Damage to health from hormone disrupting chemicals warrants investigation, say WHO and UN

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 25 February 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1248
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. 1London

The World Health Organization and the United Nations have called for urgent research into hormone disrupting chemicals and their potential for damage to human and animal health.

The organisations have warned that many synthetic chemicals often present in common household products are not tested for any disrupting effects on the hormone system. In a report published on 19 February, WHO and the UN Environment Programme outlined the need for international research into associations between endocrine disrupting chemicals and specific diseases and disorders.1

The report says, “Close to 800 chemicals are known or suspected to be capable of interfering with hormone receptors, hormone synthesis or hormone conversion.

“However, only a small fraction of these chemicals have been investigated in tests. The vast majority of chemicals in current commercial use have not been tested at all.”

The authors said that the incidence of many endocrine related diseases and disorders was rising. Evidence of this included that 40% of young men in some countries have low quality semen and that the incidence of adverse pregnancy outcomes has risen in many countries. Global rates of endocrine related cancers (breast, endometrial, ovarian, prostate, testicular, and thyroid cancers) have been increasing over the past 40 years, and at the same time the prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes has risen dramatically.

A team of 16 scientists from 10 countries worked on the report. They said that the evidence indicating an association between such chemicals and health problems in humans had grown stronger since the two organisations published a report on the same subject in 2002.2

There was concern, said the authors, that endocrine disrupting chemicals found in some pesticides, electronic items, personal care products, cosmetics, and food additives were entering water supplies and the food chain through agricultural run-off, waste dumps, and other sources.

They said that the chemicals could contribute to the development of non-descended testes in boys, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, nervous system developmental defects and attention-deficit/hyperactivity in children, and thyroid cancer. Crucially, however, there were wide gaps in knowledge, they said.

Maria Neira, WHO’s director for public health and the environment, said, “We urgently need more research to obtain a fuller picture of the health and environment impacts of endocrine disruptors. The latest science shows that communities across the globe are being exposed to EDCs [endocrine disrupting chemicals] and their associated risks.”

Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, added, “Investing in new testing methods and research can enhance understanding of the costs of exposure to EDCs and assist in reducing risks, maximising benefits, and spotlighting more intelligent options and alternatives that reflect a transition to a green economy.”

The report’s recommendations are aimed at improving knowledge of these chemicals and cutting potential risks of disease and related costs.

It recommends more comprehensive testing methods to identify other possible endocrine disruptors; more scientific evidence to identify the effects of mixtures of the chemicals on humans and wildlife; better reporting and information on chemicals in products, materials, and goods; and more sharing of data between scientists and between countries.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1248