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Protecting Growth and Development

EPA researchers are developing tools and information to better understand the potential risks posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Happy young family playing in a park

Normal growth and development, from conception and throughout pregnancy, to childhood and adolescence, depends on hormones.  These chemical messengers are produced by the body’s endocrine system and regulate growth, maturation, and reproduction.

Scientists have learned that some exposures to excess hormones or hormone-like substances in the environment—what toxicologists refer to as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)—can be especially disruptive for normal health and development and lead to potentially serious disease, reproductive issues, and other abnormalities later in life. EDCs may be found in many everyday products, including some plastic bottles and containers, food from cans with certain kinds of liners, pesticides, detergents, and even some types of toys.

EPA-supported Research Partners Advance EDC Science
Young girl laughing and holding a dandelion

Research conducted by scientists at the Centers for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention, funded by both EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, are making important scientific discoveries regarding the potential effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals on children's growth, development, and health.
Examples include:

  • Researchers at the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health are exploring the links between prenatal exposure to EDCs and health effects such as obesity and cognitive problems later in life.
    One recent study found a link between prenatal exposure to phthalates—a class of chemicals that are known to disrupt the endocrine system—and decreased mental and motor development and increased behavioral problems at age three.
  • University of Illinois FRIENDS Children's Environmental Health Center scientists are developing novel approaches for examining how phthalates and  Bisphenol-A (another chemical with potential endocrine disrupting properties) affect childhood development.
  • Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley Center for Children's Environmental Health are testing the hypothesis that genetic susceptibility of children to certain chemicals can vary by age and gender. This may contribute to health impacts associated with prenatal and early life exposures to the endocrine disrupting chemicals PBDE (flame retardants) and DDT/E (insecticides), and may affect the onset of puberty.

Because their bodies and internal systems are still forming, developing fetuses, infants, and children can be particularly vulnerable to the adverse health effects of EDCs. Those risks can be compounded by the fact that, in proportion to their body size, babies and children drink, eat, and breathe more than adults and are likely to take in relatively more of these substances.

Protecting children and others from exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals has been an EPA priority since the 1990s, when scientists hypothesized that “humans and wildlife species have suffered adverse health effects after exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” as outlined in the paper Research Needs for the Risk Assessment of Health and Environmental Effects of Endocrine Disruptors: A Report of the U.S. EPA-sponsored Workshop, (Environmental Health Perspectives. 1996 August, 104(4)).

Since then, EPA researchers and grantees in universities have worked to understand the potential risks of EDCs to human health and wildlife in the environment.  The work includes developing innovative approaches, tools, models and data to improve the understanding of potential risks to human health and wildlife from chemicals that could disrupt the endocrine (hormone) system. This research is used by EPA’s Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program and by others to inform policy and regulatory decisions made about EDCs. The work also includes investigating known and potential endocrine disrupting chemicals in ecosystems and assessing the cumulative risk of chemical mixtures found in food, products, and drinking and source water. This work on chemical mixtures is particularly important because the combined effects of different chemicals may be additive, even at low concentrations that would not be of individual concern.

By developing the tools and information needed to learn more about EDCs and their potential impacts on human health, Agency researchers and partners are helping to protect the health of children, adults, and wildlife. The knowledge from the research has a variety of important impacts: it is valuable to manufacturers so they can ensure the safety of their products; it provides information to expectant mothers so that they can avoid EDC exposures before and during pregnancy; it offers parents, public health professionals, and decision makers at EPA and elsewhere science-based data and tools to make informed choices that will protect children, adults, and wildlife in the environment.

Learn More

EPA/NIEHS Children’s Centers

EPA’s Endocrine Disruption Screening Program

EPA Endocrine Disruption Research

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