhale the fumes or when these chemicals come in contact with the skin. Glycol ethers can enter the body through the skin without causing a rash. Overexposure can cause anemia; intoxication; kidney and liver damage; or irritation of the eyes, skin, nose and throat. Such levels of exposure are above safe limits, and they have also caused reproductive problems and anemia in test animals.
Even low levels of exposure can have a health impact, especially on unborn fetuses and young children. A recent study by Harvard University and Sweden’s Karlstad University indicated that preschool-age children with low-level exposure to glycol ethers from paint and solvents were two to four times more likely to have allergies and asthma. This finding may help explain why these health issues have been on the rise among children in developing countries since the 1970s.
The health effects of glycol ethers vary by the specific ether. Ethylene glycol ethers, for example, have been shown to damage red blood cells or bone marrow (where red blood cells form), causing anemia. This can result in tiredness, shortness of breath and weakness. Studies have also shown that some types of glycol ethers lower sperm counts in men and cause embryonic death and abnormalities in a variety of animal species.
Avoid it: To reduce your exposure to glycol ethers, ensure that you use cleaning products without these chemicals, as they are common ingredients in a variety of home cleaners—even some that are advertised as green products. Avoid exposure by using the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaners. Read household product labels to avoid purchasing products that contain harmful ingredients such as 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME).
When remodeling your home, look for safer products. Green Seal-certified paints cannot contain hazardous air pollutants named in the EPA Clean Air Act, which includes some glycol ethers. Or choose milk paint or clay-based paints, which don’t include chemicals. When painting or varnishing, ensure proper ventilation during and after application by using fans and opening windows and doors. Also, prepare a nursery well in advance of the baby’s arrival so that offgasing has decreased by the time the baby is using the room.
Used throughout history, this odorless and tasteless chemical is notoriously poisonous. Humans are commonly exposed to arsenic in water, air, food and soil. Arsenic enters waterways through natural deposits in the earth, or from agricultural and industrial practices. Due to its toxicity to insects, fungi and bacteria, it’s used to preserve wood. It’s also found in soaps, dyes, metals and semiconductors, and is used in mining and smelting.
Arsenic can interfere with the balance of hormones in the glucocorticoid system, which regulates how our bodies process sugars and carbohydrates. This is linked with weight gain or loss, osteoporosis, immunosuppression, insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes) and high blood pressure. Some drinking water can have elevated rates of arsenic, particularly in the western and north-central U.S. Studies have demonstrated that high levels of arsenic in the water result in an increased instance of lung, bladder, skin, liver and kidney cancers; skin lesions; neurological effects; diabetes; and cardiovascular disease. Arsenic exposure is also linked to decreased production of red and white blood cells, fatigue and impaired nerve function.
Avoid it: For most individuals, food is a primary means of ingesting arsenic, with an estimated average intake of 3.2 micrograms per day. Arsenic is absorbed by all foods, but leafy vegetables, rice, apple and grape juice, and seafood have higher concentrations. You can reduce the potential arsenic levels in your rice with cooking methods: Select Indian or Thai rice; rinse it thoroughly; cook it with extra water; and drain and rinse again after cooking.
It’s important to determine the arsenic levels of your drinking and cooking water—if you live in a town or city, ask your local water company how you can find out your water’s arsenic levels. If you have a well, have it tested for arsenic regularly. If your water’s levels are higher than 10 parts per billion (the maximum contaminant level under the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act), use a filter certified to remove arsenic, such as a distillation system. If you live in an area with high arsenic levels in the soil (find testing kits online or in hardware stores), you can reduce your exposure with a few smart habits: Wash your hands after gardening; plant dense ground covers in your yard to avoid contact with dirt; thoroughly wash garden fruits and vegetables; keep your home clean; remove shoes when entering the home; and use an air filter.
One of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S., atrazine is primarily applied to corn, sugar cane, pineapple, sorghum and evergreen trees, both before and after planting to control weeds. It’s sometimes applied on residential lawns or along highways and railroad tracks. It’s widely used in most states but especially in the Midwest. Runoff can contaminate drinking water sources. In water, this chemical breaks down slowly, so it persists in wells, lakes and rivers. Atrazine is also found in the air near where it’s applied and can travel long distances on dust particles. This chemical can enter the body through drinking water, can be absorbed through the skin if one comes in contact with atrazine-contaminated water or soil, or can be inhaled.
Animal studies show that atrazine changes blood hormone levels that affect the ability to reproduce. Once it enters the bloodstream, it can change into substances called metabolites, a form in which it can enter organs. Maternal exposure to atrazine is linked to low fetal weight and urinary, limb and heart defects. Studies indicate a possible link between atrazine and preterm delivery, prostate cancer, decreased sperm counts, impaired fertility in humans, and increased estrogen production in animal tests. In animal studies, atrazine also causes liver, kidney and heart damage.
Because of health and environmental concerns, atrazine has been banned in seven European countries, including France and Germany.
Avoid it: Fortunately, atrazine doesn’t build up in the body and typically exits within 48 hours. It’s not found in many food samples, is not known to accumulate in living organisms, and therefore doesn’t build up in the food chain.
