EDCs : evidence that co-exposures should be considered when evaluating the risk of a single chemical

Endocrine Disruption in Human Fetal Testis Explants by Individual and Combined Exposures to Selected Pharmaceuticals, Pesticides, and Environmental Pollutants

image of predicted and observed testosterone secretion in human fetal testis by four chemical mixtures

2017 Study Abstract

Numerous chemicals are capable of disrupting androgen production, but the possibility that they might act together to produce effects greater than those of the most effective component in the mixture has not been studied directly in human tissues. Suppression of androgen synthesis in fetal life has been associated with testis maldescent, malformations of the genitalia at birth, and poor semen quality later in life.

Our aim was to investigate whether chemicals can act together to disrupt androgen production in human fetal testis explants and to evaluate the importance of mixture effects when characterizing the hazard of individual chemicals.

We used an organotypic culture system of human fetal testes explants called FEtal Gonad Assay (FEGA) with tissue obtained at 10 and 12 gestational wk (GW 10–12), to screen 27 chemicals individually for their possible anti-androgenic effect. Based on the results of the screen, we selected 11 compounds and tested them as mixtures.

We evaluated mixtures composed of four and eight antiandrogens that contained the pharmaceuticals ketoconazole and theophylline and several previously untested chemicals, such as the pesticides imazalil and propiconazole. Mixtures of antiandrogens can suppress testosterone synthesis in human fetal testicular explants to an extent greater than that seen with individual chemicals. This revealed itself as a shift towards lower doses in the dose–response curves of individual antiandrogens that became more pronounced as the number of components increased from four to eight.

Our results with the FEGA provide the foundations of a predictive human mixture risk assessment approach for anti-androgenic exposures in fetal life.


Concerns that the traditional focus of chemical risk assessment on single chemical exposures might underestimate the risks associated with adverse effects of multiple chemicals have been expressed earlier (Kortenkamp 2014), but the impact on risk estimates has been proven difficult to define. This is partly due to incomplete information about the complexity of combined human exposures and to a lack of clarity about the approaches and methods that should be used for mixture risk assessment. Our study provides important advances in improving the scientific basis for human mixture risk assessment. To our knowledge, we demonstrate for the first time that the mixture assessment concept of dose addition is applicable to human tissues. This not only enabled us to avoid certain uncertainties associated with animal-to-human extrapolations, but also enabled us to use a predictive approach. Rather than studying every conceivable combination of chemicals within a mixture, the joint effects of anti-androgenic chemicals in the FEGA can now be approximated on the basis of the effects of each single component by using dose addition as the default assumption.

To utilize the FEGA in multi-component mixture studies required making a leap from qualitative studies to quantitative dose–response analyses. Due to the inhomogeneity of the material and the variations inevitably introduced through the age differences of the fetal testes, the assay outcome (fetal testosterone production) shows high variability, which we had to deal with by rigorously controlling experimental conditions. We achieved good reproducibility, which was essential for realizing our goal of analyzing whether the combined effects of multiple chemicals can be predicted accurately on the basis of the effects of individual mixture components and of assessing the impact of co-exposures on the dose–response curves of single chemicals.

A difficulty in using the FEGA as a screening method for the identification of chemicals with endocrine disruptive properties is the limited availability of human fetal tissue. An additional challenge is in the requirement of collecting tissues of comparable age.

Our study provides direct evidence that co-exposures should be considered when evaluating the risk of a single chemical. We show that effects of a single chemical are underestimated when co-exposure to related chemicals are not considered, and that this underestimation is driven by the number, type, and potency of co-occurring chemicals. In this study, overlooking co-exposures to only seven chemicals led to an underestimation of the potency of BPA by a factor of 10. A corollary of the principles of dose addition is that co-exposure to a larger number of chemicals will drive up the extent of such underestimations if these chemicals are present at levels equipotent with the components we used in our experiments. Alternatively, replacement of some components with larger numbers of other chemicals, but at lower levels, may lead to similar underestimations. More studies using the FEGA are needed to establish these assumptions.

Based on our findings, we suggest that the impact of mixture effects on male sexual differentiation during the first trimester of pregnancy may be considerable. However, although in this study the selection of chemicals was empirically based on the results obtained in our dose–response study, analysis of individual chemicals, assessment of the extent of adverse effects in human fetuses will require more knowledge about the spectrum of chemicals capable of suppressing testosterone synthesis. Future FEGA studies will help close this knowledge gap, especially if based on companion studies that identify all of the exogenous chemicals found in maternal and fetal tissues.

Full Study
  • Featured image : predicted and observed testosterone secretion in human fetal testis by four chemical mixtures. Experimental data are shown as mean ± SEM (blue) of at least four independent experiments. Testosterone production is represented as relative to the first day of culture (D0) production and the control level, see text for more details. The mixture effects were predicted according to dose addition (DA) (thick red curve), with dashed curves the respective 95% confidence intervals (CIs) (dotted orange lines) credit ehp.
  • Endocrine Disruption in Human Fetal Testis Explants by Individual and Combined Exposures to Selected Pharmaceuticals, Pesticides, and Environmental Pollutants, Environmental Health Perspectives, DOI:10.1289/EHP1014, AUGUST 2017 | VOLUME 125 | ISSUE 8. Full PDF.
Endocrine Disruptors

Author: DES Daughter

Activist, blogger and social media addict committed to shedding light on a global health scandal and dedicated to raise DES awareness.

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