Nancho: How did you get involved with the authors of Our Stolen Future and the endocrine disrupter issue?
Vom Saal: It started by talking to Theo Colburn about an idea that was just forming in her mind at the time. She noticed the work that I was doing on very low doses of hormones and how they alter development, and thought if that was possible then low doses of environmental chemicals could also have an effect. She said she wanted to have a meeting to discuss this, and that was the Wingspread meeting and we have been working on this issue ever since.
I took a look at the information at that time and said that there is obviously a very serious problem here that no one has ever recognized, and that is how I got involved in endocrine disrupters, because they are chemicals in the environment that act like hormones and I am an expert on hormone action and so for me studying these chemicals is studying these hormones.
The problem is that in toxicology, the people who are trained in toxicology are primarily trained in genetics, and this is very, very complicated and different for them. I had one of the people who is the first author of the paper on the attempted replication of my work, Stewart Kagan, an executive at Shell Oil, and he called me and said, "Will you come and give us a training session on endocrinology, because I have no one on my staff who can interpret your papers for me. No toxicologist can even tell me what your papers are about because they have no training in endocrinology." Now they are coming in and trying to understand these issues, and with no training and no background, conduct these experiments.
We take as much as ten years training our students before they become a professor. Our students go through five or six years of graduate programs, three or four years of a post doc, and then they are to a level where they can direct their own research programs. These outside people are not up to speed. They don't understand the basics of this. They are not going to be able to quickly or accurately provide the information we need about the safety of these chemicals. They don't have the expertise. We are seeing this in people like John Ashby at Zeneca making an attempt to replicate my work, and designing an experiment where he has a series of control groups - in science, the use of controls provides a demonstration of your ability to find anything. I mean, anybody off the street could go into their home and conduct an experiment and claim to have not found that a chemical caused an effect, but nobody would believe it because they would say, "Wait a minute, what expertise do you have in this?"
So we have internal standards built into experiments that demonstrate competence. And he stood up at this meeting yesterday and stated to the public that his internal standards had failed, but that he was still drawing conclusions from his experiment. Well, that violates the basic principles of doing research. You can't do that and his response to me afterwards was, 'well I spent a lot of money on this and I spent a lot of time and now you are telling me that this has failed." He is just very angry, but heck that is life. Lots of things people do don't work out, and lots of time is wasted, and lots of money is wasted, but that doesn't mean he has a right to present clearly flawed information to the public and try to deceive the public into thinking that it is legitimate for him to draw any conclusions from his work. All that his experiment shows is that he did not have the competence to do the work.
OK, but he is just one hired gun in a very orchestrated opposition. Aren't you facing an entire range of hostile corporate activity?
VS: Absolutely. This is a very serious problem.
Yet Japan's Environment Agency yesterday basically followed Professor Ashby's line and declared that there is not a problem with low dose effects...
VS: Yes, let me address that. This is what we call "double think". 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.
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 the 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 neuro-biology, knows for chemicals that communicate between cells like hormones or neuro transmitters, 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. And yet the absence of that happening is the foundation of toxicology. It is based on an absolutely invalid, totally false, totally disproven concept. And what they are now saying is, "We are going to now continue testing these very high doses to predict the effects of the amount of chemicals you are exposed to. And we are going to tell you that you are absolutely safe to be exposed to these low amounts of chemicals. And we absolutely refuse to ever test those low doses directly to see if they really are safe." And that is double think.
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." They are saying they don't believe the results, and yet what was not reported yesterday is there are, I think, up to seven articles published on bisphenol A showing that there is the possibility of getting effects within the range of human exposure. But they are claiming I am the only one that has done this. That is not true. That is not true. There is actually more and more evidence accumulating. None of it is industry generated. It is all coming out of academic laboratories and the government.
So 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 get thrown off the market. They don't want people to find out the real truth about what low levels of these chemicals can do. It is just an incredible situation, they are saying low doses are safe, but we refuse to test that directly.
