The Onus is on the Ill: Environmental Contaminants and Hormonal Health Issues

By Honour Stahl

Endometriosis, breast cancer, ovarian cysts, miscarriage, infertility, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), ovarian cancer – it is likely that healthcare professionals have treated a patient with one or more of these health issues. Just as most of us may know someone with one, or suffer from them ourselves. As individuals, we may have gone through our days with the diagnosis on our backs, noticing it reach into the corners of our lives. We have ruminated over the potential causes, what we did to make our bodies so angry with us, how we can prevent further suffering, how to check ourselves, and how to buy the right kinds of things to protect ourselves and get healthy. We have asked ourselves: why? Why me? What did I do? We have been told it is the fault of our genetics, the lifestyle we once led, or simply a case of “bad luck”. Many explanations place the onus on the person who is ill.

The reality is that those who are ill likely  have little to do with the causes of  their illnesses. We live in a world of ubiquitous environmental contaminants, chemical pollutants, and toxic substances that can adversely impact our bodies and the planet. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), xenoestrogens (synthetic estrogens), parabens, pesticides, and  plastics can impact human health significantly by altering the proper functioning of cells, organs, and systems. Decades of research have revealed that exposure to some of these contaminants is also linked to neurological disease, abnormal brain development and cognition, altered socio-sexual behaviour, interrupted metabolism, and anxiety. How? By mimicking estrogen and antagonizing estrogen receptors in the brain and body. This changes how the body functions through a diverse array of metabolic, epigenetic, growth, and reproductive processes.

Does this happen to everyone? 

Because almost all commercially available plastic products contain EDCs, and EDCs are abundant in our environment, they enter our bodies via the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. In fact, EDCs were found in 100% of blood samples tested in 2005, and a study published in May of this year provides the first  evidence of microplastics in human blood. The truth is that EDCs are in all of us, leaving their mark as more and more of us suffer from endocrine-related health traumas.

This invasion of chemical material into our bodies, minds, and lives is preventable. That we are exposed at all raises questions of ethics. Preventing exposure is a significant if not impossible challenge at an individual level when economic considerations and inadequate legislative and regulatory protections influence what, how, and when we are exposed to substances of concern. There is money to be made from manufacturing chemicals just as there is money to be made from treating the illnesses that chemicals cause. 

A commonly known research-based biotech and pharmaceutical company illustrates this conflict. Researchers Young and Seely report in Xenoestrogens and Breast Cancer: Chemical Risk, Exposure, and Corporate Power, that this  company  has simultaneously profited from the manufacture of carcinogenic “chemicals , the production of pharmaceutical treatments to battle breast cancer , and the development of a social and political response to the disease…without any sense of irony, the same company is also the number one sponsor for promoting educational awareness about breast cancer, including its prevention”.

Healthcare workers often repeat the same prevention messages for  cancers, including breast cancer. The messaging usually  places the onus on  the individual to focus on lifestyle or behavioural changes and to ‘catch it early’ through self-detection. While important, these messages obscure the problem of the production and sale of carcinogenic products and processes and the adverse health outcomes linked to them. Unfortunately, this is an all too common problem.  People should not be made ill while companies profit under inadequate laws and regulations.

The Bigger Picture

There are larger sociological and political structures that exacerbate chemical pollution, exposure, and the resulting health effects like consumerism and planned obsolescence. Laws and regulations are also full of gaps, allowing big corporations to avoid  taking responsibility for chemical pollution. Plus, our socio-cultural perception of these health issues like endometriosis, ovarian cysts, PCOS, miscarriage, and infertility are already under-discussed and under-treated, because they are diseases experienced by women* and  have been dismissed as a normal part of life when in fact they are just widely suffered. Health professionals can begin to remediate these problems by being mindful of these dimensions when speaking with and treating patients.

