Estrogenic Growth Promoters in Meat

In 1979, an epidemic of breast enlargement was noted in Italian children. Poultry or veal was suspected, given that estrogens “may be fed to farm animals to accelerate their weight gain.” “After this episode, the European Union banned the application/use of anabolic growth promoters in agriculture,” as well as the importation of American meat from animals injected with drugs like Zeranol, sold as “Ralgro Magnum.”

Zeranol, one of the most potent known endocrine disrupters, is 100,000 times more estrogenic than the plastics chemical, BPA, for example, and is the subject of my video Zeranol Use in Meat and Breast Cancer. “Zeranol constitutes a special case among potential endocrine disrupters, because Zeranol, in contrast to all other oestrogenic ‘endocrine disrupting’ chemicals, is present in human food because it is deliberately used in the production of consumer products. Furthermore, Zeranol is designed to be a potent, fairly persistent, [estrogen] whereas the [estrogenic] properties of the chemicals that are considered potential endocrine disrupters is accidental.”

If you drip blood from a cow implanted with the drug onto human breast cancer cells in a petri dish, you can double the cancer growth rate. We don’t drink blood, though, but preliminary data showed that muscle extracts—that is, meat extracts—also stimulated breast cancer cell proliferation.

Furthermore, Zeranol may cause the transformation of normal breast cells into cancer cells in the first place. Zeranol-containing blood from implanted cattle “was capable of transforming the human normal breast epithelial cell line” into breast cancer cells within 21 days.

“[O]bese individuals may be at greater risk of developing zeranol-induced breast cancer,” since they already have high levels of leptin, which is a hormone produced by fat cells that can itself promote breast cancer growth. And, Zeranol exposure can greatly enhance this growth-promoting action. “This result also suggests that Z[eranol] may be more harmful to obese breast cancer patients than to normal weight breast cancer patients in terms of breast cancer development.”

“In conclusion, because the synthetic and the natural hormones, used as anabolic growth promoters in meat production, are by far the most potent hormones found in human food,” we should really be testing people, especially children, before and after eating this meat. It amazes me this hasn’t been done, and, until it has, we have no idea what kind of threat they may pose, though the fact that Zeranol is as potent as estradiol (the primary sex steroid in women) and DES should concern us. DES is another synthetic estrogen that was marketed to pregnant women until 1971 when it was shown to cause vaginal cancers in the daughters. But few know it was also used in meat.

“In the absence of effective federal regulation, the meat industry uses hundreds of animal feed additives…with little or no concern about the carcinogenic and other toxic effects of dietary residues of these additives. Illustratively, after decades of misleading assurances of the safety of diethylstilbestrol (DES) and its use as a growth-promoting animal-feed additive, the United States finally banned its use in 1979 some 40 years after it was first shown to be carcinogenic. The meat industry then promptly switched to other [potentially] carcinogenic additives,” such as Zeranol.

When girls started dying from vaginal cancer, DES-treated meat was banned in Europe. However, “misleading assurances…including the deliberate suppression of residue data, managed to delay a U.S. ban on DES” in the meat supply for eight years.

Today, “[v]irtually the entire U.S. population consumes, without any warning, labeling, or information, unknown and unpredictable amounts of hormonal residues in meat products over a lifetime.” If all hormonal and other carcinogenic feed additives aren’t banned immediately, the least we should have is “explicit labeling requirements of use and of [hormone] residue levels in all meat products, including milk and eggs.”


Isn’t the DES story amazing? I had no idea it was used in meat production. Check out Illegal Drugs in Chicken Feathers for more on Big Pharma on Big Farms.

The most dangerous additive used in the meat industry is antibiotics, though. See, for example:

For more on what may be bad for the breast, check out:

And, for what may be protective, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

How Plastics Can Affect Your Love Life

Most of the attention on phthalates, a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals found in PVC plastics, has been focused on fetal and child health, particularly regarding genital and behavioral development. Recent data have shown, for example, “incomplete virilization in infant boys” and reduced masculine play as they grow up, and for girls, an earlier onset of puberty. What about affecting hormonal function in adults? I explore this in my video Avoiding Adult Exposure to Phthalates.

Men exposed to high levels of phthalate had lower testosterone levels, but that was for workers in a plastics plant. In the general population, the evidence is mixed. A study in Sweden of men in their 20s found no effect on testosterone, whereas a U.S. study on men in their 30s did find an effect, even at levels of exposure much lower than those of factory workers. When there’s conflicting evidence like this, ideally we’d put it to the test, but you can’t ethically expose people to phthalates so scientists have come up with convoluted methods like implanting the testicles from human fetuses into mice to keep them growing. We want to know about the effects on adult, not fetal, testicles, which had been harder to procure… until recently. “[C]onsent was obtained from all donors.” Now, I’ve heard of blood donors, but this is a whole other level. Researchers obtained donated testicles from prostate cancer patients who underwent castration to control their disease and, indeed, were able to get direct evidence that phthalates can inhibit testosterone production at the kinds of levels one sees in general population studies.

What about breast cancer, the number-one cancer killer of young women? Women working in automotive plastics and food canning are at five times the odds of breast cancer, suggesting a link. In a petri dish, however, phthalates didn’t seem to accelerate breast cancer growth at the levels of exposure expected in the general population. More recently, though, phthalate exposure was found to boost breast cancer cell growth in vitro at the levels found circulating in the bodies of many women. Therefore, the maximum tolerable dose set by governments should be re-evaluated.

