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The hit film The Blair Witch Project took eight days to film, had three actors, cost $35,000, and did exactly what it was supposed to: make a box-office fortune while scaring the pants off viewers.
Contrast that with the new report by the nation’s most respected body of health science researchers, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), on what is probably the most volatile and terrifying environmental issue of our day: chemicals that can harm the body’s hormonal system. It took four years to prepare, had 16 panelists, cost $1 million, and yet too often came to conclusions resembling a Rorschach blot.
That’s a shame, because it was the best opportunity to counter a movement that would have us spend hundreds of billions a year for the privilege of losing some of our useful chemicals and the products they produce, including 95 percent of all U.S. baby bottles, vital drugs, and medical equipment, and the pesticides that help make our food prices the lowest in the world while keeping other nations’ populations from starving.
Nonetheless, the NAS report did contain enough scientific conclusions to box the ears of the endocrine alarmists. Fill in the blanks with the rest of what we’ve learned, and you find that this explosive controversy is a dud for any creature able to read these words.
"Endocrine disrupters," or to use the NAS report’s more accurate term, " hormonally active agents" (HAAs), took their place firmly in America’s collective cranial cavity — the part that generates fear — with the publication of Our Stolen Future in 1996. World Wildlife Fund zoologist Theo Colborn was chief author; his co-authors were Boston Globe reporter Dianne Dumanoski, and J.P. Meyers of the environmentalist W. Alton Jones Foundation. The Jones Foundation, which gives millions each year to groups that support the endocrine disrupter thesis, supported both the writing and promotion of the book.
In the foreword, Vice President Al Gore calls it the next Silent Spring, referring to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book that kicked off the environmentalist campaign against synthetic chemicals. But while Silent Spring (and the environmental movement to date) had focused on cancer, Our Stolen Future was an implicit acknowledgment that the cancer campaign was faltering scientifically and that it was time for a new gig.
If two female seagulls are in love, whom are we to judge?
And what a gig! According to the book’s subtitle alone, our fertility, intelligence, and even survival are threatened by these HAAs. Virtually any real or possible human or animal health problem may be blamed on these chemicals, including cancer, birth defects, falling sperm counts, lesbian seagulls (giving rise to the term "gender benders" for HAAs), and alligators with shrunken members.
Colborn’s warnings are often terrifying. Just a bit too late for Halloween of 1997 she told a convention in San Francisco: "There is overwhelming evidence today that every unborn child will be exposed to man-made chemicals that will prevent them from becoming healthy, whole children."
As to what exposes us to these chemicals, the list is as broad as the spectrum of alleged harms. It includes many pesticides, PVC (vinyl) and other plastics, plastic softeners like phthalates, pharmaceuticals, pipes, paints, tin cans, car interiors, dental sealants, detergents, and cosmetics.
In the past year alone, products containing actual or alleged HAAs have been the focus of major environmentalist group fear fests concerning soft plastic toys, teethers, clear plastic baby bottles, plastic wraps and containers used in cooking, and medical devices such as blood bags and tubing. ABC’s 20/20 and the increasingly politicized Consumer Reports have proved invaluable allies in these efforts.
Yet aside from perhaps a few dozen chemicals, nobody has any idea of how many man-made HAAs there are, much less whether they can cause problems, or what doses would be required to cause them. Even for those few dozen, labeling them HAAs is overly simplistic because their hormonal influence depends on the dose, the type of animal exposed, and other factors. Is a hammer a deadly weapon? Depending on the circumstances, the answer can be either yes or no.
Rachel Carson: Oh, what a tangled web she weaved!
But in the of Colborn’s book and a Tulane University study released in the prestigious journal Science three months later that received massive, unquestioning media coverage (Associated Press: "Study Finds Combined Pesticides Are Incredibly More Dangerous"), Congress ordered the EPA to begin testing upwards of 86,000 different chemicals.
While it was no doubt sheer coincidence that W. Alton Jones provides heavy funding to the Tulane program, no lab could replicate the study and eventually the researchers had to publish a retraction. But Congress didn’t retract its legislation, the media largely ignored the Tulane retraction, and the EPA insisted it wanted to proceed. Nevertheless, the agency has found itself utterly unable to decide on how to do the initial screening, and testing has been delayed indefinitely.
A widespread effort to reduce use of these chemicals, much less outright bans, would be devastating. "Any industry that uses or manufactures synthetic chemicals or depends on them, such as plastics, toy-making, pesticides makers, farmers — all of these will feel tremendous impact," says Endocrine/Estrogen Letter publisher Steve Usdin. " Companies and ultimately consumers will be severely impacted by the campaigns and publicity alone, regardless of any ultimate scientific consensus."