Could you give a quick remedial explanation of what the potential effects are from some of these chemicals?
VS: Yes. The kinds of effects we see are on the brain. We see changes in aggression. Animals exposed to very low doses of currently used pesticides that have estrogenic activity are more aggressive, they are more territorial. Now when you change aggression and territoriality you disrupt the entire social structure.
We are changing the whole pattern of growth and development of these animals. We see in females early puberty from exposure to pesticides, and we have actually seen early puberty in bisphenol A exposed animals -- at the levels people are exposed to, at the levels that Dr. Mori is seeing in the blood of human fetuses. In animal studies, those levels damage the development of animals. This has been demonstrated. We have published these findings.
We see a decline in sperm count in the male offspring. We see damaged prostates. The entire reproductive system, every reproductive organ is abnormal, every single one.
We see changes in enzyme activity in the liver that controls the way our liver functions, the way we clear drugs and control hormone levels in our bodies. There is nothing normal about these animals as a result of exposure to very low doses of these chemicals. These are clearly unacceptable adverse consequences of exposure to these chemicals.
We now need further research at these low doses looking more broadly at different chemicals, looking broadly at different animals. We need some studies in primates -- for instance, monkeys that very closely approximate humans -- to see if in fact what we are seeing in the mouse is going to predict the possibility of human damage. But we already know from studies of the chemical diethylstilbesterol, that this was a chemical given to women, a drug, and many of the clinical outcomes in women were in fact identified for physicians by studies in mice.
The effects of this chemical in mice, when exposure during development occurs, and in humans is virtually identical. The clinical outcome is virtually identical. In fact the people studying the mice would tell the doctors what to look for in patients. Then the doctors would go and say, "My gosh, we hadn't noticed that." So we already know that we have every reason to think that the mouse is a very good predictor of human damage by these chemicals. There is a sixty-year literature demonstrating that about DES. That can't be ignored. That doesn't prove that these chemicals are going to do the same thing in mice and humans, but it raises tremendous concern that that is possible.
How would you evaluate current corporate damage control efforts?
VS: It is up and down. Some of it clearly backfires on them. And the reason is because of the disclosure by the tobacco industry that they lied to the public and manipulated the science for decades and successfully blocked any attempt to regulate cigarettes in the United States. The public in the United States is very skeptical of what we call "tobacco science", and the chemical industry is trying to do exactly the same thing and find people who will stand up in conferences like this and misrepresent information.
This is leading to tremendous skepticism and reaction in the United States where people are saying, "We will not except this type of behavior from industry. We want independent studies not controlled by the chemical industries to be conducted, and only independent studies will be accepted." Any studies done by the chemical industry are going to be assumed to be tainted by the fact that there is so much money involved.
Somebody asked me recently, 'How could you expect Dow Chemical or General Electric or Exxon, that between them probably make more than 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?'
Given those facts, though, and the scale of the economic problem and the threat to corporate structures and profit flows, the opposition will be staggering. And you are just depending on individual university laboratories and academic freedom to generate enough truth to fend them off?
VS: This is an extremely serious problem. At the moment the answer to your question is yes, because there is very little money available to do this type of work. One of the problems is that there are people in the government hierarchies everywhere who are resistant to allowing their agencies to really focus on this problem.
Everybody is aware of what we call the "revolving door", where people move from government into industry and back into government. The greatest examples of this have been in the Energy Department where people move back and forth between the nuclear industry and the regulating body that regulates them. This also occurs in the drug industry. This is a very serious problem.
There is not a strong desire every place to have these questions answered. We have estimated that it is possible that bisphenol A generates a million dollars an hour in income for the chemical industry and they want to buy time. They know that eventually this is a chemical that will not be in commerce, but every hour that it is, they make a million dollars, and so it is a holding action. And they just keep drawing different lines in the sand and hold on for as long as possible. And this is something that is really scary from my perspective, because in the meantime not only is everybody being exposed to this chemical, we are disposing of it without thought to its toxic effects.
