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How to Protect Your Family From Xenoestrogens

Updated on February 4, 2018

What are Xenoestrogens?

Xenoestrogens are synthetic or chemical versions of the female hormone estrogen.

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Where are Xenoestrogens found?

They are found in many places in our environment, including some plastics, pesticides, sunscreens, food preservatives, toiletries such as shampoos or moisturisers, make-up and insecticides. They are in all combined oral contraceptive pills.

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Why should we be concerned about xenoestrogens?

Several xenoestrogens have been banned worldwide because of their harmful effects. These include: DDT, dieldrin, endosulfan, and methoxychor. All these are insecticides.

Bisphenol A is a xenoestrogen worth a special mention. In 2011 Canada and the European Union banned its use in babies' bottles because it is a recognized hormone disrupter. It is however, still used in other plastics, and is in the lining of almost every can of food you buy – including organic food. A few years ago I read a report about this, and wrote to several manufacturers of organic canned foods. All used bisphenol A. Since then at least one of the large supermarkets in the UK has stopped selling its own-brand pulses in cans and instead packages them in cartons.

So government bodies and some manufacturers are concerned.

Although few scientists are as yet willing to say for sure that xenoestrogens cause the following issues, there is growing evidence that they are at least partially responsible for:

  • Earlier puberty in girls
  • Reduced fertility in men
  • Some migraine headaches
  • The increase in breast cancer
  • The increase in testicular cancer
  • Some other cancers
  • Deformed fish and alligators found near sewage outflows in a variety of countries around the world. The deformations are to the male reproductive organs. (One such study took place at the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.)

Fertility and xenoestrogens

As long ago as the 1990s a reduction in men’s fertility was reported in many countries, including Denmark, France and the UK. Many scientists think that this could be a result of the male fetus being exposed to high levels of estrogens. Likewise, several studies have concluded that early puberty in girls could be partly due to exposure to xenoestrogen. A 15 year long study in Denmark found that girls are now developing breasts around a year earlier than at the start of the study. Since it is known that obesity lowers the age of puberty, and childhood obesity is on the rise, the figures quoted in the study were after making adjustment for that. The scientists found that the girls did not have significantly higher levels of natural hormones, which they believe suggests that the cause is environmental.

A study in Mexico found that girls living near farmed land with high pesticide use began puberty significantly earlier than girls in ranch areas where pesticides were not used. After taking all other factors into consideration, scientists concluded that the pesticides used were responsible for this early puberty.

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A Cocktail of Chemicals

If you are now feeling as shocked as I was in 2001 when I read an article in the British magazine The New Scientist about xenoestrogens, then you will be pleased to know there is much you can do to protect your children from their effects.

Back in 2001, the place where we lived often had hot and sunny days, and I had no idea which sunscreens were safe so most days I kept my children inside until around four o’ clock when it was safe to go out without sunscreen. Since then I have discovered organic sunscreens that use mineral sun-blocking agents instead of chemical. At the end of this hub I will list several brands that are safe to use.

One xenoestrogen in sunscreens is 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC). As with most of these chemicals, scientists are not in total agreement on the level of risk this chemical poses, but several studies indicate that it is a hormone disruptor. What that means is that, like all of the xenoestrogens mentioned in this article, using products containing 4-MBC puts you at greater risk of developing cancer. Additionally some scientists think it could lead to hypothyroidism.

Parabens are possibly the group of chemicals in everyday use that cause most controversy. Some scientists claim they are safe, but parabens mimic estrogen, and have been found in breast cancer tumors – a cancer in which estrogen is known to play a significant part. In a study in Japan male rats were given propyl paraben at the rate recommended as the upper-limit for safety in the EU and Japan (10 milligrams per kilo of body weight). After 4 weeks the rats were found to have significantly reduced sperm production compared to rats not given paraben.

Other studies suggest that parabens are most hazardous when mixed with other chemicals – and that’s how we usually get them!

Parabens are found in many, many cosmetics and toiletries.

