Jerry Heindel, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
The endocrine system is one of the body’s main communication networks. The ovaries, testes, adrenal glands, thyroid, pituitary gland, liver, fat tissue, muscle, bone, and pancreas are all part of the endocrine system, which produces hormones that direct communication and coordination among tissues throughout the body.
Chemicals known as endocrine disruptors can mimic or interfere with hormone action in the body. These chemicals are found in many everyday products, including some plastic bottles and containers, food-can liners, detergents, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides. Over 800 endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been identified. There is concern that exposure to these chemicals may increase risk for some cancers, cause male and female reproductive system problems, increase obesity and diabetes, cause learning and memory problems, and play a role in various diseases.
What NIEHS is doing
NIEHS funds grants aimed at characterizing how endocrine disruptors influence human health through studies in people and animal models and through cell-based approaches that investigate the biological mechanisms involved in health effects. Grantees also are developing screening methods to identify and characterize new endocrine disruptors and are working to identify biological markers of endocrine disruptor exposure. Other work is translating research findings into computer models that can provide a picture of the amount of exposure required for adverse health effects.
Knowledge gained through this research area may help in the development of prevention and intervention strategies that reduce the adverse effects of endocrine disruptors.
NIEHS funds grants that are studying the following types of endocrine disruptors (as examples):
- Dioxins: byproducts of some manufacturing and incineration processes.
- Organophosphates and organochlorines: compounds used in many insecticides, herbicides, and nerve gases.
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): chemicals used in electrical equipment. They persist in the environment even though banned over 30 years ago.
- Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT): a pesticide banned in 1972 that is still found in the environment today.
- Phthalates: plasticizers used in plastics and in some fragrances and personal-care products.
- Tributyltin and tin compounds: fungicides.
NIEHS also funds grants examining the endocrine effects of air pollution, heavy metals, and solvents.
Moving forward, NIEHS is interested in expanding the list of chemicals with endocrine disruptor activity under study and funding research examining new endpoints, such as muscle, circadian rhythm, liver, bone, and the gastrointestinal tract. NIEHS also would like to support work aimed at identifying diseases and dysfunctions that were not previously known to be linked with endocrine disruptors; understanding better the active sites, pathways, and mechanisms for these chemicals; and developing biomarkers of exposure and effects.
Many of the studies of endocrine disruptors examine developmental exposures, and thus, this area overlaps with those of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, transgenerational inheritance, and Environmental Epigenetics.
For additional information on what NIEHS grantees are doing, visit our Who We Fund tool.
Additional Program Contacts
Thaddeus T. Schug, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator