Most people are aware of the effects estrogen has on the human body. It is the hormone that produces the sexual characteristics of women during puberty. Normally, puberty occurs in girls around age 11 to 13 or thereabouts. It differs from girl to girl, but this is a general guideline. However, puberty seems to be hitting girls at much earlier ages these days. Girls as young as 9 can begin exhibiting breast growth, which used to be very rare.
There are numerous hypotheses out there as to why this is happening and researchers are actively studying a number of them. One theory is that girls can be receiving doses of estrogen from outside sources in the environment. This theory has also been suspected of causing sexual problems in animals and actually changing the sex of some amphibians such as frogs. Scientists also suspect environmental estrogens were responsible for making some Florida panthers sterile. They suspect that the panthers ate contaminated meat containing steroid hormones. But when talking about humans, much research is still needed.
So, if environmental estrogens are suspected, where do they come from? There are quite a few sources, some synthetic that act like the natural hormone estrogen, and some are indeed natural. These chemicals can come from plastics, cosmetics or plant materials. Researchers have studied the effects of 25 chemicals and found that all of them have the ability to disrupt the hormones that are present. Some of the chemicals are found in sunscreen products, nail polish, after shave, water bottles and even the substance used to line the inside of cans used for food. It hasn’t been proven conclusively, though, if some of the chemicals can leach out and be absorbed by the human body, but they are suspect.
There have also been estrogen metabolites found in food crops, likely from pesticides, that are capable of altering the hormones in the body. Another possible source is steroids that had been used in livestock production. There’s also a possibility that when medications are flushed down the drain or toilet, they can contaminate water supplies, thereby getting into the food chain when they are passed through the treatment plants. Fish can get the hormones from the water and if people eat the fish, they can receive the extra hormone that’s inside the fish.
As for affects in men, extra environmental hormones like estrogen can lower sperm counts or increase the chance for testicular cancer. Basically, nothing good can come from the increased incidence of estrogen in the environment. For this reason, researchers are trying to lessen the exposure by reducing and removing pesticides containing hormones, using more natural products in food production and eliminating steroids in livestock. Until then, it’s important that parents carefully monitor what their children eat and drink.