Chemicals are everywhere. They're in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and the products we use on our skin. Man-made chemicals include pesticides, plastics, industrial chemicals, cosmetics, detergents and paints. Many are having a detrimental effect on the environment and the health of wildlife and humans (1,2,3,4). These chemicals are referred to as hormone-disrupting chemicals, or endocrine disruptors, and are foreign substances that alter the way the endocrine (hormonal) system works. As PCOS is a common endocrine disorder, it's essential that all women with the condition educate themselves about the very real and serious impact these chemicals are having on our bodies.
Our endocrine system is like a communication network. It's made up of a series of glands that communicate with the rest of the body. Glands of the endocrine system include the ovaries, thyroid, pituitary gland, pancreas and hypothalamus in the brain. The glands tell different cells in our body to do something by releasing specific instructions via chemicals (hormones) in the bloodstream. Once the hormones have reached their targeted cell they bind with a receptor which reads and carries out the instruction. The instructions given depend on what the body needs to maintain hormonal balance. For example, the ovaries and pituitary glands need to secrete the correct amount and balance of hormones to regulate a woman's menstrual cycle.
Chemical pollutants wreak havoc on the endocrine system - even small amounts can disrupt it. An endocrine disruptor can bind to the receptor and mimic the hormone or block the normal response. They may also react with the hormone and change its function. Numerous research studies and literature, including a World Health Organization publication, are uncovering the dangers of endocrine disruptors and raising real concerns about their adverse effects on our health. Exposure to some of these man-made chemicals has been linked to numerous health problems including PCOS, breast and other cancers, reduced sperm count, birth defects, learning disabilities, endometriosis, immune suppression, neurodisorders, obesity...the list goes on (1,2).
The known health risks of man-made chemical pollutants
There are said to be around 800 hormone-disrupting chemicals and, shockingly, the majority of chemicals we use in commercial products on a daily basis have not even been tested for their health effects. For more information visit the Endrocrine Society for their scientific statement on endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Here are the known health risks of just five chemicals:
Phthalates: A group of suspected carcinogens used in various products such as personal care, cosmetics, children's toys, and clear plastic bottles. 'Fragrance' in conventional products may also contain phthalates. Abnormal levels of phthalates have been found in men with decreased sperm quality, testicular cancer and in women with endometriosis.
Dioxin: A highly toxic group of chemicals released into the air when chlorine-containing compounds are burned or treated, such as incinerators that burn hazardous waste, metal refining and when manufacturing products like PVC plastic and pesticides. Dioxin is a known carcinogen and linked with cancer, development disorders, reproductive problems, infertility, and immune suppression.
Dioxin can travel long distances in the air and persist in the environment. It can travel long distances in the air and settle on plants, soil, water and algae. Livestock, for example, may then eat crops contaminated with dioxin which has settled from the air. The main sources of dioxin come from dairy products, beef, pork, poultry and fish.
Pesticides: These include fungicides, insecticides and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) found in, for example, agricultural or home pesticides which contaminate soil or water. It has been found to interfere with reproductive development and linked to birth defects and blood disorders.
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs): These are organochlorine substances. They contain strong carbon and chlorine bonds which can't be broken down by normal processes and accumulate in the environment. PCBs are found in, for example, electrical equipment, inks, adhesives, flame-retardants, and paints - they are released into the air and then settle on land. We can accumulate PCBs from contaminated food and water however, we don't have the ability to get rid of these chemicals and they get stored in fatty tissue.
Bisphenol A (BPA): A chemical pollutant of particular interest to women with PCOS. It's an industrial chemical used in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, and one of the most widely spread chemicals in the world. These types of hard, rigid plastics are often used in cardboards, reusable food storage containers, drinking bottles, including baby bottles, and canned tin linings. BPA can be released from the plastic into the food, especially when heated at temperatures above 50º (3).
There is mounting concern of a link between BPA and PCOS. Sheep who were exposed to increased testosterone when they were in the fetal period of development later presented with PCOS characteristics and studies on rats found that exposure to high levels of BPA led to infertility, increased testosterone levels and the appearance of polycystic ovaries (3). Studies on mice identified that exposure to BPA significantly increased the risk of breast cancer.
The link between PCOS and Endocrine Disruptors
What isn't clear yet is whether exposure to endocrine disruptors causes PCOS or, for example, whether high BPA exposure in the womb or as infants contributes to developing the condition later in life. However, this much is clear: there appears to be a relationship between BPA, PCOS and increased levels of androgen hormones (5); BPA in food and drink packaging is an obesogen which are chemicals that enhance weight and could potentially increase obesity in women with PCOS (3); concerns have been raised for pregnant women, children and fertile populations and their exposure to endocrine disruptors; women with PCOS and those in the vulnerable groups just mentioned should consider the risks of exposure to endocrine disruptors and ways to reduce them (1).
How to reduce your risk of exposure to potentially harmful chemicals
It's impossible to avoid all chemicals but we can do things to minimise the amount we are exposed to:
- Go fresh rather than using canned or tinned foods.
- Avoid plastics containing polycarbonate such as food containers, toys, bottles and food wraps. Consider BPA-free plastics.
- Milk, fish, eggs and butter are likely to be contaminated with dioxin so try eating fewer animal products in your diet.
- There is mercury in fish - choosing wild salmon and farmed trout are better options and go for organic options.
- Look at the ingredients list of the personal care products you're using. Conventional products most likely contain phthalates. You may see 'fragrance' listed which could also mean more phthalates. Swap your products to certified organic ones.
- Now look at what's in your cleaning products because some can contain high levels of toxic ingredients. The EWG website has a facility to search any cleaning product and view its safety rating. It's also easier than you may think to make your own cleaning products with ingredients you probably already have in your cupboards that are non-toxic, natural and which you can even eat!
- When drinking water from the tap, consider investing in a good water filter which is certified to reduce lead exposure.
- Buy organic. Food can be exposed to many contaminants. The EWG have produced the Dirty Dozen, a list of fruit and vegetables which contain the most pesticides, and advise that the following are bought or grown organic: spinach, sweet bell peppers, nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, potatoes, apples, strawberries, grapes, celery and peaches.
Note that referenced or mentioned authors, websites and organisations are not affiliated with, nor endorsing, the content published on Positive PCOS.
1: Edited by Å. Bergman et al. State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals - 2012. WHO Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. Accessed via the World Health Organization at www.who.int/en on 14.01.15
2: DiDiego, M.L. 2005. Unmasking the truth behind endocrine disruptors. Nurse Practitioner. 30 (10): 54-9
3: Georgescu, C. E., Șuteu, M., & B. Georgescu. 2012. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals in polycystic ovary syndrome: an evidence-based mini review. Human & Veterinary Medicine International Journal of the Bioflex Society. 4 (3): 124-129
4: Nicolopoulou-Stamati, P. & M,A, Pitsos. 2001. The impact of endocrine disrupters on the female reproductive system. Human Reproduction Update. 7 (3): 323-30
5: Kandaraki, E. et al. 2011. Endocrine disruptors and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): elevated serum levels of bisphenol A in women with PCOS. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 96 (3): E480-484
6: Introduction to endocrine disrupting chemical (EDCs): a guide for public interest organizations and policy makers. Accessed via the Endocrine Society website www.endocrine.org on 16.01.15