There’s an epidemic of thyroid disease in the U.S. and no one seems to know quite why. It has been quietly growing for years.

Just check the number of prescriptions filled for thyroid medicine and you’ll realize that there is something strange going on. Synthroid is the fifth most prescribed drug in America, with 25 million bottles dispensed last year. When you add in generic levothyroxine plus products like Armour Thyroid, Levothroid and Levoxyl, the total comes to nearly 90 million.

That doesn’t even count the millions of people with undiagnosed thyroid problems. Some experts estimate that as many as one out of five women over 60 are suffering from “subclinical hypothyroidism” (American Family Physician, Oct. 2005).

That makes thyroid disorders among the most common conditions affecting Americans. What accounts for this epidemic?

The experts don’t have good answers, but house dust is one possible culprit. The dust itself is not the problem. But chemicals carried on dust may be partly to blame.

Dustborne compounds called PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) have been used for years as fire retardants. They can be found in mattresses, carpets, couches, computers, TVs and cell phones.

Although it seemed like a good idea to protect flammable furniture like couches and mattresses, scientists didn’t anticipate that fire-retardant chemicals would end up in us. But Americans have levels of PBDEs in their bodies that are 7 to 35 times higher than those in Europeans (Environmental Health Perspectives [EHP], May, 2008).

Most European countries banned some PBDEs years ago. Americans, however, are still being exposed. When these chemicals get trapped in house dust, they can be easily transferred to skin and lungs.

Cats may be serving as the canaries in the coal mine. Veterinarians began noticing an epidemic of feline hyperthyroidism in the 1980s. This corresponds to the introduction of PBDEs. When cats groom themselves, they are exposed to chemicals in house dust. Recent research confirms that the hyperthyroid cats have high levels of PBDEs circulating in their bodies (EHP, Dec. 2007).

Young children crawling on the floor or carpet are also exposed to relatively high levels of house dust and PBDEs as well. Thyroid hormone imbalances during development may affect the brain.

Adults with an underactive thyroid gland may experience symptoms such as fatigue, constipation, dry skin, lower libido, depression, brittle nails and elevated cholesterol. Worse, even mild hypothyroidism may increase the risk of fatal heart disease (Archives of Internal Medicine, April 28, 2008).

Diagnosing and treating thyroid problems can be complicated. Our Guide to Thyroid Hormones has information about interpreting tests, selecting treatments and drugs that can affect thyroid function. It can be downloaded for $2 from this Website.

Although we don’t know why so many Americans have thyroid problems, PBDEs are one suspect. Getting them out of the environment will be a major challenge.

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  1. young patient's mom

    Dear Carol M.,
    Thank you so much for your prayers. You will also be in our prayers. I hope you get the help you need from the Cleveland Clinic; don’t give up!
    Our son did “swallow the pill” because all the alternative people we consulted saw no alternative for him. He’s O.K., although it’s been a struggle to get his levels where they need to be.
    Thank you again for thinking of him, and us.
    The Happiest of Holidays to you and yours.

  2. Carol M.

    I am 55 yrs. old and it will be two years in Jan. that I swallowed that radioactive pill. I was also hyperthyroid, I wish I would have never done that. I was fine until May (about 5 months) then my count went out of whack and I had to be put on medicine-for the rest of my life. I have not felt good since, my medicine has been changed 7 times, my counts have been way off.
    For the longest time they couldn’t even get my numbers up to normal, then all of the sudden it is 13.130 ???? ( 4.5 is the high side of normal) I am planning on getting all my records and going to Cleveland Clinic for help. I can’t live like this much longer.
    I am very miserable. I ache all over, have gained 20 lbs. since May, I’m always tired, very irritable, emotions are like a roller coaster. I am now on 90 mg of Thyroid Armour and due for blood work next week…. I would give anything to feel better-back to normal !! I would definitely try a chiropractor or any other remedy first. I wish you the best of luck… 24 is WAY too young to be going through so much. My prayers are with you and your son.

  3. A.V.S.

    My 13 month old grandson has been diagnosed with hypothyroidism. He has been healthy since birth and was and still is developing normally. He has been put on synthroid, a very low dose but I am concerned as is my daughter (his mother) that he must take this medication now at such a young age and probably for the rest of his life. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Pam P.

    Additional info – recently read about phtalates disrupting the thyroid (this was a medical paper). You might want to research this. I no longer heat any food in plastic, nor use plastic wraps. I now use glass.

