by Marion Nestle
Apr 23 2009

Do endocrine disrupters cause asthma and obesity?

According to press reports, investigators from a Mt. Sinai School of Medicine project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Growing Up Healthy in East Harlem,” find higher levels of endocrine disrupters, mostly phthlates and bisphenol A, among obese girls (age six to eight) in East Harlem, as compared to girls who are not obese.   The actual research does not appear to be published yet – I can’t find it on the Epidemiology website – but the EPA’s site provides the latest report on the project.

Endocrine disrupters are widely used in food and beverage packaging materials, as well as things such as cosmetics, shampoos, lubricants, and paint. As I explained in earlier posts, federal agencies have been taking a hard look at such substances, particularly bisphenol A.  Their interim conclusion: such chemicals pose no harm at current levels of intake.

While waiting for more research or regulatory action, a group called As You Sow has asked food companies what they are doing about bisphenol A.  Its report, Seeking Safer Packaging, concludes that the companies it surveyed generally aren’t doing nearly enough.  A few companies – notably Hain Celestial, Heinz, and Nestle (no relation) do have plans to phase out these chemicals eventually.

Why isn’t there more research on endocrine disrupter chemicals?  Without it, we have only two choices: precaution or do nothing and see what happens.  In this instance, it looks like the evidence favors precaution.  Glass bottles, everybody!

  • Beth Maizes

    Glass jars yes, but I’ve heard that even the lids of canning jars have bisphenol A in the sticky ring that makes the original seal. Any suggestions?

  • Curious to see if anyone does research on whether EDs cause obesity or whether they exert more effect in already overweight (girls esp) thereby exacerbating/encouraging obesity. Certainly people with higher intake of packaged foods would ingest more and be more likely to be obese, so would like to know if they are co-occurring or one is chicken, one is egg. Oh my gosh, what if the conclusion is that eating lots of packaged foods is bad for us? What a revelation!

  • Jon

    My specialty. Thank you, Dr. Nestle! Some endocrine abnormalities are linked to obesity. Hypothyroidism, for instance. At one time, it was routine to irradiate enlarged thyroids. But for most obese patients, the obesity leads to the endocrine abnormalities.

    Certainly people who eat more packaged foods tend to take in more endocrine disruptors. All that hydrogenated soy oil is certain to have an antiandrogenic effect as it lowers your HDL; it also inhibits the production of eicosanoids. (HDL is the lipoprotein that carries your cholesterol to where it can be made into other steroids.) And of course, refined carbs lead to insulin resistance. This on top of all the plastic packaging, pesticides, etc. Since packaged foods rarely have an appreciable level of omega-3’s, consistently eating them affects your prostaglandin levels.

    Obesity itself works like an endocrine disruptor. Adipose tissue turns testosterone into estradiol, and more adipose tissue turns more testosterone into estradiol. This is one big reason obesity’s linked to breast cancer. Strangely, obesity’s also linked to prostate cancer, despite its estrogenic (and antiandrogenic) effects. Insulin resistance is a clear example of endocrine abnormalities caused by obesity. In turn, this metabolic abnormality leads to carbohydrate addiction, better known as a “sugar rush”, leading to taking in more calories.

    In short, being obese leads to a number of endocrine anomalies, culminating in infertility, diabetes, ischemia, and cancer.

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  • Janet Camp

    “Bottles” everyone you say, and I have been at this for many years (intensely since reading “Our Stolen Future” by Theodora Kroeber years ago and also to eliminate plastic from the landfill.

    Problem is that it is getting increasingly difficult to find some things in jars such as ketchup, peanut butter (I take my own jar to Whole Foods and grind it or buy peanuts and throw it in the food processor), or anything from the deli (even the coop has plastic containers for salad bar, olive bar and so on. Their answer to my carping is that it is recyclable plastic! What about landfills, the production of the plastic in the first place and the amount of energy needed to recycle it (even assuming there are markets for all this recycled stuff!).

    To previous poster, I am not going to worry about the rings for canning–that HAS to be minor compared to the onslaught of drink bottles, food containers and so on.

    Oh yes, now the mayonnaise is in plastic and Whole Foods does not have one single thing in their singles drink cooler that was both sugar-free and in glass. Either plastic container or sugary in a can.

    Here’s a question? I have eliminated plastic shopping bags including the produce ones, but now I have a little dog and have to pick up the poop. Everyone seems to use the grocery totes sadly as they probably have thousands of them but I’ve been trying to think of something better for me and to share with others. I’m using up some plastic sandwich bags from long ago (it’s a little dog) but what next?

  • Janet–I have the same conundrum with “needing” plastic bags to scoop the litterbox. Is it any better to buy a package of paper lunch bags and use them? I don’t know. I wish you could (safely) compost cat litter… I think you can compost dog poop so long as you do it someplace far away from food plants.