IN 1994, INDUSTRY RELEASED MORE THAN 1.1 BILLION POUNDS OF TOXINS LINKED TO HUMAN REPRODUCTIVE DISORDERS. ONLY 1 PERCENT OF THE 70,000 DIFFERENT SYNTHETIC CHEMICALS AND METALS IN COMMERCIAL USE IS MONITORED. DESPITE GRAVE PUBLIC HEALTH THREATS, INDUSTRY IS FIGHTING TO KEEP POLLUTING AND KEEP THE PUBLIC IN THE DARK.
by Pratap Chatterjee
|Polar bears in the Arctic circle and albatrosses in the middle of the Pacific were the last creatures that scientists expected to be threatened by synthetic chemicals. But the pristine wilderness and the pure ocean vastness are as extinct as the dodo and just as much casualties of human activity. When the albatross population suffered a 3 percent drop in reproduction rates over the last few years, New Zealand researchers discovered abnormally high levels of synthetic chemicals in the birds' bodies. When polar bear reproduction dropped by more than half, Norwegian researchers documented levels of toxic chemicals in the animals that are 3 billion times higher than in the cold waters near which they live.||The recently published book, Our Stolen Future, brings together mounting scientific evidence that thousands of synthetic chemicals in common use are accumulating all along the food chain and are turning up everywhere from remote virgin forest to supermarket shelf. (See p. 17.) If the authors are right, a group of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors and hormone mimickers are undermining the health and genetic viability of hundreds of species, including humans. And because the implicated chemicals including PCBs, chlorine, atrazine, DDT, and various plastics used to manufacture five gallon water containers and approximately half the canned goods in this country are so widely used in||
agriculture and industry, the financial vitality and
survival of many corporations is also at stake. Not
surprisingly, then, in addition to calls for further
investigation and research, the storm of controversy around
the new studies implicating these chemicals has also
sparked a counterattack funded and promoted by the
corporations that would be affected by regulation or a ban.
MUGGING THE MESSENGERS
They mug the messengers or
impersonate them. They jam signals. They scramble
messages," write the authors of Our Stolen Future.For
example: "Imagine what would happen if somebody
disrupted communications during the construction of a large
building so the plumbers did not get the message to install
the pipes in half the bathrooms before the carpenters closed
Now imagine that the chemicals that affect communications in the endocrine system are everywhere "in the finest caviar, in penguins in Antarctica, in the bluefin tuna served at a sushi bar in Tokyo,
in the monsoon rains that fall on
Calcutta, in the milk of a nursing mother in France, in the
blubber of a sperm whale cruising the South Pacific."
Throw in a couple more alarming facts. Billions of pounds of
these chemicals are pumped annually into the air, land, and
water, but the amount required to disrupt reproduction
cycles could be as low as one part in a trillion equivalent
to just one drop of liquid in the cars of a six-mile-long cargo
high in the food chain. The reason is two-fold: First,
the chemicals are "persistent," meaning they do not break
down, and second, they are stored permanently in body fat so
that when a larger animal eats smaller animals, the
predator incorporates the pollutants of its prey.
Finally, perhaps the most devastating news of all is that some of the chemicals with weak endocrine disrupting effects on their own become far more dangerous when two or more of them are found together. Research conducted by two scientists from Tulane University in Louisiana on four pesticides (chlordane,
dieldrin, endosulfan, and toxaphene)
and several different kinds of PCBs showed that two or
more such chemicals in combination could be as much as
1,600 times as powerful as the individual chemicals alone.
over nature may be
inadvertently undermining their own ability to reproduce or
to learn and think," warns Our Stolen Future co-author Theo
Colburn. Exposure to estrogen mimicking or endocrine
disrupting chemicals such as dioxin may not kill, but may,
notes an EPA report, lead to "complex and severe effects
including cancer, feminization of males and reduced sperm
counts, endometriosis and reproductive impairment in
females, birth defects, impaired intellectual development in
children, and impaired immune defense against infectious
These chemicals could also
be a significant factor in the
rapid disappearance of many species around the world, such
as the golden toad in Costa Rica, panthers in the Florida
Everglades, otters in England, and dolphins off the coast of
Turkey. For example, after Tower Chemical spilled large
quantities of dicofol, a pesticide closely related to DDT, into
Lake Apopka in the early 1980s, alligators started appearing
with penises so shrunken they could not reproduce.
For fairly obvious reasons, though, the area which has galvanized the scientific community and the media is the link between these chemicals and a well-documented and dramatic drop in human
sperm count around the world.
Some 61 studies collected by Danish researchers,have shown
that sperm counts in a number of European countries have
fallen by half in the last 30 years, while those in rapidly
industrializing countries in East Asia are dropping fast.6
DES, (diethylstilbestrol) provided one of the first confirmed examples of how these chemicals can affect not only those who are directly exposed, but also future generations. In the late 1950s, and '60s this estrogen mimicker was prescribed to millions of women for a variety of problems. Grant Chemicals, one of the manufacturers,
claimed that DES
produced "bigger and stronger babies," while doctors handed
it out to prevent miscarriages, suppress milk production, and
as a "morning-after" contraceptive. It was not until the 1970s
that researchers discovered that the drug dramatically
increases chances of clear-cell cancer and severe damage to
the reproductive tract that can result in ectopic pregnancies.
