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The alarming effects of pollutants on the hormonal balance

Jun 18, 2024Felicitas Frank

In our modern society, we are almost constantly exposed to pollutants. We absorb them through the air we breathe, the water we drink, our skin or the food we eat. These pollutants obviously pose a health risk. In particular, the thyroid gland, as the centre of our hormones, suffers from these pollutants. 

What are environmental pollutants?

Because they have a particularly strong effect on the hormonal balance and can disrupt it, some environmental pollutants are also called "endocrine disruptors". Endocrine is the term used to describe all organs that release messenger substances, i.e. hormones, into the body. These include the thyroid, the most important hormone regulator, the adrenal glands, the pituitary gland, but also the fallopian tubes and testicles. What endocrine-disrupting substances have in common is that they resemble our hormones in structure and function, and can therefore easily integrate into our hormonal balance. This does not necessarily have to be a negative thing. There are some naturally occurring substances that resemble our hormones and have a positive influence on the regulation of our hormonal balance. For example, estrogen-like substances from plants are used as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy during menopause. 

However, there are also many hormone-like substances that disrupt the human endocrine system. These include, for example, many substances that are contained in pesticides, but also in our food, cosmetics, toys, in other words, things that we come into contact with every day. 

How do these pollutants affect our bodies?

The increasing number of cases of various types of cancer, such as thyroid, testicular, breast or prostate cancer, as well as the steadily declining quality of sperm in European countries, clearly show that something is happening to people's hormonal balance. The constantly declining age of puberty, especially in girls, is also alarming in this respect. It has long been recognised that hormone-like substances play a role in the development of diseases of the reproductive organs. These include testicular, prostate and breast cancer, but also female hormone disorders such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).1

Endocrine disrupting substances, or EDs, enter the body and either increase or decrease the levels of certain hormones in the blood. The constant stimulation of the receptors can lead to desensitisation, which means that the natural hormones no longer have their usual effect. Insulin resistance, for example, is the result of such desensitisation, which in many cases develops into type 2 diabetes. 

Since the thyroid gland is involved in many important processes in the body, the effects of a disorder of this organ are very diverse. For example, it ensures that the brain functions properly, which is why an increase in neuronal disorders such as ADHD is also attributed by researchers to the disruption of the thyroid gland by endocrine active substances.1

Many endocrine disruptors trigger the activation of adrenaline receptors in our bodies, which leads to a disruption in the production of steroids. Researchers suspect a link between such a disruption and the development of inflammatory reactions, which could favour the development of chronic inflammatory diseases. Furthermore, studies have shown that increased exposure to hormone-like substances can lead to symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression.2

pollutants leeching into our food

The most common environmental pollutants

Some endocrine disruptors are so widespread in our everyday lives that they can now be detected in a large proportion of the population. The following three substances are among the most common.

1. Bisphenol A (BPA)

The substance was first produced in 1891, and its oestrogen-like effect was discovered in 1936. Nevertheless, it was still the most commonly produced plastic in 2013, as it is used for a wide range of toys and food storage containers. For example, it is found in many plastic bottles or plastic containers for food. Food cans also usually have a BPA coating. When the containers are exposed to heat or repeatedly used, the harmful substance leaks into the food or drinks stored in them. In some countries, the use of BPA in the production of baby bottles has been banned. Even the thermal paper used to print receipts at the checkout was treated with BPA until 2019. Every time our skin comes into contact with the paper, small amounts of BPA enter our bodies.3

A study in the USA showed that 93% of people over the age of 6 had BPA in their urine. BPA that is ingested with food is excreted after a period of about 6 hours. These figures therefore suggest that there is long-term contact with the harmful substance.4

2. Phtalates

These substances are mainly used as softeners in plastic products. They are often found in PVC floors, but also in toys, cosmetic products such as toothbrushes or faux leather. Due to the widespread use of these substances, the total consumption of phthalates worldwide amounts to more than 3 million tonnes per year.
Phthalates have even been found in house dust. It is therefore almost impossible to avoid contact with phthalates. Residues of the pollutant are found primarily in the thyroid gland, but also in the kidneys, liver and testicles. They have been linked to premature births, miscarriages and birth defects during pregnancy, as well as to infertility. Diabetes, insulin resistance and asthma are also attributed to contact with phthalates. In 2007, the EU banned the use of most phthalates in plastic products.5

