The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released one of its "Dirty Dozen" lists, this one with the goal of educating consumers about the worst offenders when it comes to endocrine-disrupters, or hormone-altering chemicals, commonly found in our environment and in our homes. Chemicals that affect or mimic human hormones can cause problems in all of the body's major systems, leading to such diseases as high blood pressure, cancer, brain damage and infertility.
Here are the Dirty Dozen Endocrine-Disrupters and what you can do to minimize your exposure, plus a bonus mention for another chemical to steer clear of.
1. BPA. It's no surprise that BPA, or bisphenol-A, tops the EWG's list of endocrine disrupters. BPA has links to breast cancer, reproductive problems, obesity, asthma, tooth decay, early puberty, blood pressure and heart disease. This chemical, which is commonly found in plastics, mimics the hormone estrogen, wreaking havoc on the body's systems. What's worse, studies show that more than 90% of Americans have BPA in their bodies.
How to avoid it. The best ways to avoid BPA are to steer clear of plastics (particularly when it comes to food packaging;) choose fresh foods over canned; and opt for a glass or stainless steel water bottle instead of plastic.
2. Dioxin. Dioxin is a byproduct of many industrial processes that involve combustion and it can also be created by natural causes such as volcanic eruptions or forest fires. Dioxins accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and work their way up the food chain. Humans are primarily exposed through meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish. In the body, they can disrupt the signals of both male and female sex hormones, leading to such problems as infertility, nervous system disorders, skin lesions and cancer.
How to avoid it. Dioxin is tough to avoid because of its prevalence in the environment, but the best way to limit exposure is to reduce your consumption of meat, dairy products and fish.
3. Atrazine. Atrazine is a commonly used agricultural herbicide. It does a great job of killing weeds but also happens to wreak havoc on the rest of the environment. It's sprayed on corn crops and easily finds its way into water sources for both humans and animals. Studies have found that even low levels of atrazine can turn male frogs into females. Atrazine has been linked to birth defects, breast tumors, delayed puberty and prostate disorders.
How to avoid it. Purchase a water filter to remove atrazine from your drinking water and buy organic produce to keep atrazine out of your house and out of the environment.
4. Phthalates. Found in everything from nail polish to pacifiers to window blinds, phthalates are another ubiquitous chemical in the average household. They are chemical additives that do a great job at making plastics flexible but a not so great job of protecting human health. To date, phthalates have been linked to high blood pressure, ADHD, infertility, obesity, birth defects, thyroid dysfunction and diabetes.
How to avoid them: Avoid plastics with the recycling label #3 as these are made from PVC and likely contain phthalates. In the beauty aisle, check product labels and avoid any that list the ambiguous ingredient "fragrance," as this may mean the product contains hidden phthalates.
5. Perchlorate. How did an ingredient found in rocket fuel and fireworks wind up in our water supply? The EPA decided in 2011 to regulate perchlorate according to the Safe Water Drinking Act, but prior to that, it was unregulated — which is why it is now found in the drinking water in 35 states as well as some vegetables and dairy products. Perchlorate may cause thyroid damage and developmental delays in babies.
How to avoid it. Use a reverse osmosis filter on your drinking water supply to filter this nasty chemical out of your water.
6. Fire retardants. Fire retardants used in household products — particularly those known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs — are incredibly persistent in the environment, which means that even though some of the more toxic versions have been banned or phased out, they will continue to contaminate our water and food supplies for years to come. PBDEs alter normal thyroid function in the body, leading to such problems as lower IQ levels and ADHD.
How to avoid them. It's virtually impossible to avoid fire retardants, but you can minimize the level in your home by dusting frequently and using a vacuum cleaner with an HEPA-filter to quickly pick up stray dirt and dust.
7. Lead. Lead has been phased out of gasoline and paint for years, but some older homes still have lead paint on the walls and the soil around them, making it easy for small kids to be exposed when they get lead-laden dust or dirt on their hands and then put their fingers in their mouths. Lead poisoning has been linked to some major health problems such as brain damage, lowered IQ, hearing loss, miscarriage, high blood pressure, and damage to the kidneys and nervous system.
How to avoid it. If you have lead paint in your home, regularly dust and vacuum to keep lead particles from accumulating. And use a water filter to remove lead from your drinking water.
8. Arsenic. The mere mention of the word arsenic conjures up images of old murder mysteries and poisoned food, doesn’t it? Levels of arsenic in food get confusing because some foods contain organic arsenic – which occurs naturally — while others contain inorganic arsenic, which is a synthetic compound used in pesticides. It’s the inorganic form that is a known carcinogen and has been linked to bladder, lung and skin cancers; diabetes; and cardiovascular disease.
How to avoid it. Use a good water filter to reduce the amount of arsenic in your water and use these tips to minimize arsenic in other commonly contaminated foods such as rice.
9. Mercury. It’s a sad fact of our modern life that one of the healthiest foods to eat — seafood — is also heavily contaminated with the heavy metal mercury. A study found that 84% of the world's fish are contaminated with mercury. Most mercury pollution is emitted by coal power plants, but it is also produced as a byproduct of gold mining, cement production, iron and steel production and waste disposal. Mercury poisoning can lead to health issues such as impaired fetal development, kidney failure, hair loss and extreme muscle weakness.
How to avoid it. Check out this post on avoiding mercury and eating seafood safely.
10. Perfluorinated chemicals. Also known as PFCs, perfluorinated chemicals are the chemicals used to make nonstick cookware and many other stain- and water-repellent products. They are found in everything from pots and pans to furniture to pesticides. They have been linked to neurological delays, low sperm count, delayed puberty, earlier menopause and infertility.
How to avoid them. Steer clear of nonstick pans and products that use stain and/or water-resistant coatings.
11. Organophosphate pesticides. Think about this: organophosphate pesticides are chemically designed to attack the nervous system of insects. This is what makes them great insecticides. It’s also what makes them so dangerous for humans. Not surprisingly, organophosphate pesticides have been linked to neurological disorders and other dysfunction in the human body such as ADHD, lowered IQ and delays in reproductive development.
How to avoid them. Buy organic produce whenever possible. See this list for the best foods to buy organic.
12. Glycol ethers. Ethylene glycol ethers are common solvents found in paints, cleaning supplies, brake fluid, and even some cosmetics. Exposure has been linked to problems with fetal development, male infertility, asthma, and allergies.
How to avoid them. Stay away from any products with names like 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) in the ingredient list.
13. Styrene. While not originally listed in the EWG's Dirty Dozens list, styrene is another hormone-distrupting chemical used to make plastic, rubber and resins. It's also used as a food flavoring agent and indirectly becomes a food additive from packaging materials and adhesives.. Direct exposure can affect your central nervous system and symptoms include headache, fatigue, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, malaise, difficulty in concentrating and a feeling of intoxication, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
How to avoid it. Try to avoid food that's packaged in plastic and adhesives. Also, avoid plastic products with the recycling number six.
For more info on these chemicals and how they can affect your family's health, check out the EWG report, Dirty Dozen List of Hormone Disrupting Chemicals, which was done in collaboration with the Keep A Breast Foundation.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in October 2013.