Our Stolen Future

Comments about a Book to
Public Relations Executives Working for Corporate Members of the
Chemical Manufacturers Association

J.P. Myers, Ph.D.
Director, W. Alton Jones Foundation
20 March 1996
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Introduction. My wife found out that I was coming to speak with you without wearing a Kevlar vest. She made me promise to point out that in this age of corporate downsizing, one in which chemical companies are probably no less vulnerable to corporate trends than is ATT, that this book is making your work and thus your jobs indispensable. She thought that if we could agree on some common ground and shared self-interest, you might be less likely to shoot.

This is a serious issue. I would hope we might engage in a serious discussion. To date, however, there are signs that at least some of the people on your side of the aisle would rather engage in caricature and exaggeration. I will get to this.

First, I thought it might be helpful to tell you what is in the book. Some significant percentage of the attacks on the book appear not to be constrained by a few common-sense boundaries-like what do we actually say in the book-so that if I can provide you with a brief summary we will at least begin near the same starting gate. Even if we don't take off in the same direction.

But perhaps I should ask. . . how many of you have read the book?

What is the main thesis?

Over the past 30 years, a simple equation has ruled among regulators and the public at large. Toxic chemicals equal cancer. Our preoccupation with cancer has blinded us to other important health effects that are now being linked to man made chemicals that are ubiquitous in the environment.

The central point of Our Stolen Future is that some man-made chemicals interfere with the body's own hormones. These man-made compounds find their way into our bodies through a variety of pathways. They build up over time, often over years. Each of us in this room are carrying several hundred chemicals of different types that were not part of human body chemistry just a few generations ago.

When a woman becomes pregnant, some fraction of her contaminant burden is transferred to the fetus. That is when these man-made compounds appear to cause their damage. They interfere with the hormonal signals directing development and thus disrupt fetal growth. Sometimes the effects are conspicuous, sometimes they are not.

An eminent medical researcher, Dr. Bernard Weiss of the University of Rochester, calls it "silent damage." Some of these chemicals alter sexual development. Some undermine intelligence and behavior. Others make our bodies less resistant to disease. Sometimes the effects don't appear until a child reaches puberty or afterward, even though the exposure took place in the womb.

These chemicals pose the greatest hazard in the earliest phases of life because hormones orchestrate development. For a fetus to grow up according to its genetic blueprint, the right hormone message has to arrive at the right place in the right amount at the right time.

Think of the fetus in the womb. It's like a sponge waiting for natural chemical signals from its own genes and from its mother. These signals tell it how to grow. They have an immense impact on what it will become. They work their magic at extraordinarily low dosages. . . with observable impacts down to concentrations as low as parts per trillion. That's one thousandth of a part per billion and one millionth of a part per million.

The emerging science we present in our book is about what happens when something interferes with the delivery of that message. A signal doesn't arrive because it is blocked. One that was small becomes large. One that shouldn't have been there at all shows up nonetheless.

Certain man-made chemicals can do that. Of this science is certain. Think of it this way. Imagine you're driving down the road getting directions as you go through your cellular phone. You arrive at a fork. It's the Dulles toll-road or 495. Just as you have to make your turn, a burst of static arrives. What sounded like right was supposed to be left. You wind up on the wrong road. When a hormone disrupter interferes with the fetal message system, that baby may head down the wrong road for life.

The first several chapters of the book examine a chain of evidence that extends from wildlife populations to laboratory experiments to the epidemiology of exposed groups of people. There's not a lot in these sections that is controversial. We are working from a data base of several thousand scientific publications. Over 70 scientists have participated directly in deliberations that have produced a series of consensus statements about the nature of the problem. This is not fringe science.

7 basic points.

  1. There are demonstrable effects in wild animal populations.
  2. There are reproducible effects at low exposure levels, very low exposures, in the lab. This science does not rest on extrapolating high dose curves down to the low end of exposure. And lab work has led to a good understanding of many of the mechanisms involved-we know much more about the science of hormones and hormone disruption than of factors leading to cancer.
  3. It's not just estrogens. While the first two decades of this work focused largely on man-made chemicals capable of mimicking estrogen, within the last five years we've seen that expand to include estrogen blockers, androgen blockers and compounds that interfere with thyroid. This last one is especially important because thyroid hormone is key to proper brain development.
  4. Work with the best known of the endocrine disrupters, particularly diethylstilbestrol, or DES, led to great scientific confidence about the predictive value of lab animal studies for anticipating human impacts.
  5. The incidence of impacts is quite unlike that of cancer. Scientists studying these effects aren't looking for changes in the frequency of rare events, which is much of the issue in many different cancers. The changes caused by endocrine disruption shift population averages.
  6. The contamination is very widespread and it comes from many sources, including some that were completely unexpected.
  7. For at least some of the effects of some of the compounds, the impacts occur at very low exposures. And as I mentioned, the nature of the impact depends exquisitely upon the timing.

What are some of the effects?

These impacts I have just listed are well-documented in the scientific literature. The real controversy created by the book arises because after we examine the basic science from wildlife, lab animals and relevant human studies we then ask a larger set of questions.

