Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the normal functioning of hormones within the body. They do this by binding onto the same active sites within cells that normal hormones bind onto. Hormones are chemicals secreted into the bloodstream to regulate certain aspects of the body like metabolic levels, sexual characteristics, and so on. They are produced by the endocrine glands- a system of ductless glands found in various parts of the body like the testicles or ovaries, the pancreas, the thyroid, and the brain. Interference of hormonal activities can result in adverse effects, especially during the fetal development stages (extoxnet, 1998).
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Endocrine disruptors are produced by either man-made objects or natural processes in plants. Man-made endocrine disruptors can be found in some farm chemicals like DDT, toxaphene, endosulfan, dieldrin, and vinclozolin. Some industrial products or byproducts may also contain significant amounts of endocrine disruptors. For example, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), dioxins, and phenols have large amounts of them (extoxnet, 1998). Heavy metals, plastics, lubricants, and textiles may also contain the disruptors. In plants, natural disruptors like polyestrogens exist in most vegetables like cauliflowers, potatoes, broccoli, carrots, onions, and soybeans. Their disruptive activities are however weak, and thus they present a smaller threat than the artificially-produced disruptors.
The body gets exposed to endocrine disruptors when it comes in contact with the sources. For example, burning plastics or textiles will release the disruptors into the air, and they can then enter the body during respiration. Plastics also produce endocrine disruptors through leaching. This is especially significant in places where plastics are intensively used, like intravenous bags in hospitals (NRDC, 1998). They can also get into the natural waterways through industrial effluent. If the water from such systems is then drunk, or the fish in it consumed, the disruptors can then get into the human system. Another big accumulator of the disruptors is fat, so eating fatty foods exposes one to significant levels of the disruptors.
Effects of endocrine Disruptors
The higher up the food chain an animal is, the more vulnerable it is to the threat of endocrine disruptors. This is because all persistent chemicals in the food chains end up accumulating in the higher food levels. The effects of the endocrine disruptors on wildlife have been noted over time in certain animals. For example, in mammals, endocrine disruptors have greatly affected the reproduction and immunity systems of Baltic seals. Some birds of prey have shown altered sexual organ development, and their total populations have drastically declined as a result. Lake Apopka in Florida, USA once had a pesticide spill. The endocrine disruptors in the spill altered the sexual development of the alligators there, and their populations also declined (Greenfacts, N.D.).
In humans, research is still being done on the exact extent to which endocrine disruptors affect the developing and reproductive systems. However, there is strong evidence that recent trends like declining male to female ratios and problems with the male reproductive systems have endocrine disruption as a major cause. In females, during the 1970s, there were widespread incidences of ovarian and vaginal cancers that were directly linked to exposure to the disruptors. There is strong evidence that exposure to some disruptors like the Polychrolinated biphenyls in the fetal stages can greatly affect the development of the nervous system. Similarities in symptoms and development of these problems can be drawn from the animals, and thus the evidence about the role of endocrine disruptors is conclusive (Greenfacts, N.D.).
Although the effects of endocrine disruptors are largely undesirable, the way they work has been utilized in some medical fields to manipulate the body. For example, some disruptors fool the body into producing excess stimulation for building body mass. A body thus stimulated gains a lot of muscles with comparatively less stimulation e.g. through exercise. This has made such disruptors be incorporated into body-building drugs and dietary supplements. Other disruptors alter the normal reproductive cycles in humans and are hence used in making birth control pills (Epa, 2007). But these small niches for exploiting endocrine disruption are inadequate justification for not taking action against the larger threat posed by them.
From a personal perspective, the threat of endocrine disruptors is very real, and can not be ignored. With modern living, this threat is further exaggerated by the fact that chemicals and their inevitable wastes are an integral part of progress. Farm chemicals like fertilizers, fumigants, and pesticides are crucial to the successful running of an agricultural business. Where farming is intensive, exposure to the endocrine disruptors increases overwhelmingly, the same dilemma is faced by those working in the industrial sector. Exposure to heavy metals, lubricants, and other potential sources of the disruptors is part of the job description. The problem almost gets out of control when industrial waste is introduced into the natural water systems or into the air like smoke. Through these two processes, endocrine disruptors can virtually affect anybody, regardless of proximity to the sources.
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There are a few sources of comfort in this grim picture, though. For one, in order for the endocrine disruptors to really wreak havoc, they need to be in very high concentrations. The body has a natural way of getting rid of any foreign chemicals if the chemicals are in a low concentration. Thus the risk posed by such sources of the disruptors like natural vegetables is minimal. These vegetables have very low levels of disruptors. When consumed, the disruptors quickly get expelled from the body before they can accumulate. And the relative amounts of the disruptors contained in most artificial sources are low enough not to pose a significant threat. This is not an excuse to ignore the threat, though.
Reducing Threat of Endocrine disruptors
In order to reduce the threat of endocrine disruptors even further, several steps can be taken. The most crucial step, before anything else, is to make people aware of this threat. The information about endocrine disruptors should be mainstreamed into the school curriculums and public forums for those already through with the school system. This way, at least the fraction of the threat traceable to public ignorance will be eliminated. Secondly, since farm chemicals are a primary source of disruptors, people should opt for organic food sources. Highly processed or artificially manipulated foods should be avoided. Organic foods may be more expensive, but in the long run, the lower risks associated with them counterbalance the purchasing costs. The use of chemicals within the homestead like pesticides or cleaning products should be kept at a minimum. Natural ways of eradicating the pests or cleaning items should be worked out.
For those living near lakes and other large bodies, checks should be conducted to determine whether the water there is contaminated, and if so, to what degree. If the concentration of the disruptors is high enough, it would be better to avoid fishing in such water bodies. Measures to reduce the concentration should be undertaken. All people should feel the enormity of the problem, and support all government initiatives to keep the threats of these disruptors at a minimum. All in all, bringing the threat to a manageable level will need the collaboration of every citizen in the country.
Epa (2007) What are endocrine disruptors? Web.
Extoxnet (1998) Questions about endocrine disruptors. Web.
Greenfacts (N.D.) Scientific facts on endocrine disruptors. 2009. Web.
NRDC (1998) Endocrine disruptors Web.