To decrease your exposure, avoid being around farmland when atrazine is being applied, swimming in contaminated waterways (especially in spring and summer), and using atrazine on your lawn. Drinking water contamination is particularly common in the Midwest. Because many water utilities lack the proper filters to remove this herbicide, filter water that is known or suspected to contain atrazine. Use a carbon filter with granular activated carbon, or select a filter certified to remove atrazine by using the Environmental Working Group’s Water Filter Buying Guide.
This chemical is found in rocket fuel, flares, fireworks, fertilizers, herbicides and bleaching agents, and has been finding its way into our food and drinking water. It’s water-soluble and can remain in waterways for decades.
Perchlorate can impact thyroid function, resulting in severe health issues. In adults, the thyroid regulates the metabolism through the release of hormones. In children, the thyroid also impacts growth and development. When perchlorate enters the body, it prevents the thyroid gland from taking up iodine, decreasing the amounts of thyroid hormones in the blood. This can cause hypothyroidism, resulting in chronic fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating and weight gain in adults, as well as slow growth, poor mental development and delayed puberty in children. Ensuring proper iodine levels is an important way to minimize the health effects of perchlorate.
Avoid it: Determine whether your drinking and cooking water has concerning levels of perchlorate by testing your water with a home-testing kit (available at hardware stores). The EPA is currently working on setting limits for this chemical in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act, so a national standard does not yet exist. California has set a state limit of 6 parts per billion, but the federal limit might be considerably higher.
To reduce exposure to this chemical in your drinking water, use a reverse osmosis water filter. It’s difficult to reduce exposure to perchlorate in food, but you can increase your iodine intake to mitigate its impact. Common sources of dietary iodine include dairy products, eggs, saltwater fish, seaweed, soy milk and soy sauce.
PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) are manufactured compounds commonly used to make household products more grease-, stain- and water-resistant. Nonstick coatings on cookware and food wrappers, stain-resistant treatments on carpets and sofas, and water-resistant applications on clothing or mattresses all commonly contain these substances. Almost every one of us has detectible levels of these chemicals in our blood.
PFCs are highly persistent in the environment and can take many years to leave the body. They disrupt the endocrine system and are linked to liver inflammation, a weakened immune system, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, increased cholesterol levels, reduced fertility and lower birth weights, but the full range of health effects are still largely unknown.
Some drinking water sources are contaminated with these chemicals, which also raises concern about eating fish caught in bodies of water containing PFCs. These chemicals are not included in the Safe Drinking Water Act, so it may be difficult to know whether your water is contaminated, as your water may not be tested for it or information may not be publicly available. To reduce the concentration of PFCs in your drinking water, use a reverse osmosis and carbon filter.
Avoid it: To reduce your exposure, avoid using cookware with nonstick coatings, opting instead for cast-iron and stainless-steel pots and pans and oven-safe glass for baking. Skip optional stain treatments on carpets and furniture, and avoid microwave popcorn (most microwave popcorn bags are made with a PFC coating). Don’t use personal-care products with ingredients starting with “perfluoro” and avoid items with Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Teflon or Gore-Tex treatments.
Although plastic products can be convenient, many have hormone-altering chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. Studies show that plastic chemicals leach into food and beverages, and even offgas into the air, with negative health impacts. Because plastics are so ubiquitous, most of us are exposed in numerous ways.
BPA can affect the activity of estrogen and other hormones in our bodies, resulting in impaired reproductive capacity, obesity, altered thyroid hormone levels and metabolic disorders. It’s also linked to breast and other cancers. Phthalates are linked to lower sperm counts, birth defects, diabetes and thyroid irregularities.
Avoid it: Studies show that all plastics, even those that are BPA-free, leach chemicals into food. To reduce your exposure, don’t microwave or cook food in plastic; try to avoid food and beverages packaged in plastic; and opt for glass, ceramic or stainless steel food-storage containers. Drink filtered tap water instead of bottled water, and avoid food cans with a plastic lining (any canned food not labeled BPA-free likely has a BPA lining). Even some dental sealants and composite (white) fillings contain BPA—ask your dentist and replace these when a safer alternative is available.
Personal-care products may contain phthalates, often listed as “fragrance” in the ingredient list; refer to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database for alternatives. Vinyl can contain up to 40 percent phthalates by weight. Avoid vinyl shower curtains, flooring, raincoats, lawn furniture and other household vinyl products, and instead choose untreated cloth, wood, bamboo or other plastic-free alternatives.
Our Advice: Private Wells
If you have a private well, it’s crucial to test the water quality regularly. Well water can contain methyl-tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), uranium, lead, radon, arsenic and atrazine. Because the EPA doesn’t regulate private wells, and many local governments don’t require water testing once the well is installed, homeowners often don’t know if water quality has changed over time. State or local health and environmental departments often test wells or can refer you to a certified laboratory in your area.
Safe Drinking Water Act
Under the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act, water suppliers must monitor atrazine, arsenic and other contaminant levels and notify customers if levels are above the recommended limits set by the EPA. Consumer Confidence Reports are public information and can be found on the EPA website or through your local water provider.
Sarah Lozanova is a freelance health and environmental journalist with an MBA in sustainable management. She resides with her family at Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in midcoast Maine.