How do you avoid the stuff? Well, when you think of plastic chemicals, you may think of water bottles, but they appear to play only a minor role. Most phthalates come from food. How do we know this? If you take people and have them stop eating for a few days, you get a significant drop in the amount of phthalates spilling into their urine. Fasting isn’t exactly sustainable, though. Thankfully, we can see similar drops from simply eating a plant-based diet for a few days, which gives us a clue as to where most phthalates are found. There were a few cases of spikes within the fasting period after showers, however, suggesting contamination in personal care products.

We can counsel patients to reduce phthalate exposures by avoiding the use of scented personal care products, soaps, and cosmetics, since phthalates are used as a fragrance carrier. Phthalates can also be found in children’s toys, as well as adult toys. “On behalf of the Danish [Environmental Protection Agency] EPA, [the Danish Technological Institute] DTI has made inquiries about the consumption pattern in connection with the use of sex toys made of rubber or plastics” to see what kind of exposure one might get “based on worst case scenarios.” Those working behind the counters at sex shops “proved to possess very little knowledge of the materials,” so the researchers had to do their own testing. It turns out that “jelly” is plasticized PVC—up to two-thirds phthalates by weight. Though the use of water-based lubricants may reduce the health risks 100-fold, phthalate exposure through lubricants may still have the opposite of the intended effect. Women with the highest levels of phthalates flowing through their bodies “had over 2.5 times the odds of reporting a lack of interest in sexual activity,” and these weren’t women in a canning factory, rather they were at typical exposure levels in America.


To find out how to lower your exposure to phthalates, see What Diet Best Lowers Phthalate Exposure?

More on hormone-disrupting chemicals in our food supply in:

Interested in learning more about improving sexual health? See:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Comparing Pollutant Levels Between Different Diets

The results of the CHAMACOS (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas) study were published recently. This study of a California birth cohort investigated the relationship between exposure to flame retardant chemical pollutants in pregnancy and childhood, and subsequent neurobehavioral development. Why California? Because California children’s exposures to these endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins are among the highest in the world.

What did they find? The researchers concluded that both prenatal and childhood exposures to these chemicals “were associated with poorer attention, fine motor coordination, and cognition” (particularly verbal comprehension) by the time the children reached school age. “This study, the largest to date, contributes to growing evidence suggesting that PBDEs [polybrominated diphenyl ethers, flame retardant chemicals] have adverse impacts on child neurobehavioral development.” The effects may extend into adolescence, again affecting motor function as well as thyroid gland function. The effect on our thyroid glands may even extend into adulthood.

These chemicals get into moms, then into the amniotic fluid, and then into the breast milk. The more that’s in the milk, the worse the infants’ mental development may be. Breast milk is still best, but how did these women get exposed in the first place?

The question has been: Are we exposed mostly from diet or dust? Researchers in Boston collected breast milk samples from 46 first-time moms, vacuumed up samples of dust from their homes, and questioned them about their diets. The researchers found that both were likely to blame. Diet-wise, a number of animal products were implicated. This is consistent with what’s been found worldwide. For example, in Europe, these flame retardant chemical pollutants are found mostly in meat, including fish, and other animal products. It’s similar to what we see with dioxins—they are mostly found in fish and other fatty foods, with a plant-based diet offering the lowest exposure.

If that’s the case, do vegetarians have lower levels of flame retardant chemical pollutants circulating in their bloodstreams? Yes. Vegetarians may have about 25% lower levels. Poultry appears to be the largest contributor of PBDEs. USDA researchers compared the levels in different meats, and the highest levels of these pollutants were found in chicken and turkey, with less in pork and even less in beef. California poultry had the highest, consistent with strict furniture flammability codes. But it’s not like chickens are pecking at the sofa. Chickens and turkeys may be exposed indirectly through the application of sewer sludge to fields where feed crops are raised, contamination of water supplies, the use of flame-retarded materials in poultry housing, or the inadvertent incorporation of fire-retardant material into the birds’ bedding or feed ingredients.

Fish have been shown to have the highest levels overall, but Americans don’t eat a lot of fish so they don’t contribute as much to the total body burden in the United States. Researchers have compared the level of PBDEs found in meat-eaters and vegetarians. The amount found in the bloodstream of vegetarians is noticeably lower, as you can see in my video Flame Retardant Pollutants and Child Development. Just to give you a sense of the contribution of chicken, higher than average poultry eaters have higher levels than omnivores as a whole, and lower than average poultry eaters have levels lower than omnivores.

What are the PBDE levels in vegans? We know the intake of many other classes of pollutants is almost exclusively from the ingestion of animal fats in the diet. What if we take them all out of the diet? It works for dioxins. Vegan dioxin levels appear markedly lower than the general population. What about for the flame retardant chemicals? Vegans have levels lower than vegetarians, with those who’ve been vegan around 20 years having even lower concentrations. This tendency for chemical levels to decline the longer one eats plant-based suggests that food of animal origin contributes substantially. But note that levels never get down to zero, so diet is not the only source.

The USDA researchers note that there are currently no regulatory limits on the amount of flame retardant chemical contamination in U.S. foods, “but reducing the levels of unnecessary, persistent, toxic compounds in our diet is certainly desirable.”

I’ve previously talked about this class of chemicals in Food Sources of Flame Retardant Chemicals. The same foods seem to accumulate a variety of pollutants:

Many of these chemicals have hormone- or endocrine-disrupting effects. See, for example:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: