There is no definitive proof that endocrine disruptors -- chemicals that interfere with the natural function of hormones -- can harm humans in usual doses. However, based on animal research, many scientists suspect such harmful effects exist. And in many cases, they attempt to reduce exposure to themselves and their families, especially from everyday consumer products.
The chemicals are found in many plastics, including food packaging, and in a wide array of household and personal-care products. These can include lawn and garden chemicals, laundry detergent, liquid handsoap, moisturizers, shampoo, toothpaste and cosmetics.
There might be no way to avoid these chemicals completely. But here are some ways you can reduce your exposure:
• Read labels. Manufacturers are not required to list endocrine disruptors per se, but some common ones do appear on labels. These include: phthalates, parabens and nonylphenol.
• Use fewer chemicals. The simpler the product's ingredient list, the better.
• Pay special heed to children's products. Infants and children have the most exposure to plastics -- and researchers believe they are also most vulnerable to endocrine disruptors.
• Avoid plastic packaging. Endocrine disruptors have been found to leach from plastic containers into the food and beverages inside. Some plastics "leach" more than others, including PVC (recycling symbol "3"), polystyrene (6) and "other" (7).
• Don't microwave plastic. The heat can release chemicals into the air and the food. Same with plastic wrap.
• Avoid canned food. Unless the label states otherwise, assume that linings in most food cans contain the endocrine disruptor BPA, which can leach into food and beverages. If you eat canned food, some experts suggest rinsing it first.
• Use "green" alternatives to petrochemicals. Laundry detergents, soaps and other cleaning products are available whose active ingredients are made from plant material, rather than petrochemicals. Vinegar and baking soda often work well, too.
The Web site for the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org), an advocacy nonprofit, offers a safety guide to children's personal-care products. It also features a safety database of some 50,000 cosmetics and other personal-care products; and other information.
Still, the easiest way to avoid endocrine disruptors is to avoid products that might contain them whenever possible. For instance, says Dan Volz, a University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of public health, "I don't wear sunscreen. I wear a hat."