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Scientist Mom Explains Endocrine Disruptors

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When Susan Nagel shops for her family, she feels the same frustrations that many of us do about finding safe, wholesome sources to bring to the table. She considers not only which food is best, but which type of packaging and storage to trust. Nagel says she almost exclusively uses glass storage containers for food, and skips buying canned groceries whenever possible. “The only thing I buy in cans are beans and I rinse them very well before eating them.” As a parent, she viewed glass baby bottles as an alternative to plastic, long before they were trendy.

Nagel’s understanding of these parenting choices is informed, because Assistant Professor Nagel, PhD, spends her days uncovering the science behind them. She is part of the award-winning team of researchers at the University of Missouri called the Endocrine Disruptors Group. Even prior to 1997, when her work with Professor Frederick vom Saal grabbed the scientific community’s attention, Nagel had been interested in how chemicals can deceive our bodies into malfunctioning. She and the Missouri group have earned numerous research awards, doing significant studies commissioned by the National Institutes of Health and others. She also did her postdoctoral training at Duke University’s Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology.

I asked Nagel how it is that tiny amounts of a substance, like the lining of a food can, or a barely detectible ingredient in a plastic product could possibly harm us. She says the key is understanding first how our bodies’ natural systems work. “Hormones like estrogen normally work at very, very low levels,” explains Nagel, “so chemicals that interact with natural hormone signaling can also work at very low levels.” Endocrine disruptors like Bisphenol-A are substances that seem to mimic natural hormones, potentially giving genes the wrong signal and creating disease.

Because the endocrine system works gradually, changes may not be visible for months or even years. Because the changes affect the way our genes function, we can pass these tendencies for wrong signals on to future generations. I asked Nagel how many generations can be affected when we’re exposed to endocrine disruptors. Her answer was somber, “We do not know. We do know that exposure to mom exposes the unborn baby AND the baby’s eggs. There is certainly evidence for multigenerational effects in lab animals and some human data.” Those effects suggest a connection to breast and prostate cancer, infertility and other problems. As for BPA, one of the better understood endocrine disruptors, Nagel cautions, “There’s every reason not to expose your baby to it.”

Nagel says expectant parents should educate themselves on creating the safest environment for their child, even before birth. In addition to BPA, the list of potential hormone disruptors is too long to list. “When in doubt, don’t use chemicals,” is the blanket caution she gives. Let someone else paint the nursery, don’t install new carpet, avoid pesticide use around the home and limit use of personal care products. Look for alternatives to plastic for anything that might go in baby’s mouth. Of course, eat the freshest, local, less packaged foods when possible. She suggests that consumers might want to check out Good Guide to help make informed purchases.

More information at the TEDX Endrocrine Disruptor Exchange.

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