Hormone-like chemicals in plastics, pesticides and other products pose “significant concern for public health,” possibly causing infertility, cancer and malformations, a medical society announced Wednesday.

There is strong evidence that chemicals that interfere with the hormone system can cause serious health problems, according to a scientific report from the Endocrine Society, now meeting in Washington, D.C. Although scientists still have many questions about the chemicals, the report says that it’s important for people to take a “precautionary approach” by reducing their exposures.

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Hormone-disrupting chemicals include bisphenol A, or BPA, often used in plastic baby bottles and the linings of metal cans.

The new report is the latest in a growing number of statements from scientific groups warning of potential harm. Although the Food and Drug Administration says BPA is safe, Canada last year declared the chemical to be toxic. The USA’s National Toxicology Program last year also expressed “some concern” over BPA’s effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in children before and after birth. In 2007, a group of 38 leading researchers published a statement noting serious risks from BPA.

The Endocrine Society decided to release the scientific statement – the first it has ever issued – because these chemicals “affect everyone,” says society president Robert Carey. The report notes that 93% of Americans tested have been exposed to BPA.

Carey says the society wants to provide accurate information to lawmakers and regulators. Beyond summing up the latest science, the report also catalogues what doctors don’t yet know and lists the sort of research that still needs to be done.

The report notes that hormone-disrupting chemicals behave differently than other toxins. For most toxins, the danger is in the dose, with larger doses posing more risk than small ones, says Andrea Gore, an author of the new statement from the University of Texas at Austin.

Because the body is exquisitely sensitive to hormones, Gore says, even small doses can cause serious problems, especially if babies are exposed during critical development windows, such as before birth. For hormones, the timing of exposure is often far more critical than the amount.

Disturbingly, the damage from hormone-disrupting chemicals can sometimes be passed on to future generations, Gore says.  

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