They’re everywhere, you interact with them daily, and they’re often not labelled.

You probably haven’t heard of them, but endocrine disruptors — a class of chemicals which are found in everything from shampoos to shopping receipts — are, to put it in the frightening words of Professor Shanna H. Swan from the Mount Sinai school of Medicine, “imperiling the future of the human race”.

Shanna Swan’s book

So how can something like shampoo be threatening humankind’s very existence?

Put simply, endocrine disruptors have been linked to a number of health conditions, including genital mutations, premature births, and a decline in sperm counts around the world.

Between 1973 and 2011, sperm counts of men in Western countries fell by almost 60 per cent, according to research by Professor Swan.

While that decline isn’t solely due to the impact of endocrine disruptors, they play a significant role, Professor Swan told Hack.

“Endocrine disruptors have the ability to interfere with our reproductive systems,” Professor Swan explains, because “they interfere with the action of our natural hormones.”

“They’re silent, they’re invisible…they’re very hard to avoid, and that’s the scary thing.”

What are endocrine disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors are useful chemicals for our daily life, Professor Swan says, but they can also be harmful.

Some endocrine disruptors make plastics soft and flexible (they’re known as phthalates); while others make plastics hard and rigid (they’re known as bisphenols – you’ve probably heard of one type, known as BPA).

Others are found in stuff like pesticides and flame retardants; or in things like skincare products or perfumes.

Professor Swan says that these chemicals are hormonally active – which basically means they can mess with our own natural hormones in our bodies.

“The kinds of chemicals that are most concerning are the chemicals that can fool our bodies, because they appear to act like our natural hormones, or they interfere with the action of our natural hormones,” Professor Swan says.

“So there are chemicals that our body thinks are estrogens which are needed for reproduction. Or they might decrease testosterone, which our body certainly needs for healthy reproduction.”

So how do we stop the effects of these chemicals?

Professor Swan says basically everyone in the community will be exposed to these chemicals, but some people are at higher risk than others.

“I would say the people that come into the greatest contact [with these chemicals] are people who work with these products, particularly if they work manufacturing them.

“Health care workers tend to be exposed to a lot of phthalates. Of course pesticide workers, people who spray pesticides who work with plants will get a lot of exposure.

“So there are specific occupations, but in your daily life, you’ll still get plenty of it.”

As for avoiding these chemicals in your daily life? It’s easier said than done.

While you might know to try and avoid BPA when buying a reusable plastic water bottle, for example, the replacement chemical that manufacturers use in “BPA free” products might still be an endocrine disruptor.

“We now have a situation where people are buying a bottle they think is safe, because it says ‘BPA free’, but it contains alternative bisphenols,” Professor Swan says.

Professor Swan says this problem with a lack of consumer knowledge and the difficulty in labelling means greater regulation and research of these chemicals is needed.

“If we don’t have the regulation to protect the consumer, this is just going to go on and on.”

There are a number of ways you can reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors – like washing your fruit and vegetables before eating them to get rid of pesticides; not heating up food in plastic containers to avoid bisphenols from leaching out; and checking your everyday products for endocrine disruptors like phthalates.

If you’re worried about fertility and low sperm counts, while getting these chemicals completely out of our homes and daily lives might not be achievable, Professor Swan says it’s important to remember there are other easily reversible “lifestyle factors” which impact fertility.

“Lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking…are clearly reversible through personal choice. And when you do that, the sperm count can come back.”

Original article by ABC AU.