Special Report: The New Boys' Health Scare
Male infertility appears to be on the rise, and studies suggest that more boys are being born with genital malformations. Could chemicals in our air, our homes, and even our kitchens be the cause?
What EDCS Might Do In The Body
Many of the cells in our bodies have receptors, like little docking bays. When the right hormone molecule pulls into a docking bay, it triggers an action. Estrogen, for example, instructs cells to make female genitals, or to start puberty, or to regulate a woman's monthly cycle. Androgens tell cells to build boy parts, to make sperm, and so on. If a chemical that mimics estrogen pulls into a receptor at the wrong time, or in the wrong amount, it could cause unwanted changes, including genital malformations or infertility — the very things that seem to be happening more to boys. Though BPA has gotten the most attention, there are many other suspected EDCs: polybrominated diphenyl ethers are found in flame retardants on furniture; phthalates show up in everything from flexible plastics to cosmetics; an EPA study recently found that triclosan, a bacteria-killer used widely in deodorants, toothpastes, and soaps, had hormonal effects on rodents; atrazine is one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world, and it finds its way into streams and water supplies. (Karen Reardon, a spokeswoman for RISE, a pesticide trade group, says that weed- and bug-killers these days are so advanced and so targeted that they only work on the organisms they are meant to destroy — so the chemicals are not likely to affect people or even other mammals.)
All these substances are appearing in the bloodstreams of adults, children, and even newborns, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Simply finding a chemical in our bodies doesn't mean it's hurting us, but EDCs have harmed people before, points out Heather Patisaul, Ph.D., who studies endocrine disruptors at North Carolina State University. A synthetic estrogen called diethylstilboestrol (DES) was given to millions of women from 1940 into the 1970s to help prevent miscarriage. The children they gave birth to paid a price: Doctors later discovered that their daughters were developing rare vaginal cancers and their sons suffered from testicular cysts and, some research found, increased rates of hypospadias and undescended testicles. "We have an idea of what an endocrine-disrupting chemical can do to humans because of the DES experience," Patisaul says.
Estrogen-like chemicals are known to harm animals. But the science around the effects of EDCs on humans is still murky — in part because researchers cannot ethically dose people with them on purpose. Instead, they have to rely on studies that show links between a possible cause, like the amount of EDCs in a person's body, and an effect.
Even doctors on the front lines of treating baby boys with genital malformations don't fully agree about what is happening in their field. Julia Barthold, M.D., a pediatric urologist at A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE, says she hasn't seen an uptick in these issues in her practice, and even if she had, whether or not EDCs should get the blame is still a question: "We don't know which factors — like family history — might be most important."
Other doctors will tell you they have no doubts; Howard Snyder, M.D., a pediatric urologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, says, "As a nation, we are seeing a rise in hypospadias and undescended testicles. And it's not because we are better at making diagnoses. If that were the case, we would be seeing minor cases, and that is not what we are seeing at all. I think this is the real deal — and EDCs may be to blame."
Why It May Be Smart To Change Our Ways
Product manufacturers often argue that most animal studies use large doses of EDCs, and that the amounts humans are likely to receive from any one product are much lower. But every scientist we contacted for this story brought up the fact that in the real world, humans aren't dosed with only one chemical at a time: From the moment we wake up and brush our teeth with antibacterial toothpaste, swipe on mascara, spray a little air freshener, eat some canned soup for lunch, we are receiving constant tiny doses of EDCs, and they mix in our bodies. "It is the source of some of the greatest fear: the unknown of what we might be exposing ourselves to inadvertently, or just because it all adds up," says Jackson.
Although the full picture isn't yet painted, it is clear that people like Brandie and Karly, who are actively trying to reduce their family's exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, aren't acting crazy. Even the most conservative doctors and scientists — like Barthold and Sharpe, who don't believe the case against EDCs has been proven yet — agree it's a good idea for parents to reduce their household's exposure to these chemicals, especially when a woman is pregnant. "Scientists realize that there may never be a smoking gun, but nonetheless, when their daughters get ready to have children, they say, 'Stay away from EDCs,'" says Snyder. As Sharpe says, why not avoid unnecessary chemical exposures? "It can do no harm, only potential good."