Gender-Bender Chemicals May Make Men Less Manly
By Andy Kerr
Length: 750 words
Should have been published: 29 January 1998, Wallowa County Chieftain
WARNING: This column discusses penis size, sperm counts, hermaphrodites and the feminization of males.
A prime directive to any columnist is write a good lead to entice the reader.
Along the Columbia River near Portland, scientists have found a direct link between the size of river otter penises and the amount of unnatural chemicals in their livers: the more chemicals the smaller the genitalia.
(I see you are still enticed.)
River otters eat high on the food chain where chemicals accumulate. The lower Columbia is downstream from most everything we do.
The culprits are PCBs, heptachlor, several dioxin-like compounds, DDT, heavy metals, and at least 50 other chemicals that are widely used in industrial processes. Scientists label them "endocrine disrupters" because they mimic our body's natural chemical hormones that regulate nearly everything we do from making babies (estrogen and testosterone) to the beating of our hearts (adrenaline).
The body's endocrine system releases hormones from glands such as the pituitary, adrenal and gonads at just the right times and the right amounts to tell cells both what to do and when to do it.
In a fetus, too much, or not enough hormones, at the wrong time, can cause miscarriages or developmental defects.
These chemicals are everywhere in our environment. When Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring" in the 1960s about DDT and it's cousins, she was warning us about cancer and acute poisoning.
Recently Theo Colborn and two others have written "Stolen Future," in which they document that these same chemicals are dangerous to animals (including us) even in very very tiny amounts (measured at a few parts per ten trillion).
Scientists have documented that extremely small amounts of dioxin sharply decreases sperm counts in rats, that male gull embryos exposed to DDT can cause them to develop ovarian tissue and that PCBs applied during a particular time of development can turn male turtles and alligators into females or "intersex" individuals (the politically correct term for hermaphrodites).
Estrogen is estrogen whether it is found in a fish, bird, human or frog. Ninety-five percent of the endocrine disrupters we ingest are in the food we eat and the water we drink.
Sperm counts in Western men have declined over the last six decades. Scientists analyzed 61 sperm density studies from 1938 to 1990 and found that sperm counts of "healthy" American decreased 1.5% annually. Man-made chemicals are suspected.
Women are much more hormonally complex than men. Pregnant women exposed to certain chemicals may give birth to children with "diminished intellectual capacity and social skills" according to the journal Toxicology and Health. The amount of damage depended largely on the timing of the exposure.
While naturally occurring endocrine disrupters do exist, our bodies have co-evolved with them and can detoxify them safely. Most synthetic chemicals have been with us less than one-half a human life span. This is far too little time to evolve defenses against them.
To register a new chemical for use in the US, some initial studies are done (paid for by the chemical company that stands to gain financially) and if three-eyed rats the size of refrigerators don't immediately emerge from testing, then the chemical will likely be approved. Long-term low-dose studies are rarely done.
Even banned chemicals aren't really banned. DDT is prohibited to use in the US, but is still manufactured here and sold overseas. It returns to us on vegetables we eat and air we breathe
Another concern is that of chemical synergy: two or more chemicals together can be extremely more dangerous than separately. Few studies of this nature have been done and cannot be since the number of possible combinations is astronomical.
Some of these man-made chemicals have done great good. Chlorine for example, has made our water supplies safe from cholera and dysentery. These acute diseases will kill people far quicker, and probably in greater numbers, than any typical dose of man-made chemicals.
Chlorine in particular is prone to chemical synergy. Since it is in most of our potable water, it has great opportunity to mix with other man-made chemicals pervasive in the environment.
It is not an either-or situation. For example, we can purify our water with ozone.
Yes, it might cost a little more. Right now chlorine only appears to be the cheapest way if one doesn't count decreased sperm counts and smaller penises.
Perhaps the Endangered Species Act should be complemented with an Endangered Human Gonads Act.