Recent Writings & Interviews
TIMEBOMBING THE BIOSPHERE
- Environmental Hormones Finalize the Meaning of Deadline
by Rita Dixit-Kubiak
Kyoto Journal, #42, Spring, 2000
Over centuries, Eastern sages and Western scientists have come to the convergent conclusion that our planet does not merely support life, in every meaningful sense the Earth Herself is alive. She embodies a vast living system linking the soil, seas, atmosphere and all Her teeming creatures in ancient compulsory symbiosis. Whatever is done to the least of these redounds upon Her and humanity too. And what corporate chemistry is doing of late promises morbid consequences for our neighboring species, struggling sperm, and soon biologically unbearable selves.
The Earth's circulatory system is not simply a hydrologic cycle of seas and clouds and rain. It also includes the incessant bio-chemical flux that distributes nutrients to all living beings. Into this ancient cauldron, commercial science has now introduced billions of tons of hitherto unknown chemical compounds. Each year industries produce nearly a thousand new substances to fuel, feed or lubricate "modern human life," and tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals now circulate in the global marketplace. These compounds are not only omnipresent in our homes, food and natural environment, they diffuse into almost every living tissue.
Dissolved in the soil, water and air, synthetic chemicals find their way into the bodies of single-celled creatures like protozoa and phytoplankton and are passed up the food chain into worms, insects, fish, birds, reptiles, wild and domestic beasts including our mammalian selves. As these compounds transit from one living organism to another they bio-accumulate exponentially in the bodies of the largest predators. While all this dining is done locally, the diffusion is global. Kyoto plant pathologist Noriyo Ishida observes, "Many of these synthetic compounds are persistent -- they do not biodegrade. Essentially once you introduce such chemicals into the environment anywhere, you give them a free ticket to travel the earth." One surprising destination is animal bodies in seemingly remote and pristine wilderness areas. Scientists find that even the polar bears and Inuit Indians living in the Arctic circle are grossly contaminated with DDT, PCBs and other sophisticated pollutants. In other words, all species on earth are now exposed to synthetic toxins from the very moment of conception.
It's not that we haven't been warned. Ever since publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, the public has been aware of the toxicity and carcinogenic potential of synthetic pesticides. Later in the '60s we were repeatedly exposed to industrial chemical pollution scandals that caused horrific human and animal deformities. Since the '70s medical journalists have highlighted the parallel trajectories of Japanese/Western synthetic chemical usage and the rising incidence of chronic diseases and most types of cancers, a trend now being replicated in the developing nations of the South.
Perhaps the most dismaying fact is how poorly this spreading awareness has correlated with meaningful reform. Silent Spring did alarm millions in its day and helped initiate America's first broad-based environmental movements. These organizations in turn forged the political consensus for establishing governmental agencies to oversee environmental issues. However over the last three decades these "watchdog" bureaucracies have done little to either focus public attention on the clear and present dangers of our promiscuous use of synthetic chemicals or even generate critical research on their effects. America's Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has overall responsibility for ambient pollutants in the US and evaluation of the 60,000 synthetic chemicals currently in use. Yet as the U.S. National Wildlife Federation decried in the '80s, although the EPA had itself announced that nearly 10,000 of these compounds likely "pose unreasonable risk to human health and the environment," it only proposed testing regimes for 463. The US Congress intervened in 1988 and ordered the EPA to re-evaluate at least 620 active pesticide ingredients within 10 years. As of 1993, the agency had reviewed only 29 and the program has stuttered into limbo. Japan has been equally lax and had vetted less than 500 suspect chemicals as of the mid-nineties ['90s]. Similarly, though apprised of dioxin dangers as early as 1980, the government did not even begin surveying contamination in the population or environment until 1997.
Coalitions of cancer victims and patients suffering other degenerative diseases have formed throughout the West, but their main demands are for more research on their specific ills and better subsidized health care. The force of this type of concern has helped to rapidly expand medical revenues and government health budgets, but [has] done little to constrict the industrial outpouring of problematic chemicals.