The complexity and weight of these issues  are frustrating and overwhelming, but there is hope. Legislative and  regulatory improvements, as well as  changing the perception of chemical use, will make a difference by shifting the onus from people who may experience ill health as a result of their exposures and onto  economic and political systems  that perpetuate chemical production and pollution. We need collective action from individuals who care and who can lobby for government action. We also need physicians, nurses, and healthcare professionals who care deeply and can speak openly about the links between environmental contaminants and the rise in these endocrine related health issues.

So, what can you do? Start by sharing this with those you know who are suffering from these common illnesses and  may be wondering about the causes, having developed one of these illnesses despite following health recommendations.  Question  the  chemicals you come into contact with in your environment – notice the plastics in your take-out containers, the EDCs in your cosmetics, or the pesticides on your food. Be critical of the chemicals we are constantly exposed to without our consent. And most importantly, use your voice as healthcare professionals and members of the public with a stake in the health of people and their environments to push Canada to stop producing, endorsing, and circulating these harmful chemicals. This matters for the person who is living their life feeling discouraged and as though  their health is out of their control. It matters for the person or loved one who has been suffering from endometriosis, infertility, or PCOS and is  still seeking explanations or feeling ignored. 

Share your stories, talk to your patients, read more here, and join the calls to action that resonate with you – including supporting a strengthened Bill S-5 to modernize the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). It matters to the future health of people and the planet. 

Honour Stahl is a recent graduate of the Ethics, Society, and Law Program at Trinity College, University of Toronto. Honour developed this blog as part of her Community Research Partnership in Ethics course (TRN407) with CAPE as the host organization and Professor Nicole Spiegelaar as her supervisor. Honour also produced a literature review and infographics on the linkages between plastics, endocrine disrupting chemicals, and women’s health. Honour continued her work with CAPE as the Communications Policy Researcher where she worked on the Plastics Project – a three part video series depicting the impacts of plastic on human and planetary health.

* The term women as used here is inclusive of all women, trans, cis, and AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) individuals. Both sex and gender play a role in how EDCs affect the body.


Calafat, A. M., Kuklenyik, Z., Reidy, J. A., Caudill, S. P., Ekong, J., & Needham, L. L. (2005). Urinary Concentrations of Bisphenol A and 4-Nonylphenol in a Human Reference Population. Environmental Health Perspectives, 113(4), 391–395.

Health Based Guidance for Water Health Risk Assessment Unit, Environmental Health Division. (2018, August). Toxicological Summary for: Acetochlor. Acetochlor Toxicological Summary Minnesota Department of Health. 

Husby, G. K., Haugen, R. S., & Moen, M. H. (2003). Diagnostic delay in women with pain and endometriosis. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 82(7), 649–653. 

Kiesel, L. (2017, October 9). Women and pain: Disparities in experience and treatment. Harvard Health.

Kleinman, A. (1989). The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, And The Human Condition (Reprint ed.). Basic Books.

Leslie, H. A., van Velzen, M. J., Brandsma, S. H., Vethaak, A. D., Garcia-Vallejo, J. J., & Lamoree, M. H. (2022). Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood. Environment International, 163, 107199. 

Rahman, A., Sarkar, A., Yadav, O. P., Achari, G., & Slobodnik, J. (2021). Potential human health risks due to environmental exposure to nano- and microplastics and knowledge gaps: A scoping review. Science of The Total Environment, 757, 143872. 

Reddy, V., McCarthy, M., & Raval, A. P. (2022). Xenoestrogens impact brain estrogen receptor signaling during the female lifespan: A precursor to neurological disease? Neurobiology of Disease, 163, 105596. 

Scott, D. N. (2015). Our Chemical Selves: Gender, Toxics, and Environmental Health. UBC Press.

Sweeney, E. (2006). Breast Cancer: The Importance of Prevention in Public Education. Women’s Health and Urban Life, 5(1), 75–90.

Yang, C. Z., Yaniger, S. I., Jordan, V. C., Klein, D. J., & Bittner, G. D. (2011). Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(7), 989–996. 

Young, S., & Seely, D. (2015). Xenoestrogens and Breast Cancer. In D. N. Scott (Ed.), Our Chemical Selves: Gender, Toxics, and Environmental Health (pp. 291–329). UBC Press.