Our new study, led by Anna Young with the Harvard Healthy Buildings program and colleagues in the Duke Stapleton Lab, found that office workers are commonly exposed to hormone-disrupting chemical mixtures.

Once hormone-disrupting chemicals enter our bodies, they can be mistaken for natural hormones like estrogen and testosterone, thereby preventing our actual hormones from doing their job well. Hormone receptors help regulate our reproductive health, fertility, birth outcomes, child development, metabolism, and thyroid function.

In the new study, participants wore silicone wristbands in their office buildings for four workdays. These wristbands collected all the chemicals they were exposed to via indoor air, dust, and products. The team measured the presence of known and unknown chemicals in the wristband samples and then used a brand-new approach to measure the total sex hormone interference by all the chemicals someone was personally exposed to.

Key takeaways:

  • On average, participants were exposed to 800 different chemical signatures.
  • A large portion of these chemical signatures couldn’t be confidently identified since unknown chemicals are continuously entering the market.
  • Every single person’s chemical mixture mimicked or blocked sex or thyroid hormones in human cells. The more contaminated a sample was with known or unknown chemicals, the more hormone interference we saw.
  • Women in the study were exposed to higher numbers of chemicals and higher sex hormone interference – even when working in the same office building as male participants.

Where do these chemicals come from?

Hormone-disrupting chemicals often come from furniture, electronics, cosmetics, building materials, pesticides, other products, and many unknown sources. They expose us directly and leach out into the dust and air that we breathe in buildings all day. In our previous study, we found, for example, that floor dust in everyday buildings was hormonally active because of chemical contamination.

What can we do?

The obstacle is that we often don’t know the chemical ingredients in many consumer products, and we usually can’t see, taste, or smell these chemicals.

The good news is that solutions do exist:

  • For example, we previously found that healthier furnishings free of entire groups of toxic chemicals led to lower exposures in buildings. Harvard, Google, and other large organizations have pledged to purchase healthier furnishings, effectively sending a big-dollar market signal to manufacturers that there is a demand for healthier products to become mainstream.
  • For consumers in the short term, we can avoid “fragrance” ingredients in personal care products and avoid materials that are labeled to be plastic, vinyl, flame-retardant, pesticide, non-stick, stain-repellent, or water-repellent.

Long term, the key lies in making healthier products the default option on shelves.

Other Harvard Chan School co-authors include Joseph Allen, Brent Coull, and Russ Hauser.

Anna S. Young, Nicholas Herkert, Heather M. Stapleton, Brent A. Coull, Russ Hauser, Thomas Zoeller, Peter A. Behnisch, Emiel Felzel, Abraham Brouwer, Joseph G. Allen. February 2023. Hormone receptor activities of complex mixtures of known and suspect chemicals in personal silicone wristband samplers worn in office buildings. Chemosphere (315). DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2022.137705.