Nobody can put a price tag on all this. But according to a 1993 industry- sponsored study, removing just one class of chemicals that many environmentalists have branded endocrine disrupters (organochlorines) could cost the country $100 billion a year. Removing just one product singled out by environmentalists (bisphenol A) could soon approach $2 billion yearly. Some of these chemicals could be replaced at great expense; many could not currently be replaced at any cost.
Why the sudden onslaught on HAAs? It reflects not so much a change in natural science as in political science. After more than two decades of popularity, the idea that everything man-made is a carcinogen has fallen out of repute, not just with scientists but with the public.
Increasingly people have come to understand that while synthetic chemicals cause cancer in massive-dose rodent tests about half the time, the percentage is similar with natural chemicals. Furthermore, solid evidence has emerged that rodents aren’t simply tiny versions of human beings. Berkeley biologists Lois Gold and Bruce Ames have shown that, a third of the time, substances causing cancer in rats don’t do so in mice, and vice-versa. (See my article, "The Politics of Cancer Testing" The American Spectator, August 1990.)
By 1994, only a fourth of the members of the American Association for Cancer Research believed that human cancer risks can be assessed by the massive-dose testing of rodents. Environmentalists continue to refer to these rodent carcinogens as simply carcinogens, with the clear message that they also cause cancer in humans. But more and more, the public is either suffering cancer-scare fatigue, or simply recognizing the unlikelihood that half of all man-made chemicals might give them cancer.
Perhaps what really killed the cancer panic were National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports, heavily covered by the media, that cancer rates in the U.S., when adjusted for the aging of the population, peaked in 1990. "When the NCI finally said cancer cases are down and so are cancer deaths," says Michael Gough, a scientist with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, "they had to find something." Our Stolen Future gave them that something.
Let’s start with wildlife. You may believe that whatever two seagulls do in the privacy of their bedroom is their own business. But withered willies? Now that sounds serious. University of Florida zoologist Louis Guillette insists that this could not only result in lower reproductive rates among alligators and other animals but could also portend problems for humans. Guillette’s alligators are repeatedly referred to as "sentinels" for human health, the proverbial "canary in the coal mine," albeit with big teeth and bulging eyes. His work is reflected in popular articles like "Havoc in the Hormones" and " Hormone Hell." Many writers, such as the one who penned "Children at Risk," readily extrapolate from gators to guys.
But it may be Guillette’s claims that have the real shortcomings.
First, Lake Apopka, where Guillette’s test subjects were found, is one of the most heavily polluted lakes in Florida, a former dumping ground for a vast variety of chemicals, some of which are believed to be HAAs and others of which are not. It is perhaps the main tenet of toxicology that "the dose makes the poison" and that enough exposure to anything will hurt you, but conversely, at a low enough level it will prove harmless. Further, even those who’ve never gotten closer to an alligator than watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom are aware of major differences between that animal’s physiology and ours, such as the brownish-green color, cold blood, tail, four legs, and long snout. Moreover, despite myriad articles written about Lou Guillette’s alligators with small "penises," their members are actually called "phalluses, " since they aren’t used for urination.
The reader may be wondering, "How do you go about measuring a gator’s phallus?" Wildlife endocrinologist Timothy Gross, a colleague of Guillette’s at the University of Florida who took part in some of Guillette’s testing, told me that when they first began their phallic studies, as a safety precaution Guillette and his colleagues only grabbed the smaller gators. The problem is, smaller gators are immature, and may not have fully grown phalluses. So this "completely messed up the data set," says Gross.
Believe it or not, there is no way other than looking at the genitals to determine what sex a gator is. According to Gross, what Guillette calls undersized phalluses may have been oversized clitorises. There’s just no way of telling.
Guillette’s conclusions were based on such shoddy evidence, Gross says, that Gross insisted his name not be put on the research papers. "It’s speculation rather than solid data and they didn’t put in caveats," he notes. "It doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur, it just means we don’t know for sure."
"Have you told this to any other reporters?" I asked Gross.
"Oh sure," he said. "At least 50." But none bothered to relay it to their readers.
One writer who interviewed Gross for her book and then sliced out his comments was Colborn herself. She also insisted upon labeling alligator organs "penises." For a zoologist, that’s no mere mistake; when your objective is to make animals appear as surrogates for humans, you draw just as little attention to the distinctions as possible.
