Plastics. Not so Fantastic.

Credit: Jonathan Chng

I want you to take a quick look around you. How many plastic items do you see? Maybe a water bottle, alongside a takeaway container of last night’s dinner. Well, our dependency on plastics is pretty obvious; it is after all an incredibly versatile compound. Yet, knowing the impact it has on wildlife and the environment we continue to use plastics with no real care. So, what if I were tell you that soft plastics can be detrimental to your health. Would that be enough to have you reconsider? Interested? There are chemicals found in many plastics, cosmetics and many other everyday items that harm our reproductive health; they are termed endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).

Over the last 50 years we have seen male fertility drop dramatically and the increase in the incidence of differences of sex development (DSDs). Differences of sex development are medical conditions affecting the reproductive system and include conditions like hypospadias (the abnormal opening of the urethra) and Kleinfelder’s Syndrome (having XXY chromosomes). In Victoria the incidence is about 1:100 live births and it continues to get worse. So how do EDCs harm us?

Endocrine is another word for hormone and hence endocrine disrupting chemicals are chemicals that impact our hormone system. EDCs are predominantly oestrogenic, meaning that they mimic oestrogen (a key female sex hormone), shifting the fine balance in the body. Common examples are BPA (found in soft plastics), paraben (a preservative used in cosmetics) and DES (a drug that was prescribed to mothers until 1971).

In males, high levels of oestrogen effects sperm production, as the cell type that nurture and develop sperm are sensitive to changes in hormones. Reduced sperm production then affects fertility. In females, high levels of oestrogen have been linked to breast cancer and during pregnancy a foetus’s development can be severely impacted by changes in oestrogen levels. A foetus is usually protected from the naturally high levels of oestrogen in the mother by the placenta. Unfortunately, oestrogen mimics aren’t detected by the placenta. Allowing these mimics to bypass it and hinder development.

Hypospadias is a very common birth defect that is the result of high oestrogen exposure during development. Hypospadias is characterised by the abnormal positioning of the urethra and is more severe in men where the urethra could be located along the shaft of the penis. Whilst surgery exist to repair the urethra its not perfect and patients can suffer from erectile dysfunction as a result.

Now it might sound like there’s no hope. But, cutting down on our exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals isn’t impossible and switching to BPA and paraben free plastics and cosmetics goes a long way to reducing the impacts on our reproductive system. Reusable BPA-free bottles are very common and have the added benefit of minimising plastic waste, benefiting the environment. As public awareness about the impacts of EDCs increases, we’ll see the reduction in the use of EDCs and the switch to healthier alternatives. Together we can combat what will become a major health issue in the future.