How Pesticides May Heighten Heart Risks

Heart disease risk in obese premenopausal women may increase from exposure to DDT and similar pesticides

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) In the 1970s, the pesticide DDT was banned in the US and many other countries. Its effects, however, may linger on. To this day, pesticide exposure may increase heart health risks.

A new study found that women with high concentrations of these environmental estrogens in their bodies may face a higher risk of heart disease.

"Many of these substances are fat-soluble, meaning that they can lodge in the fat tissue and be very hard to flush out, and many appear to have estrogen-like activity in the body," said Sarah A. Samaan, MD, a board-certified cardiologist and physician partner with the Baylor Heart Hospital in Plano, TX, in an interview with dailyRx News. "On average, women naturally carry more abdominal fat than men. In the US, about one third of women are obese, meaning that they are even more vulnerable to these dangerous pollutants. This is yet another reason to keep body fat in a healthy range, and to do all we can to reduce our other cardiovascular risks.

"The study should also remind us that our own health is inextricably linked to the health of the Earth, and that by protecting our planet, we are also protecting ourselves, those we love, and all of our fellow creatures."

DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was commonly used for insect control before 1972. Today, more than 40 years since it has been produced or used in the US, DDT can be found in the environment, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

DDT and similar pesticides have been shown to trigger hormonal responses in humans and animals. In the body, certain pesticides can act like the hormone estrogen and disrupt endocrine glands, which secrete hormones. These pesticides are called environmental estrogens.

Diana Teixeira, a PhD student at the University of Porto in Portugal, led this study.

“After the body breaks down DDT along with similar pesticides, chemical remnants called metabolites accumulate in women’s fat tissue,” Teixeira said in a press release. “When higher amounts of these environmental estrogens collect in the fat tissue, it can compromise the protective effect the body’s natural estrogen has on a premenopausal woman’s heart health. This leaves women at increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and inflammation.”

In this study, researchers looked at fat tissue and blood from 121 obese women. Of these, 73 were premenopausal and 48 were postmenopausal. All patients were undergoing bariatric (weight loss) surgery at S. João Hospital in Porto.

Teixeira and team measured levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the tissue and blood samples. They also tested each patient’s cholesterol and fasting blood sugar (a measure for diabetes).

The authors noted higher concentrations of environmental estrogens in the visceral fat tissue (from the belly) in some premenopausal women. These women were more likely to have raised blood sugar levels.

Premenopausal women with large amounts of environmental estrogens in their blood tended to have more inflammation. These women faced a greater risk of heart disease, Teixeira and team found.

Past studies have tied DDT exposure to birth defects, reduced fertility and a raised risk of type 2 diabetes.

“Our findings show that endocrine-disrupting chemicals tend to aggravate complications of obesity, including inflammation and cardiovascular disease risk, in premenopausal women,” Teixeira said. “Measuring environmental estrogen levels may help physicians identify women who are at risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic disease so they can take preventative action.”

Teixeira told dailyRx News that environmental estrogrens are not just found in pesticides but also in the plastic linings of canned goods, plastic food wrappers, detergents, hair dyes, cosmetics, cigarette smoke and auto exhaust.

"We can make simple lifestyle changes that may reduce our personal load of these compounds," Teixeira said.

Among those lifestyle changes are maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding plastics when handling or storing foods, opting for organic foods over processed or refined foods, using safe household cleaners, and reading health and beauty product labels, Teixeira said.

This study was published April 8 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

This research was funded by the Fundo Social European, Programa Operacional Potencial Humano da European Union. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
April 8, 2015
Last Updated:
April 14, 2015