Endocrine-Disrupting Plastics Pose Growing Health Threat

Heidi Splete

December 16, 2020

Many types of plastics pose an unrecognized threat to human health by leaching endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and a new report from the Endocrine Society and the International Pollutants Elimination Network presents their dangers and risks.

Written in a consumer-friendly form designed to guide public interest groups and policymakers, the report also can be used by clinicians to inform discussions with patients about the potential dangers of plastics and how they can reduce their exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

The report, Plastics, EDCs, & Health, defines endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) as "an exogenous chemical, or mixture of chemicals, that interferes with any aspect of hormone action." Hormones in the body must be released at specific times, and therefore interference with their normal activity can have profound effects on health in areas including growth and reproductive development, according to the report.

Although numerous EDCs have been identified, a recent study suggested that many potentially dangerous chemical additives remain unknown because they are identified as confidential or simply not well described, the report authors said. In addition, creation of more plastic products will likely lead to increased exposure to EDCs and make health problems worse, said report coauthor Pauliina Damdimopoulou, PhD, of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.

Lesser-Known EDCs Populate Consumer Products

Most consumers are aware of bisphenol A and phthalates as known EDCs, said Flaws, but the report identifies other lesser-known EDCs including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), dioxins, flame retardants, and UV stabilizers.

For example, PFAS have been used for decades in a range of consumer products including stain-resistant clothes, fast food wrappers, carpet and furniture treatments, cookware, and firefighting foams, according to the report. Consequently, PFAS have become common in many water sources including surface water, drinking water, and groundwater because of how they are disposed. "Consumption of fish and other aquatic creatures caught in waterways contaminated with PFAS also poses heightened risks due to bioaccumulation of persistent chemicals in these animals," the report authors noted. Human exposures to PFAS have been documented in urine, serum, plasma, placenta, umbilical cord, breast milk, and fetal tissues, they added.

Brominated flame retardants are another lesser-known EDC highlighted in the report. These chemical additives are used in plastics such as electronics cases to reduce the spread of fire, as well as in furniture foam and other building materials, the authors wrote. UV stabilizers, which also have been linked to health problems, often are used in manufacturing cars and other machinery.

Microplastics Create Large Risk

Microplastics, defined as plastic particles less than 5 mm in diameter, are another source of exposure to EDCs that is not well publicized, according to the report. Plastic waste disposal often leads to the release of microplastics, which can infiltrate soil and water. Plastic waste is often dumped or burned; outdoor burning of plastic causes emission of dioxins into the air and ground.

"Not only do microplastics contain endogenous chemical additives, which are not bound to the microplastic and can leach out of the microplastic and expose the population, they can also bind and accumulate toxic chemicals from the surrounding environment such as seawater and sediment," the report authors said.

Recycling is not an easy answer, either. Often more chemicals are created and released during the process of using plastics to make other plastics, according to the report.

Overall, more awareness of the potential for increased exposure to EDCs and support of strategies to seek out alternatives to hazardous chemicals is needed at the global level, the authors wrote. For example, the European Union has proposed a chemicals strategy that includes improved classification of EDCs and banning identified EDCs in consumer products.

New Data Support Ongoing Dangers

"It was important to produce the report at this time because several new studies came out on the effects of EDCs from plastics on human health," Flaws said in an interview. "Further, there was not previously a single source that brought together all the information in a manner that was targeted towards the public, policymakers, and others," she said.

Flaws said that what has surprised her most in the recent research is the fact that plastics contain such a range of chemicals and EDCs.

"A good take-home message [from the report] is that plastics can contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can interfere with normal hormones and lead to adverse health outcomes," she said. "I suggest limiting the use of plastics as much as possible. I know this is very hard to do, so if someone needs to use plastic, they should not heat food or drink in plastic containers," she emphasized. Individuals also can limit reuse of plastics over and over," she said. "Heating and repeated use/washing often causes plastics to leach EDCs into food and drink that we then get into our bodies."

Additional research is needed to understand the mechanisms by which EDCs from plastics cause damage, Flaws emphasized. "Given that it is not possible to eliminate plastics at this time, if we understood mechanisms of action, we could develop ways to prevent toxicity or treat EDC-induced adverse health outcomes," she said. "We also need research designed to develop plastics or 'green materials' that do not contain endocrine disruptors and do not cause health problems or damage the environment," she noted.

The report was produced as a joint effort of the Endocrine Society and International Pollutants Elimination Network. The report authors had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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