How Pollution Can Affect Your Hormones, According To Science
It seems as if there's a new story every day about the impact of environmental pollutants on our bodies, from pollution in the air to stuff found in plastic bottles and couches. Pollution is a global problem without a readily apparent solution, though taking steps to avoid exposure can help. On top of its environmental effects, pollution can affect your hormones in some surprising ways.
Studies have discovered that various substances might be associated with disruption of hormones in all sorts of ways, from the way we have babies to the way we cope with stress. While a lot of the science is associative — in other words, it just shows that pollution and hormone issues are linked, not that there's cause and effect — it's still worth knowing about.
Hormones in the body are produced and regulated by the endocrine system, which is very complex and involves multiple different organs and hormones. The study of the relationship between the world around us and our hormones is called environmental endocrinology; Professor Sean Lema wrote in 2017 for Oxford University Press that it's "the study of how the environmental conditions experienced by an organism affect the endocrine system." And environmental endocrinology has a lot of lessons for us about how various things in the environment might be affecting our hormones. Here are six ways pollution can impact your hormones.
1. Bisphenol A In Plastics Is Linked To Hormone Issues
One of the most worrying substances when it comes to hormone disruption in pollution is bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that is used to harden plastics. The Environmental Working Group told LiveScience that BPA is in a lot of products we use regularly, particularly plastics and canned food. The problem, as Nature explained in 2018, is in how BPA is shaped; it's what's known as a "hormone mimic," in that it can look and act like a hormone, specifically the sex hormone estrogen.
"BPA’s structure enables it to mimic or block the action of hormones. This allows the molecule to interfere with the function of the body’s endocrine system — the complex network of glands, hormones and receptors that link the brain to reproduction and metabolism," Nature noted.
This mimicking could lead to problems, though the details aren't quite clear right now. The Guardian reported in 2018 that BPA exposure has been linked to a wide range of conditions involving hormones, from male fertility issues to breast cancer. Reducing your BPA levels can be difficult because it's pretty ubiquitous, but avoiding canned food and not microwaving plastic food containers are both thought to help.
2. Air Pollution May Cause Hormonal Issues In Both Men & Women
A number of studies over decades have found that air pollution can have serious hormonal effects. "Many environmental pollutant chemicals have been shown to possess the ability to interfere in the functioning of the endocrine system and have been termed endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These compounds exist in air as volatile or semi-volatile compounds in the gas phase or attached to particulate matter," explained a study in the International Journal of General Medicine in 2018.
And the EDCs in air can have potent effects. They've been linked to reductions in sperm quality, irregular menstrual cycles in teenagers, and fertility issues in female-bodied people in general.
3. Air Pollution Can Increase Stress Hormones
Hormones aren't just about the reproductive system. They're also an important part of our stress response, in which we send hormones like adrenaline coursing through the body to help us react to stressful events. However, polluted air seems to make us produce stress hormones in large quantities, according to numerous studies.
Research from heavily polluted cities reveals that exposure to polluted air over a long period can make metabolic stress hormones spike, which isn't healthy long-term. "Increases in circulating adrenal-derived stress hormones [...] contribute to lung injury/inflammation and metabolic effects in the liver, pancreas, adipose, and muscle tissues," according to an air pollution study published in Toxicological Sciences in 2018.
4. Lead Pollution Is Linked To Hormonal Disruption
You're far less likely to be exposed to lead than you once were — it's a lot more tightly regulated now than it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries — but lead exposure can impact hormones. A study published in The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation in 2009 revealed that lead accumulates in virtually every organ in the endocrine system over time.
But science is still discovering new things. A study published in Nature: Scientific Reports in 2016, for instance, found that blood lead levels were associated with reproductive hormone levels in postmenopausal women and young men, in various ways. Long-term lead exposure seems to be the determining factor in these studies, so people who've worked with lead a lot are the most vulnerable.
5. Certain Pesticides Are Linked To Hormones Too
Pesticides may act as pollutants too. Studies of organophosphate pesticides have revealed that they may be linked to problems with the thyroid in particular. Various studies, for example, have found that exposure to those pesticides could be linked with thyroid issues in pregnant women.
The effects are particularly pronounced in countries where these pesticides are used widely, and in people who work with them directly; a study on workers in flower fields published in 2010 found that exposure to these pesticides seems to be linked to thyroid hormone issues, while a review of science in 2018 found that there are links between high exposure and sperm production in men. Another study in 2002 found that women married to farmers in Iowa and North Carolina who used particular pesticides were also prone to thyroid disease. Buying organic produce is a good way to try and avoid exposure.
6. Old Toxins Are Still In The Environment Causing Issues
Two classes of chemical, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and perfluorinated compounds (PFC), have been linked to hormone issues. And there's an additional issue. As a study published in Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association in 2010 explained, while PCBs, which were once widely used in industry, are now rarely produced worldwide, neither chemical breaks down easily, which means they both "have a strong tendency to accumulate in the environment." In other words, they're pollutants that last for ages. PFCs are still popular for helping make non-stick cookware, and — importantly — they both seem to be linked to our hormones.
The study laid out that PFC and PCB exposure seem to affect our production of "steroid hormones," like estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol. We've known about PCB's effects on hormones for a while; a study published back in 2002 showed how it negatively effects the thyroid. However, evidence has also been building about PFCs; a study in 2013 found that they interfere with steroid hormone production too, while research in 2017 explained their links with thyroid hormone levels.
Reducing exposure to environmental pollutants can be tricky; the earth is, after all, awash with them. Making informed choices can go a long way, though. Buying organic produce and thoroughly washing conventional produce, seeking out BPA-free plastics, and going back to the science can help. And, of course, contacting your representatives to put measures in place to curb pollution can make a major difference.