Endocrine disrupters are substances, man-made or natural, which can interfere with the hormone systems of humans and wildlife, with potentially adverse effects, for example, on fertility and neural development.
The endocrine system is a network of glands in the body, each of which secretes a type of hormone into the bloodstream to regulate the body. Certain substances – termed endocrine disrupters - interfere with the functioning of the endocrine system, in at least three possible ways:
by mimicking the action of a naturally-produced hormone, such as oestrogen or testosterone, and thereby setting off similar chemical reactions in the body;
by blocking the receptors in cells receiving the hormones (hormone receptors), thereby preventing the action of normal hormones; or
by affecting the synthesis, transport, metabolism and excretion of hormones, thus altering the concentrations of natural hormones.
Devising test methods
It is important to have effective methods for testing the safety of chemicals in relation to endocrine disruption.
The Institute for Consumer and Health Protection (IHCP) provides scientific analytical support to the initiative of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment to improve the assessment criteria of the endocrine disrupting properties of chemicals.
Assessing the risks posed by chemicals is a long and complex process. Scientists at the Institute work to devise a combination of computer methods, automated laboratory in vitro test and human bio-monitoring, which would help predict the toxicity of chemicals.
In this manner, hazardous substances could be profiled and prioritised for further testing, thereby speeding up the application of the most appropriate regulatory measures.
See also the section dedicated to the Endrocrine Active Substances Database