A major international report warns that hundreds of chemicals found in household and industrial products could be playing havoc with hormones in the body and affecting fertility and sleep patterns and cancer risk.
The United Nations report, produced by the UN Environment Program and the World Health Organisation, says close to 800 chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls, are potentially "endocrine-disrupting chemicals" but few have been properly investigated.
PCBs were used widely in Australia before the 1980s in industrial products and fluorescent light fittings before being phased out because of concerns about their impact on the environment and links with rashes, immune disorders and possibly cancer.
But they can persist in the environment for a long time.
Other types of EDCs are still found in pesticides, electronics and cosmetics. They can also leach into water supplies and the food chain through agricultural run-off, waste dumps and other sources.
The UN report says rates of many hormone-linked disorders are rising, including cancer, poor sperm, early breast development in girls, premature birth and attention and hyperactivity disorders in children, and genetics alone could not be responsible.
WHO director for public health and environment Maria Neira said the latest evidence suggested communities were being exposed to harmful effects of the chemicals.
"We urgently need more research to obtain a fuller picture of the health and environmental impacts of endocrine disruptors," Dr Neira said.
Cancer Council WA director of education and research Terry Slevin agreed with calls for more research and efforts to limit occupational exposure to chemicals but cautioned against overreacting.
He said one of the key factors pushing up cancer rates in countries such as Australia was the ageing population and there was likely to be a wide range of other contributors rather than a single culprit such as chemicals.
"My worry is that while these chemicals are a concern, blaming them for changes in cancer patterns in the past 15 years would be folly because the evidence isn't there," he said.
"Too much of a focus on so-called evil chemicals could lead us to ignore the things we can immediately and practically do to reduce cancer risk."