|Script to the Environmental Hormone segment of
The BIG Medicine Show
- The Chemical Industry's Big Push for Free Birth Control
Throughout 1998 Japan's mass media focused national attention on a disturbing new phenomenon called environmental hormones. Reports on these chemicals' frightening effects and their omnipresence in the environment sent a chill through the Japanese public. Sales of Cup Noodles alone dropped more than 40% in several months when consumers learned that Styrofoam food containers are a common source of these substances. Chemical industries reacted sharply and accused the media of grossly exaggerating the risk and needlessly terrifying the public. Nevertheless Japan's scientific and political worlds are clearly alarmed. The government immediately earmarked an emergency budget of over ten billion yen for environmental hormone research, and last December in Kyoto, the Environment Agency sponsored the world's largest international conference on the problem.
What are environmental hormones anyway, and why are they suddenly on every one's mind?
Dr. John Myers, co-author of the book Our Stolen Future which first brought the issue to public awareness in both the United States and Japan, answers.
"Well, I think it is appropriate that the concept should be everywhere because environmental hormones are everywhere. Let's begin with that. Environmental hormones or endocrine disrupters or hormone disrupters are compounds, many of which are synthetic, that interfere with the natural role of hormones in regulating the development of organisms as they grow from an embryo to adulthood.
Plastics and agro-chemical manufacturers denounce Myers and other researchers who claim their products are hazardous to human health. Industry scientists insist their traditional high dose testing methods prove that these chemicals pose no threat whatsoever to the health of lab animals or thus, by extension, to humans either.
"What happens when a chemical disrupter interferes with chemical message that are naturally telling the fetus how to grow is they push the developing fetus of in the wrong direction and it can't go back. Development is not a process that you can reverse. These are permanent changes in development . What they do, what they have a potential of doing, depending upon the nature of the chemical the amount of the chemical and the timing of its delivery, is that they can have an impact on intelligence and behavior, on reproductive capacity and on the ability to resist disease. In shorthand, they can make you sick, sterile and stupid."
Dr. Frederick Vom Saal, hormone specialist from the University of Missouri, presents a different story.
"What is very interesting in the process of calculating the risk of a chemical, you have four components. You identify the hazard, what hazard does it cause? A reproductive damage, a brain damage? You determine how much exposure there is in the population. Then in experiments you test different doses of that chemical in laboratory animals. And then you put all of that together and you characterize risk as a political decision, including the economic consequences of the chemical. This is what the public doesn't understand. This is not based on the science. This is based on economic considerations, the last part.
The apparently technical debate over testing procedures actually masks a highly charged battle with huge social and economic stakes. Like tobacco, asbestos and nuclear waste, if environmental hormones are proved to be truly hazardous, it could cost their producers billions of dollars. Vom Saal:
"But the interesting thing that I pointed out is that the dosage used in the testing studies, in laboratory studies, are not based on any information provided about how much we are exposed to. They are based on the assumption that you can test massive amounts of these chemicals in animals and then predict effects at very low doses that we are exposed to. My research shows that with hormones you cannot do that. That is a false model. You cannot go from a very high dose effect to a low dose effect. Anybody who is trained in endocrinology, anybody who is trained in neurobiology knows for chemicals that communicate between cells like hormones or neurotransmitters that doesn't work, because high doses shut down the response system. Everybody knows that, every doctor uses that clinically and there are loads of drugs used at high doses because they can stop the ability of the body to respond. So you actually at high doses block response and at low doses stimulate response. That is an absolutely known fact in medicine, endocrinology, and neuroscience...
The chemical industry is fighting low dose testing while telling you the low doses are safe, they can't have it both ways. My response to them is prove it, do an experiment. Every time I do a low dose experiment I show these chemicals are dangerous...
"We see decline in sperm count in the male offspring, we see damaged prostates, the entire reproductive system, every reproductive organ is abnormal, every single one.
"There is a campaign to discredit the testing of low environmentally relevant doses because the moment they start doing that, these chemicals are going to start getting thrown off the market. They don't want people to find out the real truth about what low levels of these chemicals can do...
However, Vom Saal believes that corporate efforts to obscure the issue are doomed simply because there is now too much clinical evidence out there to ignore.
Somebody asked me recently, 'How could you expect Dow Chemical or General Electric or Exxon that between them probably make more that five billion dollars a year on bisphenol A, how could they possibly design and conduct a study that they really expect to show that this chemical is dangerous, and that they should not make this five billion dollars of profit. Do you think that is likely?"
"There is accumulating information that farmers using pesticides have a low fertility, not only that, they're not producing male babies. There are pesticides in use today that are damaging the testes of males... But it isn't just that sperm counts are declining, the proportion of abnormal sperm being produced is astronomical higher today than it was fifty years ago. The probability of a deformed baby is going up tremendously, and the incidence of deformities in babies is going up... And that is going to get peoples' attention. The probability of producing an abnormal baby is being impacted by these chemicals. And this is a message that is going to lead to a change in the way people think about these products."
In the meantime, what precautions should people, particularly young people, be taking to protect themselves? Myers:
"I think they need to think about their children. A girl who is ten or twelve needs to be thinking about her children right now and constructing a lifestyle that minimizes the risk for that as yet unconceived child... Avoid animal fats, that is the principal source of dioxin in the diet... I would demand that my local water supplier tested the water for endocrine disrupters... I'd eat fruits and vegetables in season because the ones that are out of season are being imported from areas where the standards of pesticide regulations are much less stringent then they are here or in the United States, so there are a lot of dietary things that one can do."
While few can find fault with such common sense advice, industry spokespeople continue to warn of the terrible economic consequences of banning suspect products and chemicals. Myers disagrees:
"I think it depends upon how you measure economic impact. In fact, it can be a boon to the economy because people will buy the replacement products. So I think there will be product lines that will be discontinued, but there will be other product lines that are started again with better information... So I think that the economic argument against dealing with this in a forthright way are surmountable."
Ultimately, however, Myer's says this is not a question of corporate costs, but of human safety and survival:
"By default we are performing experiments in our developing kids. I don't think that that is an appropriate place to do it. I think it is much more appropriate for the people who are interested in making money from those compounds in performing exhaustive experiments, laboratory demonstrations of safety prior to releasing the compound into the world..."
"It very quickly moves from the realm of pure science and it becomes an ethical issue. It becomes an issue as to what society is willing to impose on its citizens particularly on children. And it becomes a question as to what we are willing to, to pay..."