Indeed a bizarre symbiosis has now arisen between our medical bodies and bio-toxin manufacturers wherein both profit equally from the ubiquity of synthetic plagues. Today each of us carries traces of hundreds of man-made substances that did not even exist in our great-grandparents' day. This rich new broth of internalized compounds now makes it nearly impossible to pinpoint causal relationships between certain chemicals and subsequent disease. This complexity effectively shields chemical corporations and governments from legal responsibility since they can (and incessantly do) declare "there is no conclusive evidence that chemical A is the sole or specific cause of malady B." Thus as the medical firms profit from escalating disease rates, chemical companies continue business as usual protected by the epidemiological fog. In tandem, this creates such a festive GNP boosting party, it is perhaps little wonder that wet-blanket caution and orphaned prophylactic legislation are repeatedly turned away at the door.
Such was the bleak, bullish backdrop when Theo Colburn, John Myers and Dianne Dumanoski unveiled Our Stolen Future in 1996. This somber work, described by Business Week as the "biggest scientific and public relations bombshell to hit the chemical industry since Silent Spring," introduced a new, "possibly catastrophic technological danger" from artificial endocrine disruption. The book meticulously collates research findings from wildlife, lab animals and isolated human populations to show that many of our chlorinated plastics, organo-chlorines, dioxins, and other synthetic molecules interdict or garble the body's most crucial hormonal communications. This varied class of substances is now collectively called environmental endocrine disruptors or simply "environmental hormones", as they are known in Japan. Although they include many of our familiar synthetic toxins and carcinogens, they present an entirely new set of dangers to humans and other species.
Under normal conditions, a hormone molecule will search out and bind to a dedicated receptor in a cell and activate genes in the cell nucleus to elicit a needed biological response. Endocrine disruptors, however, mimic particular hormones and either trigger their receptors randomly or lock them up completely, blocking the natural hormone's access. These chemicals do not simply cause specific illnesses, they actively interfere with overall endocrine function and thus affect the entire course of development. As Stolen Future co-author Myers explains, "development is not a process that you can reverse. Endocrine disruptors can cause permanent changes. Depending upon the nature of the chemical and the timing of its delivery, endocrine disruptors can have an impact on intelligence and behavior, on reproductive capacity, and the ability to resist disease. In shorthand, they can make you sick, sterile and stupid."
Scientists have already identified 70 different chemicals or chemical families that can disrupt hormone action. About half of them are persistent compounds that either endure in the food web or leach directly into foods from plasticized containers, and then accumulate in animal/human body fat. Women pass these contaminants through their placentas and breast milk to their unborn or nursing children and unwittingly sabotage their development. Recent studies show that even the most minute amount of these substances (i.e. a few parts per trillion) in a mother's blood can interfere with the chemical messaging system of their unborn infants during critical growth periods. The results downstream are becoming increasingly apparent.
In a 1998 survey, Kyoto University biologist Dr. Chisato Mori discovered diminished sperm production, incomplete masculinization of male genitalia, lowered testes weight, and accelerated puberty in both males and females. Other research in Europe and the US on the effects of these molecules has also found a significant drop in sperm counts, male birth rates and children's IQs in contaminated areas as well as an escalating incidence of birth defects, breast cancer and genital deformities/dysfunctions.
The dramatic sexual symptoms reflect the fact that most known endocrine disruptors mimic estrogenic female hormones and thus have especially grave consequences for masculine development. Indeed endocrine disruption was arguably first discovered by researchers investigating the useless shriveled penises of Florida alligators and male-deprived "lesbian" sea bird nesting in areas exposed to heavy pesticide runoff. The sexual implications are particularly worrisome in Japan where the many soy foods in the diet already give the population an extremely high background level of estrogenic molecules.
The chemical industry is not only shaken by the unprecedented pathological (and hence legal/financial) implications of endocrine disruption studies, it is absolutely thunderstruck by the concentrations involved. Safety testing of all our drugs and synthetic compounds (when conducted at all) is based on the so-called maximum safe dose paradigm of traditional toxicology. At what concentration if any does a chemical become physiologically toxic or carcinogenic? Scientists measure that level in lab animals and then decide what percentage of that dose should be safe and permissible. The intuitive reasoning is that the higher the concentration, the more severe the reaction; and conversely, if it takes a 100 milligrams of a substance to provoke toxic morbidity, one milligram or even ten could be considered quite safe. Endocrine disruptors, however, appear to totally defy this model and do the most harm in extremely small doses. Hormone specialist Frederick Vom Saal, who pioneered the field of "low dose" testing, explains why traditional testing regimes are now obsolete.
