Endocrine-disrupting chemicals contribute to obesity and diabetes

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published January 13, 2016

Key Takeaways

Recent research “removes any doubt” that chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system are contributing to obesity and diabetes, according to the executive summary of an upcoming scientific statement issued by the Endocrine Society and published online in Endocrine Reviews on September 28, 2015.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are the hundreds or more “exogenous chemicals, or mixtures of chemicals, that interfere with any aspect of hormone action,” as noted in the executive summary. EDCs contribute to health problems by mimicking, blocking, or otherwise interfering with the body’s natural hormones. By hijacking the body’s chemical messengers, EDCs can alter the way cells develop and grow.

These chemicals are so common that nearly every person on Earth has been exposed to one or more. Known EDCs include bisphenol A (BPA) found in food can linings and cash register receipts, and phthalates found in plastics and cosmetics, flame retardants, and pesticides.

The Endocrine Society’s statement builds upon its 2009 report, which examined the state of scientific evidence on EDCs and the risks posed to human health. Research published since that earlier report has found that EDC exposure is associated with increased risk of developing diabetes and obesity.

“The evidence is more definitive than ever before—EDCs disrupt hormones in a manner that harms human health,” said Andrea C. Gore, PhD, professor and Vacek Chair of Pharmacology at the University of Texas at Austin, and chair of the task force that developed the statement. “Hundreds of studies are pointing to the same conclusion, whether they are long-term epidemiological studies in humans, basic research in animals and cells, or research into groups of people with known occupational exposure to specific chemicals.”

Unborn children are particularly vulnerable to the threat of EDCs. Studies in animals have shown that exposure to even tiny amounts of EDCs during the prenatal period can trigger obesity later in life. Other animal studies found that some EDCs directly target beta and alpha cells in the pancreas, fat cells, and liver cells. This can lead to insulin resistance and an overabundance of insulin in the body—risk factors for type 2 diabetes.

The Scientific Statement also included evidence linking EDCs to reproductive health problems, hormone-related cancers such as breast and ovarian cancer, prostate conditions, thyroid disorders, and neurodevelopmental issues. Although many of these conditions were linked to EDCs by earlier research, the number of corroborating studies continues to mount.

“It is clear we need to take action to minimize further exposure,” Dr. Gore said. “With more chemicals being introduced into the marketplace all the time, better safety testing is needed to identify new EDCs and ensure they are kept out of household goods.”

The statement also addressed the need to recognize EDCs as an international problem. Members of the Endocrine Society are currently meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, for the fourth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM4).

“Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals during early development can have long-lasting, even permanent consequences,” said attending member Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, MD, PhD, professor of Pediatrics at the University of Liège in Belgium. “The science is clear and it’s time for policymakers to take this wealth of evidence into account as they develop legislation.”

The Endocrine Society will hold a Twitter chat on EDC exposure and associated health effects on Thursday, October 1, 2015 at 1 pm EDT. Dr. Gore will serve as the expert and share information on the Scientific Statement. To follow the discussion moderated by @TheEndoSociety, use the hashtag #EndoChat.

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