July 18, 2017


New Report Lays Out Strategy to Evaluate Evidence of Adverse Human Health Effects From Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals at Low Doses

WASHINGTON – A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine proposes a strategy that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should use to evaluate the evidence of adverse human health effects from low doses of exposure to chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine system.

Endocrine active chemicals (EACs) or endocrine disruptors can cause a variation in normal hormone function. Even small alterations in hormone concentrations, particularly during embryonic development, can have lasting and significant effects.  Some EACs have the potential to impact human health at lower doses than those used in traditional toxicity testing by the agency, which means that some effects may be missed.

The report’s proposed strategy has three broad steps that can help evaluate evidence of impacts from low-dose chemical exposure:

If the results of an investigation suggest that adverse outcomes in humans are expected or might be occurring at low levels of exposure from EACs, the conclusions of previous toxicity assessments might need to be updated to reflect the new evidence.  Additionally, toxicity-testing practices might need to be updated as new data are generated.  While EPA is already conducting many activities consistent with the strategy proposed in this report, its efforts may not be aimed specifically at evaluating low-dose toxicity testing, said the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report.

In addition to developing a strategy, the committee was also charged with conducting systematic reviews of animal and human toxicology data for two or more EACs to demonstrate how the results can be integrated and considered with other relevant data to draw conclusions about causal associations.  The committee chose phthalates and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) for the reviews.  These reviews follow protocols designed to screen and analyze the scientific literature to answer a specific research question.  The committee also illustrated how to integrate human and animal data streams, determine whether the evidence supports a likely causal association, and evaluate the nature and relevance of the relationship between exposure and response.

“The systematic review examples demonstrate how these approaches could be used in a strategy to evaluate low-dose toxicity of EACs and also to identify lessons learned that could help EPA employ these methods successfully,” said David Dorman, professor of toxicology at North Carolina State University and chair of the committee. 

Phthalates are ubiquitous environmental contaminants and are found in a wide variety of consumer products, including toys, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and building and construction materials. Human exposure to them is well-documented, as noted in a 2008 Academies report that called for a cumulative risk assessment of phthalates.  The systematic reviews in this report examined the effects of phthalates on male reproductive-tract development in laboratory animals and humans. The reviews focused how the exposure impacted three areas: anogenital distance (AGD) – distance between anus and genitalia, fetal testosterone levels, and cases of hypospadias – malformation of the penis. 

One example from the reviews showed that exposure of the fetus to diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) – a type of phthalate used as a plasticizer – is presumed to be a reproductive hazard to humans because it is associated with decreased AGD and testosterone levels in males.  The evidence of an association between DEHP and hypospadias was not as strong.

In the second set of reviews, the committee examined the effects of PBDEs – used as flame retardants – on developmental neurotoxicity.  Just like phthalates, PBDEs are also commonly found in the environment.  The review of human studies evaluated the effects of PBDEs on intelligence and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  For the animal studies, tests of learning or memory were considered to have the closest parallels to intelligence measured in human studies and attention tests for ADHD in humans.  The committee concluded that there was sufficient evidence that shows PBDEs are a presumed hazard to humans with respect to effects on intelligence. 

Both these cases show that current toxicity tests can identify a hazard that is presumed to be of concern to humans, but they may not be able to accurately predict the specific level of exposures at which humans are affected.  Additional pharmacokinetic information – movement of chemicals within the body – is needed in order to better evaluate an EAC’s potential to cause health effects in humans at low doses.

As recommended in the committee’s proposed strategy, systematic reviews can be an important component in investigating evidence on low-dose adverse effects, and EPA can build on existing systematic reviews that are published in peer-reviewed literature.  The committee also recommended performing meta-analyses of the animal and human evidence when appropriate.  This statistical method allows data from several studies to be combined and should be used to evaluate confidence in the body of evidence and to characterize the relationship between exposure and response.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A roster follows.


Riya V. Anandwala, Media Relations Officer
Joshua Blatt, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

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Copies of Application of Systematic Review Methods in an Overall Strategy for Evaluating Low-Dose Toxicity From Endocrine Active Chemicals are available at www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology
Committee on Endocrine-Related Low Dose Toxicity


David C. Dorman (chair)
Professor of Toxicology
College of Veterinary Medicine
North Carolina State University

Weihsueh Chiu
Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences
Texas A&M University
College Station

Barbara F. Hales
Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics
McGill University

Russ B. Hauser
Frederick Lee Hisaw Professor of Reproductive Physiology
Department of Environmental Health
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Kamin J. Johnson
Associate Toxicology Manager
Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology
The DOW Chemical Co.
Midland, Mich.

Karen A. Robinson
Associate Professor
Division of General Internal Medicine
Johns Hopkins University

Andrew A. Rooney
Acting Director
Office of Health Assessment and Translation
National Toxicology Program
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Research Triangle Park, N.C. 

Ruthann Rudel
Director of Research
Silent Spring Institute
Newton, Mass.

Sheela Sathyanarayana
Adjunct Associate Professor
Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences,
Associate Professor
Department of Pediatrics, and
Attending Physician
Center for Health, Behavior, and Development
Seattle Children’s Research Institute

Susan L. Schantz
Professor of Toxicology
Beckman Institute
University of Illinois

Katrina Waters
Deputy Director
Biological Sciences Division
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Richland, Wash.


Susan N.J. Martel
Staff Officer