Home | Current Issue | Back Issues | sfflier@well.com


November 6, 1997

Better Living Through Chemistry

They might have been stories in the National Enquirer:

Monster Gull Chicks Hatched! Discovery of Deformed Alligators!  Mysterious Mink Decimation! Plague Plagues Dolphins! Two-Headed Sperm Found!

But these items (or rather, more sober renderings of them) appear in the opening pages of a very serious piece of scientific journalism --- Our Stolen Future, by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers (Dutton, 1996; Penguin, 1997). Decidedly news that's fit to print, even though they never made the front pages of the New York Times, these are some of the data that led zoologist Theo Colborn to construct a theory that is terrifying in its implications.

Colborn was assigned by the Washington-based Conservation Foundation in 1987 to evaluate the cleanup of the Great Lakes. The region had turned into an American nightmare in the 1960s and 1970s, its shores stinking of rotting plant matter, its bird populations almost completely vanished, its waters viscous with industrial wastes. Cleveland became the poster city for the entire area in 1969 when its oil-slick Cuyahoga River actually burst into flames. But intensive regulation and sewage treatment in the succeeding decades seemed to have reversed the damage.

Except that oddities kept appearing. Not a high incidence of cancerous growths, as might be expected in a polluted area, but reproductive problems. Among all kinds of wildlife, birth rates were down or babies were born with strange deformities and lived only a short time. Whatever the manifestation, the result was a decline in population.

Perplexed, Colborn searched the world over for other, similar cases and found many, even among polar bears in remote reaches of the Arctic. She came to suspect that the mechanism for sending hormone signals --- which determine a wide variety of factors including fertility and growth --- had been derailed in these animals. But how? By what?

An obvious parallel came to mind. In the three decades after World War II, doctors routinely prescribed the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol, or DES, to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages. Many years later they discovered to their horror that they had in fact been administering a medicine of doom: many of the daughters of these women were either sterile or, even worse, died in their twenties of vaginal cancer. An earlier wonder drug, the tranquilizer thalidomide, had caused easily detected malformations, frequently a lack of arms or legs, but DES concealed its handiwork deep inside the bodies of its victims. In both cases, it was the action of the chemical within the mother's body at just the right (or just the wrong) time in her baby's development that set the program for future damage.

As Theo Colborn waded through the voluminous reports of scientists working on the chemistry of reproduction, she noticed that many substances, including a large number of synthetic chemicals such as DDT, caused similar birth defects. She conjectured that they somehow mimicked natural hormones, so that newly forming cells received garbled or faulty instructions. The fact that only very small amounts of the chemicals were needed to disrupt normal growth explained why so many strange phenomena could emerge in the Great Lakes region after an apparently successful cleanup campaign. People accustomed to searching for minimum "safe" doses of cancer-causing compounds had tended to discount any residual traces in the water and plant life; they had also overlooked the possibility of these compounds being transferred over long periods of time, in increasing concentration, into tissues of animals higher and higher up the food chain.

Our Stolen Future describes a situation far more frightening than anything the tabloids could dream up. It depicts a planet besieged by a seemingly infinite succession of new and unpredictable chemicals. Some may be benign, some pernicious; the effects of some --- like those of DES --- will not become visible for many years. Because they have hormone-like effects, these substances threaten not merely the lives but also the reproduction of the earth's inhabitants. Because they have infiltrated all corners of the globe, no species is safe.

What is the solution? The response of Colborn and her colleagues is astonishingly moderate: Be careful out there. Even if it were possible, an all-encompassing revolutionary approach would be futile. We have only a rudimentary knowledge of how our ecology really works; we have no way of predicting what kinds of chemicals will be developed in the next five or ten or fifty years; even today's life-threatening substances are deeply embedded in our culture and economy. All we can do is proceed with great caution and a firm awareness of the problem.

Other responses were anything but measured. According to Sierra, the Chlorine Chemistry Council mounted an all-out PR onslaught against the book's findings in a frenzy  reminiscent of the attacks by the chemical industry that greeted Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962. The companies represented by the council ---  DuPont, Dow, Oxychem, and Vulcan Chemicals among others --- were willing to spend $150 million a year to calm the public so that they could continue their annual production of  13.3 million tons of chlorine.

Our Stolen Future received sympathetic and thoughtful attention in publications like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle,  and the New York Times, but a few well-placed reviews questioned the authors' science and accused them of a political agenda. Michael A. Kamrin, writing in Scientific American, stated that the book was flawed because, even though it "includes results and interpretations of scientific studies, its goal is to arouse public outrage and change public policy." Roger Bate, in the Wall Street Journal, noted that the book could also have suggested "banning hot baths and tight underpants, which have also been blamed for declining fertility levels, but presumably that wouldn't justify the wholesale indictment of industrial society that the authors seem to be seeking." Ridicule was the primary weapon of choice: a number of writers ignored the book's detailed accounts of gulls with club feet, polar bears with PCB-laced fat, and frogs with eyes in their mouths, and confined their discussion to giggles at the thought of chemicals causing declining sperm counts.

The debate is by no means over. Nevertheless, out of the murk of unresolved issues, two questions have surfaced that demand our immediate attention. Are we going to let business interests manipulate the information we receive, simply because they have superior purchasing power and access to the media? The answer may determine our future as citizens of a democracy. More important, are we going to ignore signs of potential reproductive disaster, simply because we have not yet discovered their cause? The answer may determine our future.


 -- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

Home | Current Issue | Back Issues | sfflier@well.com