3. Parabens

Parabens are a group of preservatives used mainly in medical and cosmetic products to prevent the formation of microbes. They have been widely used since the 1920s, even for preserving various foods. Various studies have shown that parabens can interfere with the receptors of oestrogen and progesterone, which can lead to various hormonal disorders in women.6 The detection of parabens in urine has been linked by researchers to increased oxidative stress, DNA damage and impaired thyroid function, and they are also suspected of causing breast cancer.7

To date, parabens have been classified by the EU as generally safe and are only restricted in the concentration in which they may be used. Only propyl and butyl paraben have been banned in the production of baby wound creams since 2015, as they can penetrate the child's skin more easily if there are existing skin irritations. However, they may be used on children aged three and older. Many manufacturers voluntarily refrain from using these substances due to health concerns. 

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Will strict regulation improve the situation?

Many endocrine disruptors are already banned in the EU and other economic areas. However, this does not mean that we are no longer exposed to these substances. Older products or imported products that contain these pollutants may still be in circulation within our borders. Even if contaminated products have already been disposed of, the pollutants may still find their way to us. For example, when plastic ends up in the sea, these substances are released into the water and absorbed by fish and other marine organisms. By eating contaminated fish, seafood or algae, we then also ingest these substances. 

Strengthening and protecting the thyroid

Since it is the centre of our hormones, it is particularly important to protect the thyroid against the effects of these harmful substances. Of course, the first step is to avoid endocrine disruptors wherever possible. This means buying and storing food in glass rather than plastic or tins, switching to cosmetics that do not use parabens, and buying less pesticide-contaminated organic food instead of conventionally grown food. However, as mentioned above, some of these substances also occur in drinking water and in the air, which is why it is impossible for us to avoid them completely. Therefore, it is advisable to support the thyroid gland, which is the most important organ in our hormonal system, as much as possible. 

In addition to an active lifestyle and a balanced diet, the two minerals iodine and selenium are particularly important for a healthy thyroid. It is therefore important to pay special attention to the intake of these two nutrients. Supplementing with iodine and selenium is also recommended, as the dosage can be more precisely controlled here. Researchers also recommend a combination of adjusting buying and eating behaviour and supplementing with iodine for better thyroid health.8




  1. European Environment Agency. The impacts of endocrine disrupters on wildlife, people and their environments. The Weybridge+15 (1996–2011) report. 2012.
  2. Pötzl B, Kürzinger L, Stopper H, Fassnacht M, Kurlbaum M, Dischinger U. Endocrine Disruptors: Focus on the Adrenal Cortex. Horm Metab Res. 2024 Jan;56(1):78-90. doi: 10.1055/a-2198-9307. Epub 2023 Oct 26. PMID: 37884032; PMCID: PMC10764154.
  3. Gore AC, Chappell VA, Fenton SE, Flaws JA, Nadal A, Prins GS, Toppari J, Zoeller RT. EDC-2: The Endocrine Society's Second Scientific Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals. Endocr Rev. 2015 Dec;36(6):E1-E150. doi: 10.1210/er.2015-1010. Epub 2015 Nov 6. PMID: 26544531; PMCID: PMC4702494.
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  5. Wang Y, Qian H. Phthalates and Their Impacts on Human Health. Healthcare (Basel). 2021 May 18;9(5):603. doi: 10.3390/healthcare9050603. PMID: 34069956; PMCID: PMC8157593.
  6. Nowak K, Ratajczak-Wrona W, Górska M, Jabłońska E. Parabens and their effects on the endocrine system. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2018 Oct 15;474:238-251. doi: 10.1016/j.mce.2018.03.014. Epub 2018 Mar 27. PMID: 29596967.
  7. Dorota Błędzka, Jolanta Gromadzińska, Wojciech Wąsowicz. Parabens. From environmental studies to human health. Environment International, Volume 67, 2014, Pages 27-42.
  8. Corbett GA, Lee S, Woodruff TJ, Hanson M, Hod M, Charlesworth AM, Giudice L, Conry J, McAuliffe FM; International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) Committee on Impact of Pregnancy on Long-term Health and the FIGO Committee on Climate Change and Toxic Environmental Exposures. Nutritional interventions to ameliorate the effect of endocrine disruptors on human reproductive health: A semi-structured review from FIGO. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2022 Jun;157(3):489-501. doi: 10.1002/ijgo.14126. Epub 2022 Feb 23. PMID: 35122246; PMCID: PMC9305939.