"They are based on the assumption that you can test massive amounts of these chemicals in animals and then predict the effects of the very low doses that we are exposed to. That is a false model. You cannot anticipate a low dose effect from a very high dose effect. Anybody who is trained in endocrinology or neurobiology knows that doesn't work for chemicals that communicate between cells like hormones or neurotransmitters, because high doses shut down the response system. Every doctor knows that and uses it clinically (for example, contraceptive pills which boost estrogen levels to stop ovulation). So you actually block responses at high doses while low doses stimulate response. That is an absolutely known fact...
"The chemical industry is fighting low dose testing while telling you that low doses are safe. They can't have it both ways. My response to them is prove it. Every time I do a low dose experiment with lab animals, I show that these chemicals are dangerous... We see decline in sperm count in male offspring, we see damaged prostates. The entire reproductive system, every reproductive organ is abnormal, every single one."
Vom Saal's team worked on the ubiquitous and estrogenic plastic additive bisphenol A (used in literally thousands of products including the lining of most food and soft drink cans), testing with quantities 20,000 times lower than the currently approved threshold level. The implications are almost unimaginably explosive and call into question forty years of drug/chemical testing and safety standards.
Dawn Forsythe, former pesticide lobbyist for Sandoz Agro Inc. [now Novartis AG] and head of the pesticide industry's first committee on endocrine disruption, explains the corporate perspective and why she resigned in disgust.
"All the testing that has been developed since 1960 is based on the dose-response: 'the dose makes the poison'. They've been assuming that people have to receive massive doses (before diseases occur). Our Stolen Future is saying that since 1960, they've been testing their pesticides wrong... that a small amount, at the right time, can cause an effect. It destroys their scientific basis for testing. And if they don't have a scientific basis for testing, then those products are vulnerable on the market... Entire companies could fail if one of their major products is an endocrine disruptor. Again, it comes down to the money: what will it mean to their profits? I was never involved in a discussion on what it meant to their daughters, or what it meant to their grandchildren."
The economics are admittedly staggering. By the mid-'90s, the U.S. Chlorine Chemical Council proudly proclaimed that chlorinated synthetic chemicals and products made from them now constituted 45% of the entire world GNP.
In Vom Saal's words: "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?"
Forsythe admits this is unlikely indeed. "You don't want to have to report anything bad about your own product. So, you don't look for it. You don't test for it. You don't want to know any adverse effects. If you don't look, you don't know."
While ignorance may offer corporate bliss, there are sensational hints it may be hard to maintain. At the 1998 International Congress on Environmental Endocrine Disruptors, Dr. Jin Yoshimura and his colleagues at Shizuoka University's Population Biology Center presented a dire computer model of societies exposed to synthetic hormone contamination. Referring to worldwide data on population trends, falling sperm counts and synthetic chemical diffusion, they project precipitous birthrate declines in the next 20 to 40 years in Japan and the industrialized West. For Japan they predict a zero birth rate by the year 2050 leading to virtual extinction of the Japanese people by the middle of the following century. Even if Japan were to immediately ban the manufacture of all known hormone disruptors, Yoshimura fears his nation is teetering on the brink because of what he calls the "triple delay factor," i.e. the long term bio-accumulation of chemicals in the food chain, the current fetal testicular damage that will affect sperm counts for decades to come, and the years it will require to wean society from chemical dependency.
When serious scientists go public with such fears, we are clearly in an unprecedentedly high stakes game, and for once the clock is not on our side. While our resourceful race will doubtless soon respond with a flurry of new diet books, purification devices, testosterone supplements and other ingenious high tech band-aids, our fellow species and the poor will remain at risk and the larger question unanswered. How much longer can we tolerate the existence of vast predatory corporations that chronically threaten the health of our children and biospheric brethren?
Their monstrous scale and primitive economic appetites have estranged these opaque entities from the life of the Earth and the tragic repercussions of their greed. To finally defuse this growing crisis and clear their molecular mines from our evolutionary path, why don't we simply shrink them down to far smaller bodies rooted in their communities, responsive to the environment and accountable to all their members. It would seem to make sense. It would be about time.
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Kennebunkport resident, Ms. Dixit-Kubiak is an independent health/environment researcher, yoga teacher, shiatsu therapist, and program coordinator for Big Medicine's Eco-Holistic Health Exchanges. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.