Most people do not think much about their chemical exposures. We trust that industrial processes, air, and water quality are ensured safe by appropriate regulations. However, society has become more dependent on materials, devices, energy, and transportation, and as a result, we are exposed to more chemicals. What are the typical chemical exposures for people today? This is a complex question. The vastness of chemical use means a more significant potential for chemical exposures, ranging from pesticides to heavy metals and everything in between.
An alarming number of different chemicals fall into the category of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These are mainly manufactured chemicals that interfere with the action of hormones in animals. According to the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, there are over 800 known or suspected EDCs. Household products such as some plastic containers, personal care products, specific cleaning solutions, and fabrics with flame-retardant materials can be sources of EDC exposure. People are exposed to EDCs through water and food intake, breathing contaminated air, or absorption through the skin. Even though many scientists describe these chemicals as among the most hazardous toxins known, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are not regulated as a hazard, unlike other toxicant classes such as carcinogens, which are cancer-causing chemicals. The effects of EDCs substantially cost society due to increases in disease and disability (both physical and mental). One study estimates this cost is more than $300 billion/ year in the US.
Research suggests that exposure to EDCs may be most critical at prenatal and infant stages of life. More studies are needed to understand better EDCs on many levels, such as which chemicals are most concerning, to what extent they are present in public water systems, how much triggers disruptions in the body, and more. The science needs to be followed by appropriate regulations and oversight. To reduce exposure on a personal level, choose simplicity (less stuff!) and natural products. Avoid the accumulation of excess materials, select food and drinks with minimal packaging and additives, and minimize the use of cleaners, pesticides, and plastics. The lighter our footprint on the earth – through lower consumption and care of nature – the healthier the world and its inhabitants. Pope Francis expresses in the Laudato Si, “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.”
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work