Poking holes in penile propaganda doesn’t get HAAs off the hook for disturbing wildlife. "I think it’s very clear that endocrine-active chemicals are indeed affecting wildlife," Gross says, naming fish, freshwater turtles, and less-spectacular alligator problems as examples. The NAS report reached the same conclusion. But these are creatures that frequently have a rudimentary physiology, eat the same contaminated food every day, and often have a lifelong exposure to a single polluted area.
Does this alligator "measure up?"
Guillette inadvertently made this point when he told a Florida newspaper, "
The alligator makes a beautiful model. It doesn’t get up and fly away. It doesn’t move to another country for part of its life cycle," he said. " They’re going to stay their whole lives within a mile-and-a-half of where they were born." But that makes the alligator "a beautiful model" for what? How many humans have ever, at any point in history, obtained all their food and drink from within a 1.5-mile radius of their birthplace?
"Today you and I go out and eat beef from God knows where, chicken that is uniform, and fruits, vegetables, and grains from all over the world," points out Gross.
"I’ve never questioned there’s a problem with wildlife," says Dr. Stephen Safe, a Texas A&M toxicologist and NAS panelist. "But I’ll also say that a lot of really contaminated systems are making a comeback. For example, the Great Lakes are really improving." Further, he flatly rejects claims that a " boy is an alligator is a seagull." "If you get an interesting result in a turtle egg or water flea," says Safe, "some people will say ’There but for the grace of God go I.’ But there’s no evidence that any of those compounds, that some groups tout as being horrible endocrine problems for the environment, cause anything in humans."
Perhaps the most spectacular claim in Our Stolen Future is the one alluded to in the title. No sperm, no future. It provided fodder for articles around the world with titles like the New Yorker’s "Silent Sperm," Esquire’s " Downward Motility," and Mother Jones’s "Down for the Count." Time magazine’s science writer declared, "In study after study, sperm counts in men the world over seem to be dropping precipitously." Even before Our Stolen Future’s publication, Greenpeace had popularized the slogan, "You’re half the man your grandfather was."
Colborn focused on the work of Danish scientist Niels Skakkebaek and British researcher Richard Sharpe, who indeed reported they’d found a sharp decline in human sperm production. But they also found this had leveled off in 1970, hardly support for a theory blaming a gradual buildup of chemicals for causing the problem. Skakkebaek himself has said, "It is premature to call for a ban on these or any other chemicals before more research is done. They (environmentalists) are misrepresenting this research."
Again, somehow there just wasn’t space for this comment in Our Stolen Future. Nor did virtually any media outlet report that shortly after Colborn’s book hit the stores, three different studies in the journal Fertility and Sterility indicated there was no decline in sperm counts.
The NAS report concluded, "No analysis to date can prove or disprove a uniform global trend in sperm concentration," because studies purporting to show a decline over time were comparing different regions where data was taken at different times. As such, said the NAS, "one cannot assume an environmental (cause) for the variability observed in human populations."
This is all the more powerful considering that sitting on the NAS panel was probably the world’s top sperm-decline devotee, Shanna Swan of the University of Missouri-Columbia. In late 1997, Swan and two colleagues published a paper essentially claiming that today’s males are a third of the men their grandfathers were. They said the evidence was clear that sperm counts were rapidly dropping in the U.S., and faster yet in Europe. The media trumpeted Swan’s findings. "Sperm Counts Continue to Plunge," exclaimed the Calgary Herald. "Studies Point to a Fearsome Chemical Risk," cried the Toronto Star. It seemed just a matter of time before our sperm counts would fall below zero.
Conversely, reporters generally ignore one of the leading American fertility specialists, Dr. Harry Fisch, director of the Male Reproductive Center at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. Like the earlier sensationalist sperm studies, "The differences (in Swan’s findings) represent geographic differences rather than data over time," he explains. "Before 1970 nearly all the studies were from the New York region, which has higher sperm counts," while the later data represent areas of the country that for whatever reason have lower sperm counts. "Just take out New York City from the analysis and there’s no decline."
As to Swan’s European findings, he notes: "If you evaluate the European data against previous European data, there actually appears to be a slight increase." Instead, she compared Europe to the U. S. Further, says Fisch, "If she had included data published after 1990 — even using her own statistical methodology she would have found no decline." Fisch says the report should have flatly ruled out a sperm count decline, much less one caused by HAAs.
The panel was firmer concerning cancer of the breast or other parts of the body most susceptible to hormone activity. While Colborn discussed it on 27 pages, the NAS found that despite a massive number of studies involving the usual suspects, such as the insecticide DDT and the electrical insulator chemical PCBs, there was no evidence linking these to cancer of the breast or prostate (another cancer commonly associated with synthetic HAAs), or indeed any type of cancer.
