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What Are Endocrine Disruptors?

The Endocrine System

Endocrine systems, also referred to as hormone systems, are found in all mammals, birds, fish, and many other types of living organisms. They are made up of:

Hormones are released by glands and travel throughout the body, acting as chemical messengers. Hormones interface with cells that contain matching receptors in or on their surfaces. The hormone binds with the receptor, much like a key would fit into a lock. The hormones, or keys, need to find compatible receptors, or locks, to work properly. Although hormones reach all parts of the body, only target cells with compatible receptors are equipped to respond. Once a receptor and a hormone bind, the receptor carries out the hormone's instructions by either altering the cell's existing proteins or turning on genes that will build a new protein. Both of these actions create reactions throughout the body. Researchers have identified more than 50 hormones in humans and other vertebrates.

Graphic depicting the location of key endocrine system organs in the human body
From Biology: Principles and Explorations, Teaching Transparencies.
Copyright 1996 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

The endocrine system regulates all biological processes in the body from conception through adulthood and into old age, including the development of the brain and nervous system, the growth and function of the reproductive system, as well as the metabolism and blood sugar levels. The female ovaries, male testes, and pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands are major constituents of the endocrine system.

The Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP) focuses on the estrogen, androgen, and thyroid hormones. Estrogens are the group of hormones responsible for female sexual development. They are produced primarily by the ovaries and in small amounts by the adrenal glands. Androgens are responsible for male sex characteristics. Testosterone, the sex hormone produced by the testicles, is an androgen. The thyroid gland secretes two main hormones, thyroxine and triiodothyronine, into the bloodstream. These thyroid hormones stimulate all the cells in the body and control biological processes such as growth, reproduction, development, and metabolism. For additional information on the endocrine system and endocrine disruptors, visit the Endocrine Primer.

Endocrine Disruptors

Disruption of the endocrine system can occur in various ways. Some chemicals mimic a natural hormone, fooling the body into over-responding to the stimulus (e.g., a growth hormone that results in increased muscle mass), or responding at inappropriate times (e.g., producing insulin when it is not needed). Other endocrine disrupting chemicals block the effects of a hormone from certain receptors (e.g. growth hormones required for normal development). Still others directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system and cause overproduction or underproduction of hormones (e.g. an over or underactive thyroid). Certain drugs are used to intentionally cause some of these effects, such as birth control pills. In many situations involving environmental chemicals, however, an endocrine effect is not desirable.

In recent years, some scientists have proposed that chemicals might inadvertently be disrupting the endocrine system of humans and wildlife. A variety of chemicals have been found to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals in laboratory studies, and there is strong evidence that chemical exposure has been associated with adverse developmental and reproductive effects on fish and wildlife in particular locations. The relationship of human diseases of the endocrine system and exposure to environmental contaminants, however, is poorly understood and scientifically controversial (Kavlock et al., 1996, EPA, 1997).

One example of the devastating consequences of the exposure of developing animals, including humans, to endocrine disruptors is the case of the potent drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen. Prior to its ban in the early 1970's, doctors mistakenly prescribed DES to as many as five million pregnant women to block spontaneous abortion and promote fetal growth. It was discovered after the children went through puberty that DES affected the development of the reproductive system and caused vaginal cancer. Since then, Congress has improved the evaluation and regulation process of drugs and other chemicals. The recent requirement of the establishment of an endocrine disruptor screening program is a highly significant step.

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