Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 
Hormonally Active Agents in the Environment
US National Research Council
 
 


In August 1999, the NRS released its long awaited report on endocrine disruption, commissioned in 1995 by the US EPA, the US Dept of the Interior and Congress. The report was prepared by a committee composed of indepedent academic scientists as well as a few with conspicuous links to industry, either through funding of research (e.g., Steven Safe, Texas A&M University) or through contract work (e.g., James Lamb, a lawyer working for a firm representing chemical companies).

The broad diversity of viewpoints represented on the committee prevented consensus on many points. In fact, the first chapter of the report spells out in detail where and why consensus was prevented. For a detailed history of the committee's deliberations, see Sheldon Krimsky's book Hormonal Chaos.

Nonetheless, the report is a cautious affirmation of the plausibility of issues we raised in Our Stolen Future.

  • The panel concluded there is strong evidence from studies of wildlife and laboratory animals that chemicals can interfere with the body's natural hormone system and disrupt the biological process of development in the womb.
  • They found some evidence from people, particularly for high exposures and even for moderate exposures of one class of chemicals -- PCBs -- that a hormone disrupter can affect human development.
  • The report demonstrated there is ample evidence that humans are experiencing an increase in the same kind of health problems that hormone-disrupting chemicals cause in animals.
  • The academy confirmed that human exposure to these contaminants is widespread and that animal studies are a vital guide to identifying health risks for people.
  • The panel members also concurred that hormonally active chemicals can affect humans and wildlife at high doses, but they could not reach agreement about whether these compounds are in fact causing harm at the levels encountered in the environment. As the report stated, "whether environmental exposures....are responsible for a variety of widespread adverse effects on the health of humans and wildlife remains a topic of debate."
  • With regard to the most debated health effects, such as testicular cancer, breast cancer, and sperm count declines, the report concluded that the crucial studies that might help settle the question have simply not been done.

Industry's response to this report was to emphasize the Academy's conclusion that no scientific certainty had been established. They then argued that without certainty, endocrine disruption was not an issue for public health concern.

This is a classic argument from industry spokespeople: that the absence of data proves safety. In reality, all it proves is ignorance.

The Academy report, however, revealed far more than ignorance. It demonstrated that the risks, while not proven, are both serious and highly plausible. It concluded by recommending an ambitious, large-scale research program to resolve unanswered questions, one commensurate with its concerns for the potential risks entailed.

Unfortunately, it could take several decades to reach scientific certainty about causality.

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