The Physiological Aspects of Pollution

Theo Colborn had been conducting a series of wildlife research experiments in
the Great Lakes region when she became convinced that common chemicals widely used
in American homes and industries were affecting males of all species. Among the many
harmful effects of these seemingly ordinary chemicals were dramatic reductions in
fertility and a growing number of gross deformities in the male anatomy, including
shrunken penises and testicular problems. Colborn believes popular chemicals used for
growing food, treating and purifying water, manufacturing plastics, and producing pulp
and paper are damaging the endocrine, immune, and reproductive systems of animals.
Moreover, the chemicals are creating these effects at exposure levels far below accepted
safety limits, thresholds typically set for measuring cancer risks. By far, the most
troubling impacts occur in the womb, where the chemicals circulating in the mother\'s
body may deliver a profound punch to the developing embryo and fetus. Colbron calls
this a "transgenerational effect." Any fetal damage is permanent and irreversible,
although the results may not appear until early adulthood. And, she notes, the pollutants
could have been absorbed years earlier by the body, only to wreak havoc during
childbearing. According to Colborn, "the effects are being seen in the offspring more
than the parents. The problem is that people don\'t understand that these chemicals are
affecting fertility, the doorway to population."

Louis Guillette, a Wingspread scientist at the University of Florida, told a group
of lawmakers at a recent Congressional hearing that: "Every man in this room is half the
man his grandfather was." Guillette\'s remarks referred to the fertility investigations of
Neils Skakkebaek, a Danish scientists, and other Europeans. According to Skakkebaek,
sperm totals for men have declined 50 per cent since the 1940\'s. Skakkebaek\'s
conclusion is based on analysis of sixty-one sperm-count studies in which 15,000 men
participated. "It\'s the action of chemical pollutants on the endocrine system is the sister
to the nervous system," Guillette commented, who is also a specialist in reproductive
endocrinology. The endocrine system regulates the body\'s functions over the long run
through the release of various hormones, much as the brain and nervous system govern
the body from movement to movement. Guillette discovered a most spectacular case in
Florida, where, between 1980 and 1985, the alligator population crashed in Lake Apopka,
the state\'s third-largest freshwater lake. In every nest, something was wrong with the
gator eggs. Surviving juvenile males had abnormally low testosterone levels and
abnormally high amounts of estrogen. "In other words, they were feminized," according
to Guillette. Her team also observed that 25 per cent of males had shrunken penises that
would never allow them to reproduce. Guillette blames a 1980 pesticide spill for the
sexual warping. Lake Appopka\'s alligator population has yet to recover, and Guillette\'s
researchers are now finding similar problems in other Florida lakes.

In the Great Lakes region, sixteen predator species, including mammals, reptiles,
birds, and fish, show reproductive, thyroid, metabolic, and behavioral problems,
according to Theo Colborn. All of these difficulties, she says, can be tied to endocrine
disrupters. If there is one common link on the Wingspread list of known hormonal
pollutants, it\'s chlorine. Chlorine is a key component in twenty-three of the forty-five
substances. Given that chlorine is extremely widely used, and is a $70 billion-a-year
industry, this is an ominous finding. "What we\'ve in fact done is spray the globe with
endocrine-disrupting compounds," Guillette said. "Am I upset? Sure I\'m upset. I can\'t
confirm right now that every person or thing is at risk, but for me there is tremendous
concern."

Fantle, Will. "The incredible shrinking man." The Progressive Oct. 1994: 12-16.