In what it described as a ‘landmark’ report the United Nations Program for Environment (UNEP) along with the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report examining the effect of hormone disrupting chemicals on humans and wildlife.
According to a report released by UNEP and the WHO yesterday, entitled State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, many synthetic chemicals, untested for their disruptive effects on hormone systems could have significant health implications. The report pointed to the possibility of endocrine disrupting chemicals being responsible in part for an increase in birth defects, hormone-dependent cancers and neurological and psychiatric disorders.
The report’s authors suspect these substances have contributed to an increase in reproductive disorders seen in humans as well as increased incidences of cancers, asthma, stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and obesity. Amongst wildlife, the same chemicals may be contributing towards the extinction of certain animal species.
In the case of children who may be at greater risk than adults, increased exposure to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) both in the womb and after birth may also be a factor in the development of behavioural problems like attention deficit or hyperactivity, learning difficulties such as dyslexia and various other conditions including non-descended testes. The UNEP/WHO report says that in some countries, such disorders affect up to 10% of children born whilst the report’s authors noted and increased rate of leukaemia and brain cancer amongst children.
The joint study says more research is needed to fully understand associations between (EDCs), which are found in many household and industrial products, and specific diseases and disorders. The report says that with increased testing, not only would disease risks be reduced but there should also be substantial savings in public health budgets.
Sound human health requires a well-functioning endocrine system to control the release of certain hormones, essential to many facets of human life such as metabolism, growth and development, sleep and mood. Endocrine disruptors can change the workings of the hormonal system and increase risks to health.
In the environment, some EDCs occur naturally but the report’s concerns relate to synthetic EDCs which are found in a whole range of man-made substances from pesticides, electronics, personal care products to cosmetics. Some EDCs are also used as additives in food or are known to contaminate food and beverages having been used in packaging.
France has already introduced a ban on a recognised EDC, bisphenol A (BPA) in food containers for children under three years of age which will come into effect this year and the ban will apply to all food packaging from 2014.
EDCs can also affect the environment in other ways by means of industrial and urban discharges, agricultural run-off and the burning and release of waste. The number of ways humans may be exposed to EDCs are therefore manifest whether through food, skin contact or even just breathing.
Achim Steiner UN Under Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director commented, "Chemical products are increasingly part of modern life and support many national economies, but the unsound management of chemicals challenges the achievement of key development goals, and sustainable development for all. Investing in new testing methods and research can enhance understanding of the costs of exposure to EDCs, and assist in reducing risks, maximizing benefits and spotlighting more intelligent options and alternatives that reflect a transition to a green economy."
For the World Health Organisation, Dr Maria Neira, WHO's Director for Public Health and Environment said, "We urgently need more research to obtain a fuller picture of the health and environment impacts of endocrine disruptors. The latest science shows that communities across the globe are being exposed to EDCs, and their associated risks. WHO will work with partners to establish research priorities to investigate links to EDCs and human health impacts in order to mitigate the risks. We all have a responsibility to protect future generations."
Whilst the report focuses on the effect EDCs may have on humans, the authors also have concerns as to the impact EDCs may be having on wildlife. They highlighted previous studies in Alaska where exposure to EDC chemicals is suspected of having contributed towards reproductive defects, infertility and antler malformation in some deer populations. Depopulation has also been observed is some species of otters and sea-lions which the authors say may be due to these species being exposed to a lethal mix of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other persistent organic pollutants. The report also states that where EDCs have been banned, this has usually been associated with the recovery of wildlife populations and improvements in human health.
The principle recommendations of the State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals are:
• Testing: known EDCs are only the 'tip of the iceberg’. More thorough testing methods are needed to isolate other possible endocrine disruptors, their sources, and routes of exposure.
• Research: Further scientific evidence is required to identify the effects of EDC mixtures on humans and wildlife.
• Reporting: Many sources of EDCs are not known because of insufficient reporting and information on chemicals in products, materials and goods.
• Collaboration: Greater data sharing between scientists and between countries can fill in knowledge gaps, primarily in developing countries and emerging economies.
A detailed summary of the report ‘State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals’ can be found on the UNEP website.