Given these findings,

given the the uncontested observations that endocrine contaminants are ubiquitous-indeed that as far as science can tell every baby alive on the planet today has matured in a womb containing measurable quantities of endocrine disrupters-

and given that at least in some places in the world those background levels of contamination are within the ranges in which effects are seen in the laboratory and in people.

given all that, what signals should we look for in human populations?

We could have stopped before this. We knew that going on would be controversial. But as we thought about the implications of these basic findings and their potential ramifications, we concluded that the only responsible course was to go on and find out what science was able, and not able to say, given the current evidence. We knew the public would want to know. We believe they have the right to know.

If you have read this section, you will find it replete with all sorts of cautionary noises, with many comments to the effect that data on one issue or another are as yet inadequate to reach a judgement. In sum, however, the weight of the evidence says we have a problem. At the same time, the magnitude and gravity of that problem is still unclear.

That is not what you would conclude from reading the parodies that are being issued as press releases and supposedly informed commentary about the book.

All that I can conclude is that some of these commentators haven't read the book or they are willfully misrepresenting its contents. I suspect the latter. Let me give you one example.

Last week, someone from the Competitive Enterprise Institute published a column in the Seattle Times. She claimed we advocated a ban on chlorine. We do not. We state this explicitly in the book. Indeed, at this point the book doesn't advocate a ban on anything. She then went on to criticize us for depriving people of clean drinking water. This is in fact one of the reasons, in the book, why we said that a ban on chlorine would be inappropriate. Then she quoted an expert on sperm count trends as having said of our book "They are misrepresenting our data." Given that this particular expert had gone over the relevant sections of the book with us word-by-word, and that he had agreed with the way we represented his work, we knew this couldn't be true, so we asked him about it. He said that the quote was taken out of context from a press release that had nothing to do with our book.

Another vocal critic, the head of an organization named the American Council for Science and Health, has used similar tactics. Some of her materials are so whacky they are veritable self-parodies. She lambasts us with soundbites about innuendo and hypothesis, ignores what is really in the book, and then constructs a critique of innuendo and exaggeration and lame literary comment. I would suggest that if any of you are funding the efforts of the American Council, you ask for your money back. Their arguments haven't changed for 15 years even though the issues and the science have advanced considerably.

Perhaps these are clever tactics in a world in which factoid is more telling than fact. But frankly, it's not the way we will come to grips with this issue, which I believe we must.

The part of the book that has attracted the most attention has been about human sperm count.

Does the science currently available give us definitive answer about human sperm count? No. Do the about to be released US studies mentioned in the New York Times yesterday negate the previous work and settle the issue? No.

Let me tell you where we stand on this scientific and medical controversy, and let me begin with some background. When my coauthor Theo Colborn and I organized the first Wingspread Conference, we were unaware of the work then underway in Europe on human sperm count declines and its links to rising incidence of testicular cancer, undescended testicles and a genital birth defect in boys called hypospadias. That work had not then been published.

At the Wingspread Conference, however, we did hear repeated reports of ways that endocrine disruption had reduced sperm counts in laboratory animals and also reduced it in specific cases of human contamination. One of the questions identified as a priority at the meeting was whether there were any broad surveys indicating general trends in human sperm count. If the hypothesis was true, that widespread exposure to endocrine disruption was creating human risks, then one would expect to see some indications in human sperm count and human sperm quality.

The Carlson and Skakkebaek paper then burst on the scene. Not only did it suggest declines, but the mechanism proposed independently by the authors was based upon hormone disruption during fetal development.

As always happens in good science, this result was challenged on several grounds. Subsequent studies have been coming out that have been able to avoid some of the problems that weakened the firmness of the conclusions of the first study. Some of these new studies have shown no decline in specific areas. Others, from other areas, have shown even larger declines than was suggested originally. The papers out of Columbia University suggest there has been no decline in three other areas.

Frankly, this doesn't surprise me. Nothing is so simple in human life that it would produce a uniform pattern worldwide. What is emerging now is a more realistic assessment of the geography of sperm count change. New science will help us understand the geographic patterns and hopefully work to avoid whatever exposure lies at their root. The Columbia University studies don't negate the Paris, London and Belgium studies, nor even the original Carlson and Skakkebaek work. They tell us that in three places in the United States sperm counts do not appear to have changed. They also raise some additional questions that are sure to create challenges, because they show big differences among regions in the United States. Why? Given the melting pot that is this country, how could those differences be if there hadn't been changes somewhere, sometime.

I should point out also that even as these studies on humans have been emerging, science has made progress on the mechanistic ways that endocrine disrupters do affect sperm count. In an important paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives this December, two eminent medical researchers showed that two common contaminants, one an octylphenol, another a phthalate, reduce the sperm counts of rats exposed in utero through exactly the causal pathway that has been proposed.

The sperm count story is not going to go away. In fact, if I have one central message for you, the story about endocrine disruption is not going to evaporate. Too much is underway. Too many scientific labs are hard at work on different pieces. Too many scientific results are heading toward publication. Too many people have begun to ask questions about what this may mean.

Here's what you can expect:

And here's what I hope to see:

One of the most important sentences in the book is where we observe that trends are not destiny. The sort of silent spring anticipated by Rachel Carson did not happen because society faced the challenge, looked at the implications, and found solutions. We can do that here.

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