Much of the disagreement between scientists is on the level at which these chemicals pose a risk to humans. What is increasingly clear is that while individual chemicals may not pose huge risks, we are rarely exposed to a solitary chemical. In 2004 scientists began investigations in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts, in an effort to explain the area’s high rate of cancers, including breast, lung and prostate. They took samples of dust from 120 homes. These samples turned out to contain 66 chemicals know to disrupt hormones. Among the samples were 27 pesticides, some of which had been banned up to 30 years before. Another study done by WWF on Members of the European parliament found up to 76 hazardous chemicals in the politicians’ blood!

It is this cocktail of chemicals that puts our children particularly at risk, and while we are unlikely to eliminate every chemical from our environments it makes sense to reduce exposure wherever we can.

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How to reduce your family's risk from xenoestrogens

If what you’ve read till now seems just a little depressing, please be reassured that there is much you can do to reduce your family’s risks from xenoestrogens.

First, since the link between pesticides and early puberty is clear, eating organic food is a sensible choice. If you live somewhere organic food isn’t readily available or choice is limited, or it the extra cost seems more than you can manage then a good idea is to choose organic produce where it matters most.

Fortunately the USA government provide data of non- organic fruit and vegetables that retain most pesticide reside, and those that have very little residue and a high nutritional value.

So here are:

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"The Baddies": The Top 12 Fruit and Vegetables with high pesticide residues

  1. Strawberries.
  2. Green Bell Peppers
  3. Spinach
  4. Cherries
  5. Peaches
  6. Cantaloupe melon – but only imports from Mexico, which largely occur during January to April.
  7. Celery
  8. Apples
  9. Apricots
  10. Green beans
  11. Grapes – imported from Chile, again during January to April.
  12. Cucumber

In Europe this list varies slightly, with nectarines, lettuce and pears joining the list, and cantaloupe, green beans and apricots left off. Once again, however conventionally grown strawberries tops the list.

And the Top 12 “Goodies”: Fruit and Veg with low pesticide residues.

  1. Avocados
  2. Onions
  3. Corn
  4. Sweet potatoes
  5. Cauliflower
  6. Brussel sprouts
  7. Grapes (grown in the USA)
  8. Bananas
  9. Plums
  10. Green onions
  11. Watermelon
  12. Broccoli

If a fruit or vegetable has a thick skin, you will be removing much of the pesticides by peeling it.

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Pesticide residue found in various foods

Meat and dairy products.

These often contain pesticide residues and can contain hormones, so if possible eat organic.

Oil.

A study in Greece during 2004 -2005 tested 29 samples of olive oil, some from organic sources and some from conventionally grown. 10 of the conventionally grown contained no residue of pesticides, and in the others on average 3 pesticide residues were found. Extra virgin olive oil contained the highest residues. One of the most commonly found pesticides was endosulfan, and this was also present in low levels in three of the ten organic oils tested. However, endosulfan is no longer registered for use in olive growing.

According to the New Internationalist magazine, 75% of the pesticides used on crops in the US are sprayed onto soyabean or corn, so you don’t have access to organic oil using olive oil seems a good alternative.

Chocolate.

Some chocolate has been found to contain small quanties of the pesticide lindane, which has a variety of toxic effects. This is not necessarily present in all non-organic chocolate, but is the most common pesticide used in West African cocoa growing.

Wheat.

Wholemeal flour has been found to contain more pesticide residues than white, because pesticides collect in the wheatgerm. However, white flour is often bleached with chemicals to make it whiter, so be sure to buy unbleached flour or bread. Additionally, many health experts warn against consuming simple carbohydrates such as white bread because of the added risk of diabetes and obesity. If you cannot easily buy wholemeal bread locally, an alternative would be to buy organic flour on-line and make your own bread in a bread maker.

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Things you can to protect your family.

Shop local.

Many farmers don’t spray with pesticides, but haven’t paid the premium to get their land certified organic. Your supermarket chain won’t be able to tell you that information, but your local store can, and so can the farmers themselves. So buy from local stores or farmers’ markets. For instance, you might be able to find organic bread at a farmers' market when you can't at your nearest supermarket. Buying local can often work out cheaper than going to the supermarket too – our local store is our cheapest place to buy organic milk.