  5. young patient's mom

    Our 24-year-old son (whom we thought was just stressed and tired) was diagnosed this week with hyperthyroidism. Blood work revealed that he has zero TSH. Following a scan which the doctor believes will confirm the diagnosis, this very well-regarded internist at a teaching hospital wants our son to swallow a radioactive capsule in order to destroy his thyroid. While this seems to be standard practice, we are greatly concerned, and are hoping our son can avoid this drastic step.
    Two friends suggested different chiropractors they know who may be willing to try different remedies. Our son is willing to try this, though it will mean a lot of travel and lost work time for him and for us.
    We would appreciate your comments.

  6. M Monica

    I find this information VERY interesting. Found the article while looking for something else… on PBDE very informative.
    My health has been severely affected by flame retardant exposure due to bringing a computer (briefly) into the house years ago. I am sure my health was affected by flame retardant because when there was a massive forest fire in the area (flames were within a few miles), my symptoms were the same. My health & life have been ruined by these exposures. I was so sick for a time I expected to die, and I think my friends expected the same.
    It is virtually impossible to avoid this chemical entirely. While no longer manufactured in the U.S., I understand from scientists that it is still manufactured in China and apparently widely used in all sorts of products. I’ve moved, spend most of my time outdoors, and avoid buildings of any kind as much as possible. Surprisingly, I’m somewhat better. At least I can shop for my own groceries. My body is so sensitized to this poison that I have learned I’m only a couple exposures away from not being able to function; my body can progress from so-so to terrifyingly ill with just a couple significant (for me) exposures.
    Many chemicals, of all kinds, cause severe illnesses. The last time I pumped my own gas I had severe full body tremors for hours, and various residual symptoms lasted for several weeks. It especially seems the flame retardant chemicals stay ‘active’ in my body for many weeks or months, causing disorientation (affecting central nervous sytem), deep narcotic-like sleep (when the liver & thyroid are affected), and the PBDE-deca form affects the digestive tract (diarrhea).
    I’m grateful to be managing my health as best I can. I’m wearing a specialized face mask as I type this. At least I haven’t had seizures. I am applying for SSI and desperately seeking ways to document this condition. I keep trying to get a diagnostic referral from my doctor but the referrals keep getting denied. Since I’m at the point of applying for SSI (believe me, I wish I could work), I have no cash to pay for medical care to document this for SSI.
    The only advice I have for others is that if you start getting sick, whatever the chemical, do what you can immediately to avoid continual exposures. Once the body is compromised by chemical exposure, the damage is done. Perhaps if I had gotten rid of that computer within the first couple months, I would be better today.
    Remember this story if you have chemical reactions affecting your health.
    Act accordingly and save your health if you can.

  7. jr

    I live in a Condo and had been flooded four times from a source attached to my condo and now I have a mold problem. I have an underactive thyroid and take Synthroid. My doctor refuses to prescribe Armour Thyroid, although I had taken it for about five years. Could this mold create a problem for my thyroid? Thank you for a response.

  8. E.H.

    Twenty years ago I had a silicone breast implant after a masectomy. I had it in for 5 years, and it left me with a goiter. I am 76 now, and after many doctors refusing to give me Armour Thyroid, I found one who did, and I take 90 mg today at 76, and I’m doing very well.

  9. Visionaerie

    Unfermented soy has really nasty effects on the thyroid, as I found out from drinking soy milk once. But if you use fermented soy (natto, miso, tempeh, tofu) — those are better choices. Other factors impacting thyroid health include fluoridated water (which the National Safety Council has recently acknowledged). And the whole emphasis on “low sodium” and “low salt” is another factor — the Japanese eat plenty of seaweed which has lots of iodine, and they have a very long lifespan. “Refined” or processed flour is another factor — it takes the iodine out and often substitutes bromine, which is not healthy. So eat whole grains, drink filtered water, and avoid unfermented soy for a healthy thyroid!

  10. BK

    When menopause began, I consumed large amounts of soy, only to feel exhausted every day. I was diagnosed hypothyroid and prescribed Armour Thyroid. When I researched the drug on line, there were cautions about soy consumption. When I eliminated all but fermented soy from my diet, stayed on my meds, and used good Celtic Sea Salt, my symptoms improved and my latest thyroid panel tested fine. I am off Armour Thyroid, continue to limit my soy intake, and take 4 drops daily of “Liquid Kelp.”

  11. Tom R.

    I’ve actually wondered about naturally occurring goitrogens and whether we are subjecting ourselves to undue thyroid problems by trying to be healthy.
    Soy in particular is being consumed in the United States at levels that are likely higher than typical intakes in Asian countries. Extracting and isolating the isoflavones for supplements seems like a gamble to me.
    If anyone has any impairment of thyroid function, they would be wise to avoid soy and other goitrogens.

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