mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


A World Awash in Chemicals

Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and
     Survival? A Scientific Detective Story. 
   By Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers.
   Foreword by Vice President Al Gore.
   Illustrated. 306 pp. New York: Dutton. $24.95.

This book is being promoted, in the words of Vice President Al Gore’s
foreword, as a sequel to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published
in 1962, Silent Spring helped ignite the modern American
environmental movement with its eloquent warning that DDT and other
pesticides had devastated wildlife populations and threatened human
health. In the process, Silent Spring gave the chemical industry a
public-relations black eye that lingers even now. The industry may
suffer anew from Our Stolen Future, but unlike Carson’s classic,
Our Stolen Future is marred by prosaic writing and mediocre
organization that too often make it a chore to digest. Nevertheless,
its subject is so important and its story so powerful that it deserves
to be read, debated and acted upon by the widest possible audience.

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The thesis of Our Stolen Future is that man-made chemicals are
severely undermining the reproductive health of wildlife and humans
the world over. The book’s three co-authors — Theo Colborn, a
zoologist with the World Wildlife Fund, Dianne Dumanoski, a former
environmental reporter for The Boston Globe, and John Peterson Myers,
the director of the W. Alton Jones Foundation, which financed Ms.
Colborn’s research — state repeatedly that more study is needed, and
quickly, to explore their thesis. Indeed, one of the main strengths of
this book is the authors’ refusal to let the profound implications of
their work propel them into intellectual sloppiness or rhetorical
overkill. When the potential stakes are nothing less than the human
species’ ability to reproduce itself, resort to hyperbole is tempting,
but the authors remain admirably levelheaded, careful not to push
their claims beyond the bounds of available evidence or the
conventions of scientific proof.

They do not shrink from advocacy, however. Plainly alarmed by their
findings, the authors recommend phasing out hormone-disrupting
chemicals entirely and, most profoundly, suggest it may be necessary
to stop manufacturing synthetic chemicals altogether. They urge that
the burden of proof be shifted so that it is corporations that must
prove chemicals are safe before distributing them, rather than society
that must demonstrate the contrary in order to remove them from the
marketplace.

Cancer is usually what we think of when the health risks of man-made
chemicals are discussed. Our Stolen Future expands this focus,
arguing that DDT, dioxin, PCB’s and countless other bedrock chemicals
of modern industrial society can also cause hormonal chaos that yields
disquieting reproductive abnormalities. The most sensational example
is a 50 percent drop in human sperm counts around the world over the
last two generations (a phenomenon disputed by some scientists).
Dozens of species, from Florida alligators to Lake Michigan mink to
Baltic Sea fish, have suffered documented cases of shriveled penises
and testicles, feminized male behavior, female sterility and other
fertility malfunctions.

It was Theo Colborn who was most responsible for pulling together the
hundreds of unconnected scholarly studies on these species and
attempting to discern a common pattern, and it is her journey of
discovery that Our Stolen Future recounts. Ms. Colborn came to
science relatively late in life, receiving her Ph.D. at 58 after an
adulthood spent as a sheep rancher and mother. In 1987, she joined a
team of Canadian and American scientists who were evaluating the
environmental health of the Great Lakes. Bizarre physical and
behavioral changes — deformities, unhatched eggs, weird nesting
patterns — had been observed among wildlife, especially otters,
snapping turtles and other top predators of Great Lakes fish. Adults
in the species seemed healthy, but their offspring did not, suggesting
that toxic chemicals found in the parents’ bodies were acting as
hand-me-down poisons . . . that victimized the unborn and the very
young. The PCB’s and other chemicals in question were not causing
cancer, but they were affecting endocrine systems, disrupting the
hormones that regulate pre- and post-natal development.

Drawing upon the work of many other scientists, Ms. Colborn and her
co-authors describe how the tiniest of shifts in hormone levels of
unborn mice — on the order of 35 parts per trillion — can alter an
individual’s future behavior and characteristics. The authors take
note of the complaint that extrapolating from animal studies to human
health can be misleading, but only in studies of cancer, they contend,
not of hormone disruption. They point out that the dynamics of
hormones are much better understood than those of cancer; they cite
the tragic history of the drug DES as an instance where animal studies
did predict the human hazards of hormone-disrupting chemicals.

DES, a man-made form of estrogen first synthesized in 1938, was
prescribed as a wonder drug for pregnant women for more than 30 years
until mounting evidence of cancers, sterility and other fertility
problems among the women’s children discredited the drug. The authors
use the DES experience to illustrate what happens when the human body
mistakes man-made chemicals for natural hormones: the chemicals
scramble the hormonal communications that govern an offspring’s
subsequent development. The effect, they say, is similar to a
construction foreman telling the plumbers to install the pipes only
after the carpenters have closed up the walls. Another lesson from the
DES case is that the size of a dose matters less than its timing.
Women whose mothers took DES only after the 20th week of pregnancy, by
which time sex organ programming is complete, did not suffer
reproductive abnormalities.

Scientists have identified 51 man-made chemicals that scramble
hormonal communication, but according to the authors, tens of
thousands of additional chemicals have never been tested for this
capacity. A study of one such chemical, dioxin, conducted at the
University of Wisconsin, found that a single extremely small dose
produced reproductive problems among rat offspring, just as DES had
done.

The authors note that many hormone-disrupting chemicals persist in the
environment for decades (and some for centuries), and can travel
thousands of miles from their initial release point; contamination
with industrial chemicals, including PCB’s and DDT, and fertility
declines have been detected even among Arctic polar bears. They
further note that global production of man-made chemicals increased
roughly 350 times between 1940 and 1982; the United States alone
produced 435 billion pounds of such chemicals in 1992. Ms. Colborn and
her colleagues suggest that it is this ubiquitous background of
artificial chemicals that is the likely cause of reproductive problems
now afflicting populations the world over.

If lowered sperm counts turn out to stem from DDT, PCB’s and other
chemicals whose production many countries have now discontinued, the
authors are optimistic the decline can be reversed. But they warn that
exposure to other hormone disrupters has rapidly increased in recent
decades.

WITHOUT chemicals, life itself would be impossible, chirped a famous
chemical industry advertisement. Certainly today’s plastics-pervaded
way of life would be impossible without the vast array of man-made
chemicals dispersed over the past 50 years. The authors of Our Stolen
Future grant that these chemicals have delivered benefits, but they
caution that our ignorance of their true nature is as vast as our
knowledge. Because scientists earlier in this century did not know
what they now know, the world celebrated chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s
(the chemicals, used in air conditioners, that destroy the ozone
layer), for decades before their drawbacks were recognized. The same
happened with DDT.

The authors of Our Stolen Future acknowledge they do not have
airtight proof that hormone-disrupting chemicals are to blame for
reproductive problems. Such proof, they point out, is beyond anyone’s
power to demonstrate in a world awash in man-made chemicals. Humans
are now inescapably exposed to so many chemicals that it is
effectively impossible to prove a cause-and-effect connection between
a given compound and a corresponding malady; individual substances
cannot be sorted out from the overall mix. But the circumstantial
evidence and potential consequences of such a connection, as presented
in Our Stolen Future, are disturbing indeed.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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