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This historical perspective outlines how advances in endocrinology are uncovering mechanisms by which environmental chemicals may interfere in the synthesis and actions of hormones. Such chemicals have been termed endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Advances in understanding of receptor-mediated genomic and non-genomic actions of hormones have demonstrated the ability of EDCs to compete with hormone for binding to receptors in target cells and thereby to either mimic or antagonise hormone action. Advances in development of a range of assays for identifying endocrine activity of environmental chemicals have led to an appreciation of the wide distribution of EDCs to which the human population are now exposed in air, water, food and consumer products. Technological advances for measuring EDC concentrations in human tissues have demonstrated their widespread presence in human urine, blood, milk, adipose tissue, placenta and breast. Advances in understanding of the wide-ranging physiological effects of hormones and underlying defects in endocrine disorders have begun to reveal how EDCs may provide a new dimension to endocrine dysfunction. Evidence is accumulating for a role of EDCs in many male and female reproductive disorders, thyroid and adrenal disorders, immune system dysfunction and metabolic disorders including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Deregulation of hormonally controlled cell growth may contribute to development of endocrine cancers. Adverse effects of EDCs on developmental processes, including neurodevelopment, have implications for child health and for appearance of disorders not only in later adult life but also into future generations.
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