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UN report: 'Reasonable' to suspect that common chemicals have 'serious implications' for health and fertility

25 February 2013
Appeared in BioNews 694

Untested synthetic chemicals found in many household and industrial products could be associated with adverse health outcomes, including low fertility, says a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organisation.

The report looked at the effect of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on human health and wildlife. It found evidence suggesting an association between certain chemicals and adverse effects on the endocrine system  - a network of glands that release hormones - that could lead to health problems. The report concludes that further research is needed to investigate the connection between EDCs and certain diseases, and called for more widespread testing methods.

EDCs are chemicals that can disrupt the action of hormones in the body, altering the function of the endocrine system. This may increase the risk of adverse health effects and can lead to reduced fertility and infertility, among other problems.

EDCs can occur naturally or can be produced synthetically and are used in the production of cosmetics, textiles plastics and pesticides. Once released into the environment, some chemicals can travel to remote regions and can also affect food products. Exposure to humans may occur by the ingestion of food, dust or water or through the air. The report also says children have a higher exposure to EDCs because of their hand to mouth activities.

'Chemical products are increasingly part of modern life and support many national economies, but the unsound management of chemicals challenges the achievement of key development goals, and sustainable development for all', said UN Under Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

EDCs include persistent organic pollutants, such as PCBs and DDT banned in many countries over 20 years ago. PCBs have been linked to IVF failure, reported in BioNews 598. The report says new sources of human exposure to EDCs have now been identified making them a continued cause for concern.

The authors of the report make it clear that studies have not demonstrated a causal link between exposure to EDCs and potential health problems in humans but that over the past ten years animal and human studies have produced greater evidence of such an association. Infertility was seen to have been induced by exposure to EDCs in animal and human models but further research is needed to investigate this potential link.

'Research has made great strides in the last ten years showing endocrine disruption to be far more extensive and complicated than realised a decade ago', said Professor Åke Bergman of Stockholm University and chief editor of the report. 'As science continues to advance, it is time for both management of endocrine disrupting chemicals and further research on exposure and effects of these chemicals in wildlife and humans'.

The report acknowledges that due to the complexity of exposure to EDCs and disease etiology 'it may never be possible to be absolutely certain that a specific exposure causes a specific disease or dysfunction'. It emphasises that we do not, however, know enough about EDCs. Known EDCs are only the 'tip of the iceberg', it says. 

The report recommends greater testing of unknown EDCs and research into the effects of mixtures of EDCs on humans and wildlife. It also says many sources of EDCs are not brought to the attention of researchers because of insufficient reporting.

Effects of human exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals examined in landmark UN report
World Health Organization (press release) |  19 February 2013
Everyday chemicals linked to diseases, warns World Health Organisation
Daily Telegraph |  19 February 2013
Everyday chemicals 'pose threat to health'
NHS Choices |  20 February 2013
Man-made chemicals cited in health scourges: UN report
Reuters |  19 February 2013
Summary for Decision-Makers: State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 2012
World Health Organization |  19 February 2013
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