Imagine that random strangers have keys to all the rooms in your home and enter at all hours, turning stuff on and off, rearranging furniture, locking you out, and leaving a mess. Now imagine that in your body. That's endocrine disruption, and the U.N. says it's now a serious global threat.
According to a new report from the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, rates of endocrine-related health problems are climbing and evidence that common chemicals are to blame is growing just as fast. The report says it's time to "ban or restrict (these) chemicals in order to reduce exposure early, even when there are significant but incomplete data."
That wisdom has been a long time coming, but for us non-science types, it begs a certain question: What is endocrine-disruption and why should we care?
The endocrine system houses the body's hormones, and hormones are the body's messengers. Produced in tiny amounts by glands like the thyroid, they travel through the bloodstream delivering chemical instructions that tell our cells what to do and when to do it.
Not all cells respond to all hormones. Each of the body's thousands of different cell types has various receptor sites on their surface, which allow particular hormones to attach themselves. When a hormone connects with its target cell, it triggers a specific reaction in that cell. It's like a lock and key: Cells have specific receptors, or "locks" that only certain hormone "keys" will fit. When a hormone's target cell receive its "key," biological response begins.
This arrangement allows hormones to regulate the body's growth and functions, but here's the rub: Hormones are potent substances often measured in parts per trillion in the bloodstream. It takes a remarkably miniscule amount to get a given bodily job done. And science has discovered that many of the chemicals found in pesticides, electronics, personal care products, cosmetics, and additives in foods can behave like hormones when they get inside us.
These chemicals may mimic the keys that fit our cells' "locks," but when they come knocking, the result is chaos. Legitimate hormones may not be able to attach. Erroneous messages can be delivered. Cells can divide when they shouldn't. They may fail to grow when they should. And the functions our bodies need them to perform may go undone or happen at the wrong time.
What could come next might be cancer, reproductive problems, developmental disorders, obesity, brain damage—you name it. Hormone-mimicking chemicals can scramble many of the processes that keep us healthy.
That makes the new U.N. report a bit of a big deal. It's the only one to try and sum up everything we know today about endocrine disruption. What it finds is that though we know very little, we know more than enough to say with certainty that hormone-mimicking chemicals like BPA and phthalates are permanently damaging our health in dangerous ways. They and all their brethren must be phased out immediately. Any other recourse would be madness. And madness, as we know, is not the best foundation for a civilization that harbors any hope at all for its future.