T. Colborn, D. Dumanoski & J.P. Myers' Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival?-A Scientific Detective Story, Dutton, New York, 1996. 306 pp. biblio. Index, Hard cover, $24.95.
What do Florida alligators with tiny penises, same-sexed pairs of herring gulls, infertile polar bears and humans with diminished sperms counts have in common? Zoologist Theodora Colborn's fascinating nonfiction mystery sets out to find some connections to never-before-seen biological anomalies.
Far less of a mystery than Colborn's journey of discovery of the link between organochlorine (environmental hormones) and the strange variety of biological reactions was the reaction of industry to her book. The documentation that synthetic chemicals may be interfering with human hormones that regulate behavior and health in wildlife and humans leading to aberrant sexual development, birth defects, autoimmune disturbances, cancers and a staggering decrease in human sperm counts has left industry scrambling for rebuttals.
1992 research . . . noted human sperm abnormalities-a drop in the sperm count, and a three-fold increase in testicular cancer from 1940 to 1980.
In March 1996, New York Times writer Gina Kolata reviewed Colborn's newly released book. Ms. Kolata mentions that several biologists and toxicologists believe the book is well-researched and that Colborn's work needs to be regarded seriously. Ms. Kolata never mentions their names nor does she directly quote them. Instead she writes about four specific scientists who are supposedly critical of the work. One wonders if these are serious criticisms or if they are quoted out of context because two of those quoted have been supportive of Colborn's work in the past.
Before the book was even published, it was reported in The Wall Street Journal that Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, had worked hard to secure a copy of Colborn's book to begin work on a refutation. When one looks at the affected industriesópesticides, food, agriculture, plastics, pulp and paper and PVC products-it is no mystery that there has been and will continue to be controversy and attempts to discredit Colborn's work. Rachel Carson was treated in a similar manner when she published Silent Spring.
Colborn initially draws the reader in with a series of animal studies from around the world. Gulls from Southern California were observed nesting in same sex pairs. Only 18% of alligator eggs which were laid in Lake Apopka, Florida actually hatched. Upon closer inspection researchers discovered that 60% of the males had very small penises. In 1988 an estimated 40% of a seal population in Northern Europe died of a strange virus which suppressed the autoimmune system and made the seals susceptible to a distemper-like virus. Colborn felt that there must be a linkóbut what? Most frightening was the 1992 research done by Niels Skakkeback from the University of Copenhagen who noted human sperm abnormalitiesóa drop in the sperm count, and a three-fold increase in testicular cancer from 1940 to 1980.
Colborn became interested in the work done by veteran researchers for the Canadian Wildlife Service, Mike Gilbertson and Glen Fox, who had found nests with two times the number of eggs normally found in gull colonies in highly polluted areas of Lakes Ontario and Michigan. Fox had collected and preserved 17 near-term embryos and newly hatched chicks. A few years later he encountered Michael Fry, a wildlife toxicologist who was also looking for explanation as to how DDT and other synthetic chemicals disrupted the sexual development of birds after hearing reports of nests with female pairs found in gull colonies in Southern California. Through further study and experimentation, including the injection of non-contaminated eggs with small amounts of DDT and DDE, signs were pointing to hormone disruption by synthetic chemicals as they worked their way up the food chain.
tiny amounts of hormones introduced during critical periods of fetal development could dramatically alter physical and behavioral aspects of adults.
Colborn's investigation then shifted its focus to diethyestilbestrol (DES), a man-made estrogen which was touted as a wonder drug and given to women for a wide variety of "female" ailments during the 1950s and 1960s. DES was often prescribed during pregnancy to reduce the risk of miscarriage. It proved to be a massive human experiment with a tragic outcome. Vaginal and ovarian cancers began occurring among the young adult offspring of these DES moms. This was the first experience that taught scientists that a man-made chemical could be mistaken by the human body for a hormone.
A related piece of research which eventually landed on Colborn's desk was from the biologist Fredrick vom Saal of the University of Missouri. Vom Saal noted a variance in mice behavior that was difficult to explain because the mouse population was genetically so similar. Some female mice were noted to be very aggressive while some male mice were noted to be unusually submissive. Vom Saal began studying womb configurations of mice pups by taking the pups through Cesarean section and noting how womb mates were placed in vitro. He found that womb mates did affect one another. A female mouse who, as an embryo, grew between two male womb mates developed into a female mouse who was more aggressive than other female litter mates and less attractive to male mice. Exposure to the female hormone estrogen in vitro increased the sex drive of adult male mice. The conclusion of vom Saals' research was that tiny amounts of hormones introduced during critical periods of fetal development could dramatically alter physical and behavioral aspects of adults.
One of Colborn's major concerns is that continuing hormone disruption may interfere with our ability to continue as a species. The synthetic agents that act as hormone mimickers include dioxin, PCB's, DDT and other pesticides. These agents all have one thing in commonóchlorine. Currently it is up to the consumer/citizen to prove that a product is dangerous. This is wrong. Clearly, industry needs to take responsibility for what has been created and Colborn feels that industry must be made accountable. The burden of proof of product safety must be shifted back to the producer.