April 23, 1996
In 1962, Silent Spring entered that rare constellation of books that have actually changed the world. By chronicling the impact of pesticides on birds and other living things, Rachel Carson set in motion the growing public awareness that gave rise to Earth Day, the US EPA, and countless environmental initiatives around the world.
Now, 34 years later, Our Stolen Future is being trumpeted as “the next Silent Spring.” The book, co-authored by Theo Coburn, Dianne Dumanowski and John Peterson Myers, poses a chilling scenario of “better living through chemistry” gone terribly wrong. Though not a definitive scientific proof, it is an assembly of evidence that neither scientists (nor business people nor policy people) dare turn away from.
The book retells Coburn’s research odyssey as she waded through tens of thousands of scientific papers, suspecting and then trying to understand an apparent pattern of severe developmental disruptions in both animals and humans–the thalidomide babies born with stubs instead of arms and legs, alligators with shrunken genitals, declining human sperm counts, earlier onset of puberty, rising incidences of endometriosis and prostate, testicular and breast cancer.
Coburn et al suggest that the common link lies in the huge chemical arsenal of modern society. Many of the tens of thousands of chemicals that circulate in global commerce have an unfortunate characteristic–they appear to act as “endocrine disrupters.” They resemble, and in some ways act like, the endocrine gland-produced hormones that regulate so many of the critical life processes.
Hormones are chemical messengers working in near infinitesimal amounts, molecular keys that fit into molecular locks at receptor sites, carrying signals that trigger and regulate processes ranging from formation of a fetus to development of gender, from behavioral bias to formation of reproductive organs. When these receptor sites encounter synthetic chemicals that are enough like the hormones it was expecting, the organism responds to the signal it thinks it has gotten, with sometimes disastrous effects.
It’s a deeply disturbing message that — if supported by research — may change the way we think about both toxicology and environmental regulation. For example, much of our regulatory focus for years has been on cancer-causing chemicals. Our Stolen Future recounts health effects that are potentially more significant. In addition, regulatory strategies have focused on threshold levels of toxics that can trigger cancers, on the understandable assumption that less stuff means less impact. So we have elaborate protocols of “acceptable levels.”
Curiously, this seems not to be how it works with the endocrine disrupters. According to some research, some endocrine-like substances are actually more potent at small doses than large. How could this be? Remember that hormones work like a molecular key in a molecular lock. It takes very small amounts to do the job — to send the signal. Once larger amounts fill particular receptor sites, there is no recipient for the message the larger amounts are trying to send. So increased exposure produces no increased effect, and can actually “turn off” the response. With that kind of dose response, safe levels is a phantasm. Only zero is acceptable. Timing of dose–when in the developmental process it hits–seems to be the more critical variable.
Predictably, much of the response to Our Stolen Future has been a litmus test of existing positions, but there have been a few surprises. The Chemical Manufacturers Association released a detailed critique, while the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology has allocated 10% of its research budget to look at endocrine disrupters. The New York Times has been harsh, the Wall Street Journal receptive.
So what do you do while waiting for the dust to settle? As Paul Raeburn observed recently in Business Week, “Researchers say it will take three to five years to assess the magnitude of the threat. If the risk is confirmed, the chemical industry could face a serious challenge.”
Companies that wait for definitive proof, relying only on the intricate workings of science and law, may have to scramble to make profound changes in both product mix and process technologies. Those that follow the logic of biology and the laws of nature, and begin now to reduce their dependence on potential endocrine disrupters, will be better positioned to respond quickly when the proof is in–and will reduce potential liability exposure.
This is a place where logic and prudence may be more important than scientific certainty and legal clarity. Should chemicals of unknown impact be innocent until proven guilty, like people? If you found a bottle of pills on the street, would you pop them? If you found an unlabeled vat of liquid in your warehouse, would you add it to your process? Feed it to your child? Of course not. Or would common sense prevail? As anthropologist Roy A. Rappaport wrote 20 years ago, “Knowledge will never replace respect in humanity’s dealings with living systems.”