Back in the nineteen fifties, sixties and seventies, flame retarding material and insulating material containing PCBs were thrown away in the landfill. It is estimated that only five percent of the total PCBs have actually leached into the waters, because it migrates very slowly through soil. That is already enough to see a relationship between PCB levels in fish, the eating of fish, and a drop in intelligence in the babies produced by mothers who ate fish from the Great Lakes of the United States.
We are throwing away two billion pounds of bisphenol A-containing products a year. Two billion pounds, into landfills. It is already being detected in drinking water. As it degrades over time -- we are told these plastics don't break down. That is nonsense. Everything breaks down. And they are releasing these endocrine disrupting chemicals, and they will be for the rest of time. When you think about billions and billions of pounds of these plastic products in landfills all over the world -- because they are just being thrown everywhere, floating in the oceans and everything -- we are going to have them releasing these chemicals into our water forever, and they are going to be in all life forms, and then there will never be anything we can do about it. The disposal issue is an incredibly serious aspect of endocrine disruption.
So as you are pursuing the science and trying to spread the word about these chemicals, what kind of help are you getting from the NGOs to fend of these big corporate bodies?
VS: This is something that has been very interesting. There have been some very successful actions taken by non-governmental organizations -- the National Environmental Trust, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and many other organizations that might not be as well known but are very active in doing this. They are coordinating their efforts and recently the United States managed to get toy manufacturers to remove what is clearly a dangerous chemical, DINP, which is the plasticizer used in the little toys that babies suck on and teething rings that babies stick in their mouths and release this chemical. Essentially they are sucking this chemical out of these plastic polyvinyl products. Now that chemical has been voluntarily removed by all manufacturers, and that was due to NGO action and pressure on the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the United States. Without that pressure this would not have happened. In fact it is the combination of independent science and the NGOs and concerned members of the legislature that is leading to a gradual change here.
But here you are talking about individual consumer end-users, parents, mothers. What happens when both the producers and end-users are corporate? I mean, when you have petro-chemical and agro-chemical firms feeding directly into big agro-businesses, well, you are not likely to get the same kind of concern or response.
VS: It is very interesting. There is now accumulating information that farmers using pesticides have lower fertility. This is based on work done in Minnesota and other places. Not only that, they're not producing male babies. That gets people's attention. The data on this are really quite interesting, quite shocking.
There are pesticides in use today that are damaging the testes of males, and they are reducing the sexual ability of men. Not only are they reducing the ability to reproduce, but the incidence of abnormal sperm is going up. A lot of people say, "Who cares? We have too many people, so this is great if sperm count is declining." But it isn't just that sperm counts are declining, the proportion of abnormal sperm being produced is astronomically 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.
It was just reported that deformities of the reproductive organs, visible at birth, have doubled in the United States in the last twenty years, and that is across the entire United States, based on information from every hospital provided to the government Center for Disease Control, because they publish this. So there is real concern that this is a direct consequence of these chemicals, and damage is now being seen in the absolute pathology of people's babies. 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.
This is the downside of the chemical revolution. Chemicals have been a tremendous boon to mankind in many ways, but there is a real price that we are paying right now for some of these chemicals. We need to identify the ones that are most hazardous, and we need to get rid of them. And we are trying to start with the persistent organic pollutants. The United Nations Environmental Program, UNEP, is leading the fight to remove twelve of the worst persistent organic pollutants. And that is just a start, you know, to at least to get rid of the ones that, once used, will still be here a hundred years from now. Let's get rid of them right now! And then we move to the next phase, and take the next set of very high volume but maybe less persistent chemicals, and then focus on them. It is going to be slow. It is not going to be easy. It is going to be very painful, and there is going to be a lot of reaction from industry, but it will happen. I mean, it is inevitable. It is just it won't be easy.
Unbelievably eloquent, sir, thank you very much.