(Pregnancies that develop in the fallopian tubes as opposed to the uterus can cause ruptures leading to severe bleeding and sometimes death.) DES is now suspected of having affected male offspring, and of possibly causing brain problems in children of both genders.
INDUSTRY FIGHTS BACK|
As they did when faced with evidence of the dangers of DES, tobacco, global warming, nuclear waste, and pesticides, industry leaders have denied that there are any problems, and mounted PR campaigns.Faced with a growing body of evidence on the impact of chemicals on the endocrine system, they have turned to industry-sponsored groups and scientists to disprove the studies available to potential litigants and quoted by environmental groups pushing for regulation.
One industry scientist with a long history of producing research that helped establish the safety of his employer's products was Bill Gaffey,
by the right
wing Hudson Institute,
this 1995 volume includes
such snappy chapter titles as:
"Preventing Cancer with Pesticides,"
"The Empty Threat of DDT,""There's A Lot
Less Hunger Than We've Been Told," and
"Drink Up, The Water's Fine."
|a mathematician who retired in 1989 as director of epidemiology for Monsanto Corp. Gaffey published studies in 1980, a year after he started working for the chemical giant, to show that there was no evidence of unusual cancers among workers exposed to dioxin at a Monsanto plant in Nitro, West Virginia. The plant manufactured Agent Orange for chemical warfare in Vietnam. The study was important to Monsanto because it was facing hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of dollars in lawsuits by tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans and by former Monsanto workers, all claiming they had been harmed by exposure to dioxin-laden Agent Orange.||
Peter Montague, editor of Rachel's Environment and Health
Weekly, charges that the Gaffey study gave the Veterans
Administration the "evidence" it wanted to justify denying
medical benefits to the Agent Orange vets. Finally, the
research allowed the EPA "to set generous limits on dioxin
exposures for the American public, thus providing minimal
regulation for politically powerful industries such as paper,
oil, and chemicals," says Montague.
Gaffey's role may have gone beyond sycophant science.
Lawyers involved in a 1984 worker lawsuit against
Monsanto discovered that Gaffey had listed four workers as
"unexposed" to dioxin when the same four workers had been
classified as "exposed" to dioxin in a previous Monsanto
study. Gaffey's co-author, who had worked on both studies,
confirmed that the data had been cooked. Six years later the
EPA acknowledged that the study was fraudulent and found
that dioxin was a probable carcinogen.
Gaffey's role in countering the studies cited by cancer victims and environmental groups has been taken up by others.
Among the most quoted scientists on this subject is Stephen
H. Safe of Texas A&M University, who has published papers
contending that the contribution of synthetic chemicals to
disruption of endocrine systems is so "minuscule" that it
amounts to less than one-thousandth of one percent of the
amount of naturally occurring chemicals that have the same
effect. He now tells reporters that the fears of
environmentalists could be dangerous to the economy. "You
could be talking about thousands of jobs and billions of
dollars to get rid of some of these chemicals, all because of
something that we have no compelling reason to believe is
really a threat."
Safe, whose work is partly funded
by the Chemical
Manufacturers Association, is not the only industry-backed
scientist to publish studies that dismiss the impact of
endocrine-disrupting chemicals on human health. Last year,
researchers from Dow Chemical and Shell Oil showed that
the use of more complex statistical models could generate the
conclusion that human sperm counts have been increasing,
not decreasing, during the past 20 years.
These industry-funded studies have been given a major boost by Gina Kolata, a New York Times reporter, who used studies by Safe and others as background material for three
major articles that throw cold water on Our Stolen Future.
Kolata ran into trouble, however, when she quoted several
scientists as skeptical of the book when the scientists
themselves did not feel that way: "(E)ven in quoting
these contrarian scientists, Ms. Kolata deceives and
misleads her readers by selectively distorting their views,"
charged Montague. When the New York Times did not
publish protest letters from the misrepresented scientists,
they bought advertising space to set the record straight.
Meanwhile, industry is actively lobbying to redirect the debate. In January 1991, chief executives of four major US paper companies John A. Georges of International
|Paper, T. Marshall Hahn, Jr. of Georgia-Pacific, Furman C. Moseley of Simpson Paper, and Andrew C. Sigler of Champion International went to see William Reilly, then head of EPA, to convince him to re-assess the impact of dioxin. A memo from the four to Reilly after the meeting described their satisfaction: "We were encouraged by what we perceived as your willingness to move expeditiously to re-examine the potency of dioxin and chloroform in light of the important new information that has been submitted with respect to those chemicals" which indicated the "prevailing view that low-level dioxin exposures do not pose a serious health threat."||
The EPA study, however, backfired on industry. In 1994,
agency scientists concluded that dioxin probably causes
cancer in wildlife and humans; harms the immune and
reproductive systems in fish, birds, and mammals (including
humans); and concluded that "there is no safe level of dioxin
exposure and that any dose no matter how low can result in
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Coalition put together by the American
Crop Protection Association, the Chemical Manufacturers
Association, and the Society of Plastics Industry recently
released a research agenda. It includes studies on breast
cancer, sperm quality, and endometriosis in humans;
estrogen effects in wildlife; a dioxin mechanistic study;
animal and aquatic toxicology studies; environmental
chemistry; testing methods; exposure studies; and risk
assessment. According to Ron Miller of Dow Chemical
Corp., chair of the EIC, the group has a million dollars in
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