Endocrine Disruptors: A Critical Review of In Vitro and In Vivo Testing Strategies for Assessing Their Toxic Hazard to Humans
Robert D. Combes
Currently, there is much concern that a wide range of both synthetic and naturally occurring environmental chemicals can act as endocrine disruptors (EDs), and can adversely affect humans and wildlife. Many in vivo and in vitro tests have been proposed for screening EDs, and several regulatory agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have recommended tier-testing schemes. Unfortunately, most of the proposed toxicity tests have substantial problems, including non-specificity and lack of reproducibility. There is also uncertainty concerning their relevance for generating useful hazard data for risk assessment purposes, in view of the diversity of the possible ED mechanisms of action (for example, receptor binding, steroidogenesis and modulation of the homeostatic processes which regulate endogenous responses to hormones). Moreover, most of the suggested test methods have yet to be validated according to internationally accepted criteria, although the OECD and the US EPA have defined tests for validation, and an interlaboratory “prevalidation” exercise has been initiated by the OECD. All this is compounded by the lack of information regarding human exposure levels to EDs, and a lack of direct evidence for a causal link between exposure and the development of adverse human health effects. In addition, the regulatory testing of EDs has important negative implications for animal welfare, as some of the proposed in vivo tests require large group sizes of animals and stressful procedures. From a detailed analysis of the available published literature, it is concluded that it is impossible to assess the relative values of currently available in vitro and in vivo toxicity tests for EDs, or to recommend any test or test battery. Any plans for the widespread testing of EDs are therefore premature and might be unnecessary, at least for detecting possible human effects. Several recommendations are made for rectifying this unsatisfactory situation, including the postponement of screening programmes pending: a) more information on human exposure; b) further details of the mechanisms of action of EDs; and c) the development of improved tests, followed by their proper scientific validation.