A 2019 study has shown that people could be ingesting up to 5 grams of plastic every week, equivalent to eating a credit card weekly. Chemicals in some plastics affect the way our bodies function, interfering with fertility and lifespan. These are known as Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals or EDCs, and they're mainly secreted from artificial sources.
We understand that reading this might feel overwhelming. That is why we've broken the subject down to help you comprehend where EDCs come from, their effects, what you can do to avoid them and how you can help defeat them.
By empowering ourselves with knowledge about EDCs, we can talk to loved ones about plastic's harms and make fundamental, lasting changes to our everyday habits.
The endocrine system
Our endocrine system sends out hormones, which help us regulate a ton of functions around the body, including:
- Development and growth
- Energy levels
- Cognitive function and mood
- Digestion of food
- Libido and sexual function
- Disease immunity
- Maintenance of body temperature and thirst
But when EDCs enter our bodies, they can restrict the endocrine system from absorbing hormones, interfere in hormones' communication with one another or even mimic their behaviour.
Where do the EDCs in our bodies come from?
We come into contact with EDCs every day when using practical things around the house or sometimes when drinking water. We're especially exposed to 2 types of EDCs, bisphenols and phthalates, via plastics.
The bisphenols group includes the controversial chemical bisphenol-A or BPA. It's commonly found in reusable water bottles, reusable plastic food containers, plastic food packaging, the inside of food cans (to stop the metal from corroding) and sports equipment. It has been banned from use in the EU in children's products like feeding bottles.
Food containers that include BPA can seep the chemical into your meal or drink. Many containers also release more BPA when heated or structurally damaged. When you ingest your food, the chemicals enter your body, and when you touch the container, your skin can absorb the BPA.
BPA is used in shop and ATM receipts to create thermal printing sensitivity. A study in 2016 found that cashiers who handled tickets every day had a higher concentration of BPA in their urine than non-occupationally exposed workers.
Phthalates are sometimes used to give plastic the soft and flexible qualities we find in rubber ducks, shower curtains or rubber tubing. Other times, they're processed into cosmetics to increase absorption and colour or add to pesticides to improve plants' retention.
Phthalates are used in food packaging and containers, plastic bottles, detergents, medical devices and children's toys. They're also harmful enough that the EU has restricted the quantities allowed to be used in products. They can be inhaled from the air or, in the same way as BPA, they leak out of products.
Both BPA and phthalates seep out of landfill waste, making their way into water downstream. EDCs from plastics then contaminate drinking water in communities around the world.
We're not only exposed to EDCs through plastic. Sometimes we come across them through sources such as pesticides, paints, cleaning products and water-resistant fabrics.
What are the effects of EDCs on humans?
EDCs may be unsafe even at low concentrations, as the endocrine system reacts to tiny imbalances.
Researchers found a sperm count decline of over 50% in men between the 1970s and more recently. Shanna Swan, an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist, projects that sperm counts are on a steady path to zero in 2045. Swan and other experts believe our daily exposure to EDCs dramatically contributes to this and, given the growing list of studies that show a correlation between EDCs and male fertility, that's hardly surprising.
Around half of the world's population now have birth rates below the replacement level (2.1 per woman). Lifestyle factors, such as contraception and the fact that more women are opting to conceive later, have contributed to this phenomenon. But researchers have also seen growing miscarriage rates that can't be explained with any other evidence we have. And studies have observed earlier puberty in girls exposed to more EDCs.
EDCs appear to be much more harmful in growing foetuses than in adults. Swan found during another study that boys who were exposed to a higher concentration of phthalates later developed the tell-tale physical features of a lower sperm count.
And concerns aren't only about fertility. BPA has been linked to a range of health issues, including cancer, heart problems and childhood behavioural disorders.
What are the challenges of EDCs and plastic pollution?
EDCs evaporate in heat, rivers and ocean currents carry them, animal migration changes their distribution, and they can travel up to higher, colder places too.
Along with the complex questions of how to reduce plastic pollution in general, we have several battles on our hands with EDCs:
- Most plastics we use are cheaply made. They have imperfections and pollutants in them that create unintended side effects.
- Bio-based plastics are just as likely to be hazardous as petroleum-based plastics. The additives used in them change certain qualities.
- We have no idea about the exposure to EDCs in many disadvantaged communities. We do know chemicals aren't distributed equally across the globe.
What can we do today?
We won't find wide scale solutions to plastic pollution and endocrine disruptors overnight. But what everyday actions can you take now to minimise your exposure to EDCs?
- Learn more about common EDCs and where you'll find them.
- Read labels for clues on whether products contain EDC chemicals. The Spruce Eats has a great guide for figuring out whether your plastic containers include BPA.
- Eat from cans lined with safer alternatives than BPA.
- Replace plastic products with non-plastic, reusable alternatives. Often, BPA-free products are simply made with other harmful bisphenols. Swap plastic bottles out for a stainless steel water bottle instead. And a lot of conventional dental floss is coated with PFAS. Switch it out for chemical-free corn starch floss.
- Drink filtered, not bottled, water as much as possible.
- Avoid heating or scratching plastics. Don't store canned or plastic-packaged foods in your car in the middle of summer. Avoid microwaving or heating food inside plastic containers if you can.
- Straight up, don't store food in plastics - take them out of their packaging and put them into a glass or stainless steel reusable food containers.
- Look for cosmetics and cleaning products that use only natural ingredients.
- Minimise your handling of receipts containing BPA.
CHEM Trust has provided a fully detailed guide on how to avoid EDCs in your daily life.
How to get involved?
Innovators and change-makers are plugging away to try and solve the problems of EDCs and plastic pollution. Sherwin-Williams is working on a non-EDC alternative to provide lining for all food and beverage cans. EDCs are featured in the EU Chemicals Strategy unveiled in October 2020. And several plastic pollution bills are being pushed forward in the US. How can you get involved too?
The EDC-Free Europe campaign represents more than 70 groups across Europe with a shared concern about the impact of EDCs on human and wildlife health. Bambaw supports this very important campaign and encourages everyone to participate and spread the news of their work. You can join us too and help them to instigate meaningful change.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition gets behind essential campaigns in the US, and they're spreading the word about plastic pollution worldwide. Follow them at #plasticpollutioncoalition and @plasticpollutes, and keep an eye out for upcoming news and webinars.
It can feel scary to know about EDCs. But they're also yet another reason to ban plastic from your surroundings and welcome more sustainable alternatives into your life.