Chemicals and Thyroid Disorders: Are they Connected?

Research examines exposure to everyday chemicals and endocrine disorders.

BPA-Free Water BottleWhen I was 18, some things happened. I gained weight, experienced insomnia, and my body underwent waves of heat that made me want to peel off my skin. Blaming these on the “freshmen 15” and college stress, newer symptoms (racing heart, eye redness and swelling) prompted me to seek medical attention. Which is how I found myself at an ophthalmologist’s office one day following a referral by my eye doctor. 

One look at me, and the specialist said, “You have Grave’s disease.” Another referral, and a new doctor’s office later, and I was told that I had hyperthyroidism, caused by the Grave’s disease. “Barbara Bush has Grave’s disease too,” he said, as if somehow that was supposed to make the situation better.

More than 12 million people in the United States have a thyroid disorder. And most of them don’t know it; symptoms are often associated with other causes.

I didn’t know where my thyroid was. Or what it did. I didn’t understand how I had developed a thyroid disorder. And it took some time to get accustomed to the daily pill that would deliver the hormone to my now-defunct thyroid gland. The thyroid may be small but the gland is mighty; it plays a major role in essential body functions including metabolism and energy regulation. When it goes out of whack, it’s no picnic.

Through the years, my endocrinologist has monitored the little butterfly-shaped gland—or rather the thyroid hormone I take daily. It’s become routine: a glass of water first thing in the morning to wash down the pink pill half the size of a Tic Tac.   

A couple of factors are typically attributed to causing thyroid disorders. Either someone, somewhere in the family had one, or it’s stress-related. But mounting articles from studies are looking to other sources—chemicals in common household products—as a major factor.  A 2002 study found a connection between exposure to herbicides and insecticides and women’s risk for thyroid disorders. The list of potentially threatening chemicals is extensive. Triclosan is one. The pesticide has been found to interfere with estrogen metabolism in women.

A recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives looks at similar possible links—including potential causes that could be traced to a plastic water bottle. Researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a study to examine the connection between household chemicals and thyroid function. The study found an association between BPA (Bisphenol A, a compound commonly used to make plastic water bottles) and disrupted thyroid levels, supporting “previous reports of associations between phthalates, and possibly BPA, and altered thyroid hormones.”     

Though further research is needed, the study probes deeper into what numerous groups have been examining in recent years. It puts into question what we’re consuming, from cosmetics to cleaning products, and how those products are packaged—and the consequences for the public’s health. More specifically, does the exposure to everyday chemicals contribute to thyroid problems? 

A new set of bills has been proposed in Congress to increase awareness and research of potential endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These bills call for a revamping of the outdated Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval and regulating process; the EPA’s current standards rely on older, and in some cases outdated, research methods.    

There’s one side of the coin: science is now better equipped to detect the numerous cases of thyroid disorders. Then, there’s the flip side: chemicals contribute to increased cases of endocrine disruption. 

In my case and many others, there’s no turning back time to undo what’s done. But if research can help determine ways that environmental factors may be putting people’s health at risk, maybe more of an informed public will be spared the thyroid diagnosis.

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