Losing appeal

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Friday 31 May 1996

The Danish study on declining sperm counts worldwide has finally been challenged. It had to be. Two articles have just been published in the journal Fertility and Sterility which show that men in several us cities might have more sperm today than men 20 years ago.

The alarm about sperm counts was first sounded by Copenhagen -based scientist, Niels Skakkebaek's study (1992). He had argued that papers published from 1932 to 1991 showed that the average sperm count had declined from 1,130,000 per millilitre (ml) to 660,000 per ml. To quote Theo Colborn, senior scientist at the Worldwide Fund for Nature-USA, the scepticism over Skakkebaek's findings was similar to the disbelief at the first news in 1985, that a dramatic hole had opened in the earth's protective ozone layer over Antarctica.

But these new studies will definitely be used by critics of Theo Colborn's own book, Our Stolen Future, which has just been published in the us and has received both bouquets and brickbats. While Al Gore, in the Foreword to the book, compares it to the 1992 classic, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, an article in the Washington Post describes it as "Hormones and humbug: a new expose is one part pseudo-science, two parts hype and three parts hysteria".

But without being unscientific, as I am a firm believer in the Precautionary Principle, I believe that the concerns raised in Our Stolen Future are valid and need urgent attention - worldwide. What does the book say? It says that the chemicals and plastics in common use may be having an insidious effect on the human body - not just causing cancer but also affecting the hormonal system, damaging the reproductive system, affecting foetuses and, thus, the future generations, increasing childhood hyperactivity and leading perhaps to a decline in intelligence. The book identifies 51 such chemicals, terming them as endocrine disrupters. Among them are such ubiquitous ones as Bisphenol-A, which leaches from polycarbonate water jugs and plastic linings of food cans; nonyphenol, which is added to Pvc plastic and is also a breakdown product of industrial detergents and pesticides; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBS), which are found in electric transformers; dioxins, which are a near-ubiquitous byproduct of combustion, including waste incineration; and vinclozolin, which is a common fungicide that can reach humans as a pesticide residue in food.

The book's theory, is based mostly on animals, especially in polluted water-bodies. In 1947, ornithologists noticed that eagles in Florida had lost their drive to mate and nest. In 1977, female gulls in California were found to be nesting with female gulls. In the '80s, alligators in Florida's Lake Apopka were turning up with shrunken penises. In the last instance, apparently, large quantities of the pesticide dicofol had been accidentally released into the lake in 1980. Dicofol is a close relative Of DDT and one of its breakdown products, called DDE, can act like the female hormone estrogen. Scientists agree that several chemicals now present in our air, water and food supply can mimic estrogen, or block the effects of the masculinising hormone androgen. In some animals these chemicals have caused gender bending effects on foetuses.

Some human studies are also disturbing. Laboratory experiments indicate that breakdown products of certain plastics, including some used to store food, can speed the growth of cultured breast cells, much like estrogen. Therefore, the question is: can these chemicals enhance breast cancer? Some studies have also suggested that children of women exposed to PCBS may score slightly lower in IQ tests than other children.

The chemicals industry in the us is really worried by the book. The scientific evidence it cites to contradict the book is ambiguous. But the idea that our hormones are under siege and that the spectre of a global epidemi,- of damaged reproductory systems is looming large has rightly struck a chord with the us public. When the Chemical Manufacturers Association contacted the American Crop Protection Association, representing major pesticide manufacturers, the latter declined to take the lead in criticising the book.

The Clinton administration seems to be listening. The National Academy of Sciences is putting out a study on endocrine disrupters in 1997. The Environment Protection Agency is proposing changes in the way chemicals are tested for safety, to include expanded testing for their impact on the reproductive organs of animals.

So what should you do, if you can? Stop microwaving food in plastic containers. Think twice before breast feeding because pesticides tend to accumulate in breast tissues. And if you drink bottled water, take it from glass bottles. That is ho@v Pervasive the threat is, if true.

. And don't listen to the typical tripe frOm Indian scientists and officials that India's consumption and production of toxic substances per capita is zilch compared to Western countries. This is utter scientific nonsense trotted out to make -you apathetic. It is the exposure levels that matter, which can be very high in India, because of, among other causes, high pesticide residues in our food and low quality of drinking water. Despite the low consumption of pesticides on a per capita basis people in Delhi have, nonetheless, revealed the world's highest level Of DDT in human body-fat, and high levels of pesticides have been found in mother's milk in India.

So? Think twice before you cat or drink?

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