Shop around to make the best of both local produce and that from further afield: buy fresh food locally as often as you can, and order store cupboard goods on-line if they aren’t available locally. One supermarket we occasionally go to has few organic fruit or vegetables, but lots of packaged organic products such as rice cakes, bread sticks, yogurts and even little sticks of cheese for use in children’s lunch boxes. So it pays to be flexible.

If you’d like to make changes, but feel overwhelmed, then do so gradually.

I’ve already made suggestions for what foods it’s best to buy organic. With toiletries, when I made the change, I worked on the principle that the more time a product spent on my children’s skin the more likely it was to be absorbed. So I have never rubbed a drop of chemical sunscreen onto their arms, but it took me longer to switch to organic shampoos.

Buy organic toothpaste.

Small children often swallow some toothpaste when brushing their teeth, so make sure what they put in their mouths is safe.

Use safe cleaning products in your home.

This doesn’t need to mean expensive products. For example vinegar is great for cleaning windows and for using as a fabric conditioner. (And no it doesn’t make clothes smell.) Bicarbonate of soda gets stains off cups and removes odors from shoes or sweaty clothes.

Buy a water filter.

The best filters work by reverse osmosis, but even cheaper carbon filters will remove most pesticides and heavy metals from your water, making it safer to drink. (If you use a jug filter, make sure the plastic it is made of doesn’t contain Bisphenol A.)

Use a barrier method of contraception. This is another topic on which there is not a consensus view on its implications, but residues of both the birth control pill and antibiotics have been found in drinking water. An Irish study concluded that this is not currently a major concern in that country because most of the effluent is discharged into the sea instead of into the rivers. That doesn’t sound too encouraging to me, and I will continue to use my water filter!


Which sunscreens and other skin care products are safe?

First, the bad news.

I wish this was as simple as telling you to buy organic skin care products, but as ‘organic’ can have a different meaning on toiletries if manufacturers use the definition as applied in chemistry. My dictionary defines this as: “of, relating to or belonging to the class of chemical compounds that are formed from carbons.” Even toiletries claiming to be certified organic aren’t always 100% trustworthy. Look a little closer, and you often find that what the packaging actually says the product has: “certified organic ingredients”. This doesn’t mean the entire product is organic.

If the toiletry has an Ecocert label, stating “natural and organic” then a minimum of 95% of its plant-based ingredients must be organic. For their “natural” label it’s 50%. By weight the figures are much lower, because water is a common ingredient in toiletries, and cannot be certified organic.

If a product contains a long list of chemical- sounding ingredients, I would be very wary of using it. Anything containing Phthalates should be avoided but manufacturers don’t usually include it in the ingredients list. DBP and DEHP are phthalates. Most large manufacturers have now removed these from toiletries. The EU has much tougher laws on what can be used in toiletries than the US does.

The good news.

However, the website ewg.org has tested many sunscreens and provides a search facility where you can enter the sunscreen of your choice to find out if it is safe to use. It also has lists best and worst sunscreens, in a number of categories, including children's sunscreens. Ratings are based on scientific studies and take into account effectiveness and safety.

Be aware that simply picking one company and buying their products will not guarantee your children’s safety. Aveeno have one baby sunscreen listed among the best, and another, also for babies, in the hall of shame.

As this website lists very few British companies, my favorite is not among them. For years we have bought our sun protection from Green People, whose products are both safe and fairly traded.

Sources

Research findings on xenoestrogens.

As much as possible I have used references to studies done by government bodies or other reputable sources. As I can no longer find the original report on Cape Cod study I have included a link to an article in the British newspaper The Guardian.

Here are some links to information about studies done on early onset puberty in girls:

From PBS Newshour: Early Puberty in Girls on the Rise

A study done in Mexico Altered Breast Development in Young Girls from an Agricultural Environment

A 15 year study done in Denmark:

Recent Decline in Age at Breast Development: The Copenhagen Puberty Study

The Japanese study:

Effects of propyl paraben on the male reproductive system

More information on the study done at Cape Cod:

A sharp intake of breath

WWF have researched Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals extensively, and this is one of their reports:

Problems with toxics: EDC's

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