The impact of endocrine-disrupting compounds on sexual function

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Medically reviewed by Shira Eytan, MD
Published June 17, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) can either be naturally occurring or manufactured. Experts hypothesize they can interfere with reproductive health.

  • Examples of EDCs include BFA, phthalates, and dioxins. Many of these products are found in everyday items.

  • Preventing exposure to EDCs is recommended by the Endocrine Society and other experts. It can involve aspects of food preparation and limits to pollution exposure.

Human sexuality and reproductive health could be threatened by a class of exogenous factors known as endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs).

The World Health Organization and Endocrine Society have recognized this potential threat. But there are steps that can be taken to mitigate its exposure and adverse effects.

More about EDCs

Control of the neural processes involved in sexuality is moderated by gonadal hormones, which may be sensitive to EDCs.

These chemical substances or mixtures can alter endocrine function, resulting in various endocrine adverse effects including altered organ development, germ-cell production, puberty, and fertility processes. Such repercussions have been reported in experimental and epidemiologic studies.[]

When people are exposed to EDCs, they can change sexual function through direct or indirect pathways. When the gonadotropic axis is disturbed, the hormonal regulation of neural structures is impaired. These neural structures include the preoptic area (POA) and arcuate nucleus, which trigger the synthesis and release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH).

In turn, GnRH leads to the release of gonadotropin hormones (ie, LH, FSH), which results in the gonadal synthesis and secretion of sex steroid hormones. Estradiol and testosterone then wield feedback on this gonadotropic axis. In men, EDCs target neural circuitry, which consists of the olfactory bulb, medial amygdala, bed nucleus of stria terminalis, and POA.

EDC exposure

Various chemicals can be classified as EDCs—both natural and manufactured. They can mimic or interfere with hormones and are found in a variety of ordinary, everyday products including plastic bottles and containers, metal food can liners, detergents, toys, pesticides, and cosmetics. 

EDCs can take a long time to decay in the environment, which makes them potentially dangerous.

Limited data exist on their potential harm to humans—although animal studies have shown harmful effects.

“Even low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be unsafe,” the NIH stated.[] “The body’s normal endocrine functioning involves very small changes in hormone levels, yet we know even these small changes can cause significant developmental and biological effects. This observation leads scientists to think that endocrine-disrupting chemical exposures, even at low amounts, can alter the body’s sensitive systems and lead to health problems.”

Common EDCs include the following:

  • Bisphenol A (BFA), which is used in plastics and epoxies

  • Phthalates, which give plastics their flexibility and are used in food packaging, toys, medical devices and cosmetics

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which are used in flame retardants, furniture foam, and carpets

  • Dioxins, a byproduct of herbicide and paper bleaching and pollute the environment after wildfires and the burning of waste

  • Phytoestrogens, which occur naturally in plants and are found in soy products

  • Triclosan, found in antimicrobial and personal care products

  • Perchlorate, an industrial byproduct that is found in fireworks and makes its way to drinking water

Risks and prevention

In addition to highlighting the potential dangers of EDC exposure during childhood (when organ systems are still developing), the Endocrine Society stresses that EDCs can cross the placenta and potentially harm the fetus.[]

"Generally, chronic high exposures pose the highest risk, however, a developing fetus or infant is more vulnerable to lower exposures. "

Endocrine Society

The Society noted that some people may be genetically predisposed to certain health conditions that can be moderated by environmental exposure to EDCs.

The organization offered several tips to limit the potential exposure to EDCs that can be shared with patients, family, and friends. These tips include the following:

  • Trim the fat from meat and skin from fish.

  • Allow fat from meat and fish to drain using a rack while cooking.

  • Avoid plastic containers and don’t microwave plastic food containers or use them to store hot fluids.

  • Ask local guides which sports fish are safe to eat.

  • Avoid canned or processed foods.

  • Choose foods labeled Phthalate-free, BPA-free, or Paraben-free.

  • Avoid fragrances and choose items labeled “no synthetic fragrances.” Essential oils may also be endocrine disruptors.

  • Wash your hands often when preparing foods.

  • Limit your handling of thermal paper or printed receipts.

  • Don’t exercise in high-traffic areas.

  • Avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high by checking out

  • Avoid burning wood or trash.

  • Use hand-powered or electric (instead of gas-powered) lawn care equipment.

  • Clean your floors and dust on a regular basis.

  • Don’t give your kids used plastic toys.

  • Replace old fluorescent bulbs and deteriorating construction material in your home.

  • Choose car routes that minimize time spent in traffic.

What this means for you

Although more research needs to be done, it appears that EDCs can impair reproductive health. Leading authorities recommend minimizing potential exposure. Consider sharing their tips with your patients.

Related: Shedding light on sex differences in differentiated thyroid cancer
Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter