Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), are toxic chemicals that do not break down easily and negatively affect human health and the environment. They include aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, HCB, mirex, toxaphene, PCBs, DDT, dioxins, and PCDFs.
POPs were outlawed in many countries in the early 2000s. However, they’re still found in some pesticides, industrial chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. Some farmers and manufacturers continue to use POPs illegally or due to a lack of financially viable alternatives.
What are Health Concerns Related to POPs?
The body’s endocrine system regulates hormones that contribute to metabolism, reproductive health, and brain function. POPs are considered endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). That’s because the shape of an EDC molecule is similar to hormones in the human body, and this allows EDCs to alter and disrupt normal hormonal responses.
POPs and the Reproductive System
POPs can interfere with pregnancy and cause negative health impacts for both the mother and fetus. They are able to cross the placental barrier and accumulate in fetal tissues.
Studies have shown that prenatal exposure to POPs is linked to a range of adverse fetal effects, including disruptions in growth and development, impaired brain development, and an increased risk of certain birth defects.
Certain POPs have also been linked to delayed puberty, early onset of menstruation, infertility, and endometriosis due to their hormonal impact.
POPs have also been associated with:
- An increased risk of breast cancer
- More aggressive forms of breast cancer
- An increase in tumor growth and spread
POPs and Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes (T1D) may also be triggered by exposure to POPs. Some studies have linked the presence of certain POPs in the blood with T1D and disruptions in blood sugar metabolism and insulin effectiveness.
POPs and Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is the presence of multiple health concerns that raise chronic disease risk. POPs have been associated with many metabolic conditions, such as a higher body mass index (BMI), high blood pressure, poor insulin effectiveness, and high “bad” LDL cholesterol. POPs are suspected to disrupt cell function, and in turn promote inflammation and increase fat tissue.
POPs and Liver Disease
Some POPs may also be related to the progression of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This could potentially be due to the ability of POPs to interfere with how liver cells regulate fat metabolism and breakdown.
Dietary Sources of POPs and How to Reduce Your Exposure
POPs can be found in fruits and vegetables in varying levels. However, a larger source of concern is animal products. The majority of dietary POPs come from fatty fish, meat, and dairy. In fact, POPs are some of the most frequently detected chemicals found in meat. Even meat labeled organic can still be contaminated with similar or higher amounts of POPs.
POPs are somewhat difficult to avoid since they easily accumulate in animal tissue, plants, and humans. The best ways to reduce your exposure are to:
- Avoid high-fat animal foods
- Opt for organic produce when possible
- Eat fresh foods as opposed to processed or canned foods, since the packaging may contain POPs