Endocrine disruptors: an underestimated threat…

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Pesticides and fertilizers hazardous for humans?

We live in a world in which man-made chemicals have become a part of everyday life. It is clear that some of these chemical pollutants can affect the endocrine (hormonal) system, and certain of these endocrine disruptors may also interfere with the developmental processes of humans and wildlife species.

Many synthetic chemicals with disruptive effects on the endocrine system could have serious health consequences, warned the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in a report entitled “Endocrine-distrupting chemicals 2012” (published in 2013).

These synthetic chemicals include endocrine disruptors that are present in pesticides and fertilizers. The FAO (Food Agriculture Organisation) and the UN are warning the international community about the dangers they cause to health. Certain substances used in them are highly toxic.

In addition to this, fertilizers and chemical fertilizers can damage the environment and contaminate ground water.

Phthalates (a huge class of chemicals which act as binding agents and are used as binders and plasticizers in everything from household cleaners to food packaging to fragrence, cosmetics, and personal care products), parabens (among the most commonly used preservatives in cosmetic products), bisphenol A (BPA a chemical found in hard plastics and the coatings of food and drinks cans): these are the scientific names of the most common endocrine disruptors behind which potentially lurk some major risks to public health.

They were identified and studied in the 1970s by US zoologist and epidemiologist Theo Colborn as part of her research into diseases affecting the wildlife of the American Great Lakes.

Endocrine disruptors are synthetic chemical substances, mostly created by humans, that cause disturbances in the hormonal and reproductive functions in humans and animals. They alter the synthesis, degradation, transport and hormone action. They work in two ways: either they replace hormones or they block their action.

Even at low doses they can have an adverse effect and a combination of different endocrine disruptors may have a ‘cocktail effect’, which can be particularly harmful.

Their action is not immediate: there are long-term effects that can even last over generations (called trans-generational effects, including poisoning in utero).

Endocrine disruptors are everywhere

They are found in products such as pesticides, metals, plastics, cleaning products and food packaging. They are also present in many articles we use on a daily basis, such as medicines and cosmetics.

People are becoming more aware of the health risks

Humans are particularly exposed from the food and water ingested to the air he/she breathes.

According to scientific studies, endocrine disruptors affect sperm concentration. An extensive study, published in 2012 in the journal Human Reproduction, found sperm counts in French men fell by about one third between 1989 and 2005. Children are the most vulnerable, resulting in particular delays in the development of the neurological system and genital organs with boys. Furthermore, exposure to endocrine disruptors can cause diseases such as cancer, asthma, type II diabetes, obesity and behavioural disorders (hyperactivity). They can also be a factor in the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

 

Regulation has not been adapted to the possible public health issues

The WHO, UNEP, FAO, the European Commission and various countries have agreed that action needs to be taken against the use of endocrine disruptors. The use of three sorts of phthalates in children’s toys have been banned in the European Union since 2005. Nine other countries, including Japan, Mexico and Argentina, have also outlawed the chemicals. China, which makes 85% of the world’s toys, has developed two manufacturing lines, one for the European market and the other nations that ban phthalates, and another for the United States and other countries that don’t restrict them.  Parabens are currently authorised as preservatives in the EU’s Cosmetics Directive provided they respect certain limitations.   On 1 January 2015 France introduced a ban on Bisphenol A (BPA) in all packaging, containers or utensils  intended to come into direct contact with food. Use of bisphenol A in baby bottles has been forbidden in all EU-countries since 2011. In January 2015 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommended that national legislatures consider legislation to reducte the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of BPA from 50 to 4 ug/kg body weight/day

An alternative to pesticides and chemical fertilizers

The solution to the risks caused by pesticides and chemical fertilizers on human health and the environment is the development of alternative, “responsible” and organic substances. Some companies, like Marrone Bio Innovation, design and sell organic pesticides. The company uses natural substances to protect crops from pests such as bacteria, plant extracts and pheromones.

Alexandre Jeanblanc

Investment Specialist, SRI

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