It also doesn’t help Colborn’s case that while she devoted seven pages to the alleged increase in U.S. breast cancer cases, NCI data released later on showed that, as with cancer cases as a whole, those of the breast had stopped increasing around 1990.
On the other hand, the NAS report’s section on human fetal abnormalities seems to range from ambiguous to alarming. To be so, it essentially had to ignore the data on Diethylstilbesterol (DES), which 4 million to 5 million women took from the late 1930’s to early 1970’s in hope of preventing miscarriages. Sadly, while it didn’t prevent miscarriages, it did cause birth defects.
Since DES was used for so many decades, by so many women, and at such high levels, and has been studied so thoroughly, it makes the ideal chemical with which to gauge not only what birth defects an HAA can cause, but what it might do directly to the user.
Yet DES received three whole sentences of discussion in a 48-page chapter, plus a bunch of tables stuck on as an appendix. "I was shocked," says Robert Golden, a Potomac, Maryland toxicologist and DES expert. "There is an enormous body of data on bad things DES did and the report practically ignored it, particularly as to how this human data could have been used to help judge if HAAs from the environment might be a problem."
Even the DES appendix to Colborn’s book omits all information about dosage levels. Yet understanding the dose levels and their results, says Golden, could tell us more about how HAAs affect humans than any other body of evidence.
"With DES, there was no standard dose," he says, "and for some reason the lowest doses were prescribed at the Mayo Clinic (in Rochester, New York) and the highest at the University of Chicago. When you look at Mayo (results), there’s nothing coming out of there. Yet out of the University of Chicago, there are all sorts of reproductive problems such as small penises, decreased sperm, abnormal sperm." (There was, however, no decreased fertility even among those with these defects.)
This information, omitted from the NAS report, shows that to have the same risk of birth defects as from DES, a woman would have to consume over a pound of DDT — the known HAA vilified by Rachel Carson — during her pregnancy
Further, said Golden, "They also missed a whole body of literature on women who conceived while on (powerfully estrogenic) birth control pills they kept taking until they realized they were pregnant. Those children had no defects."
The NAS report also gives little attention to the large body of literature on naturally occurring HAAs that we ingest in wheat, potatoes, oats, rye, rice, barley, apples, and cherries. Over 300 plants have been discovered to contain HAAs, thereby "dosing" us at rates vastly higher than anything man-made. According to NAS panel member Safe, the overall hormonal effect of natural chemicals is 40 million times that of manmade ones.
This ewe is hopping mad because she’s discovered she’s been sterilized by a natural endocrine disrupter in clover.
For instance, a clever clover in Australia sterilizes its bitter enemy, the sheep, by literally reshaping the ewe’s sex organs. And throughout history women have successfully used various plants, such as the pomegranate in ancient Greece, as contraceptives.
Environmentalists, including the writers of Our Stolen Future, acknowledge that plant HAAs can cause harm. But Colborn downplays the the effects, in part by noting that "humans have adapted over over millions of years to HAAs in many food plants."
Problem: These plants usually aren’t the ones we most commonly eat today. Soybeans, for example, contain significant levels of two estrogen-like chemicals, including including that which sterilized so many Australian sheep. Soybeans did not become a a significant part of the American diet until after World War II. Today they’re the source of most of our food oil, of which the avergae American consumers about 49 pounds each year. So much for adaptation. Yet despite or even because of soy’s powerful hormone activity it appears to be healthy for us in many ways.
Jim Lamb, a member of the NAS panel and a toxicologist with the environmental consulting form of Blasland, Bouck, and Lee in Reston, Virginia, acknowledges the report’s repeated hedging, data omissions, and endless calls for more research, but calls it encouraging overall. "You never see an NAS report that doesn’t call for more research," he says. "You do see NAS reports that calll for testing and regulatory action, and this doesn’t. That really means something."
But readers or even reporters can hardly be expected to know that. They are more likely to have read Theo Colborn’s craft comment to the New York Times that she was "amazed and delighted" by the panel’s finding, implying that the report supported her book’s position.
Sadly, this is the trend for scientific studies in general, especially those concerning health scares, which seem to hibernate but never die. The result is needlessly prolonging fear and the waste of precious funds and researchers. All this reinforces the "precautionary" princliple of "Ban anything until it is proven safe."
The NAS had the chance to strike against sophistry and panic. What it produced was better than nothing. Yet in its effort to satisfy all of the panelists, it dealt human hormone hysteria merely a bruising roundhouse. Given the available science, it should have dealt a death blow.