Not many people outside of science have heard about “Endocrine Disruptors”, a term applied to chemicals which can affect how our bodies function, but recent research is starting to show that they may be responsible for the shift in disease prevalence in the western world. To put it simply: cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, and immune disorders have increased faster than can be explained by genetic factors. Our DNA isn’t changing, but the way we are becoming ill is. Since the 1950s, life expectancy has barely increased, but the rates of cancers, Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, asthma and many other diseases have all gone up. What can be causing this?
The answer is in chemicals that we’ve been introducing to our bodies and the environment through industry, food and packaging manufacturing, and new healthcare and cosmetic products. There really is no definition yet as to what an “endocrine disruptor” is, and there’s certainly no list to make sure we can avoid them all, but there are many things in our daily lives that can make us chronically sick. Sound depressing? well, it kind of is. But, as cyclists, there’s a one very simple thing we can do to stay healthy.
Throw away that old water bottle!! If you’re anything like me, you have a whole box of water bottles hiding in your house somewhere, most of them manufactured by Specialized or Trek. These contain BPA, or Bisphenol-A. Some people may have heard of it, as it’s about the most well-known chemical to yet be identified as dangerous in this sense. BPA is a ‘synthetic estrogen’ which can mimic your own hormones to produce some undesirable effects. Recent studies can shown a correlation between BPA exposure and insulin resistance (linking it to Diabetes), and an decrease in Glucose metabolism (causing weight gain problems). In men, we need to worry about the increase in Estrogen-like hormones being directly related to testicular cancer, and reports that people exposed to high levels of BPA have a four-times higher chance of Erectile dysfunction.
What to do? Lots of new water bottles and containers are now labelled BPA free, including Clean Bottle brand bottles, and also Nalgene. The newer Specialized ‘Pure’ bottles are also safe in this sense. If you’re thinking about buying these products, it doesn’t take long to find out what’s in it. As for the other bottles? There isn’t too much to worry about if you’ve only been using them for a short time, but after a couple of months through the dishwasher, it’s probably best to let them go.
So why is the world not panicking about these chemicals? Well, in the EU there are already lots of restrictions in place on the use of BPA, mainly aimed at stopping it accumulating around us from a young age. There’s been no outcry because the evidence against its use is so non-specific. Its potential danger is still a recent discovery, and its widespread use has meant that so far researchers have not investigated all the effects in all situations. The other thing is that these chemicals exist around us in such small amounts. We’re talking “Parts per Billion” and “Parts per Trillion” here. It’s only the accumulation over a lifetime from many different sources that gives them the potency to make us ill. Scientists are a conservative bunch, and tend to be cautious in recommending change; one paper suggesting caution here, and another there, is not enough to change what can sometimes be multi-million dollar manufacturing processes.
Apart from our water bottles, where else are these things coming from? It’s hard to give a definitive list, and there’s no need to be scared of all the things around you, but there are a couple things that you can do to avoid upping how much of this stuff you come into contact with. Firstly, minimise hard and transparent plastics, generally the stuff that is “type 7” recyclable, as this is often lined with BPA. If you use Tupperware for storing your food, avoid microwaving or freezing those containers, as that will speed the breakdown of BPA in the resins. Avoid eating too much stuff from cans as these are also lined with BPA. Another place that you’ll come into contact with it is in receipts from shops. Thermal paper uses BPA to allow quick printing, and to stop ink fading. Don’t take your receipts unless you really need them. Thirdly, and least specifically, minimise what you use that is highly ‘fragranced’, for example household cleaners and body products. Phthalates are a group of chemicals that have also been linked to endocrine disruption, and like BPA are beginning to be regulated against. Hopefully in a couple of years, we won’t have to worry about spray-products containing these kinds of things.