Endocrine Disrupter Scare Resurfaces

Published August 1, 1999

By summer’s end, the American people could learn once and for all whether the ongoing debate over “declining” human sperm counts has merit, or is simply another environmental false alarm sounded by activists and the media before all the evidence was in.

That is when the highly respected National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is expected to release its report, “Hormonally Active Agents in the Environment,” which addresses the subject of endocrine disrupters that affect natural hormones. Those disrupters are chemicals–most often the synthetic variety–that mimic estrogen and, anti-chemical activists say, are responsible for a host of problems that include not only falling sperm counts but birth defects, increased incidence of testicular cancer, and smaller-than-normal alligator penises.

Although its contents are closely guarded until publication, the NAS report is widely believed to conclude that there is more smoke than fire surrounding the issue.

“Panel members can’t reveal its contents, but several hint strongly it will conclude that endocrine disrupter fears are overblown,” said Michael Fumento in “Truth Disrupters,” a November 1998 article for Forbes magazine. Nevertheless, said Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, the report “won’t necessarily stop the momentum in favor of extensive testing” that could cost the chemical industry billions of dollars to examine some 62,000 suspicious chemicals.

To be more precise, Fumento reported, it would cost $23 billion just to test the most suspicious 24 percent of the total number.

“Don’t forget the legal costs,” warned Fumento. “The electric power industry spent a lot of money defending itself from suits claiming that power lines cause cancer.”

The NAS report, whose publication has been delayed several times, will be among the latest to address the endocrine disrupter (ED) controversy that made headlines in 1992, when a paper written by Elizabeth Carlsen and published in the British medical journal Lancet argued that male sperm counts worldwide had declined 50 percent between 1930-1970.

Since then, studies confirming or challenging the theory have appeared with great regularity, but no clear conclusions have been drawn. One respected journal already has retracted an article supporting the alleged ED threat to humans.

Writing in November 1997 for the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, Lorenz Shomberg Ph.D and Dr. Sonia Hernandez-Diaz explained that, “It is important to note that there are no data on any particular chemical or even on general chemical exposure that are tied to the widespread general patterns of sperm count. …High enough doses of some particular chemicals can affect human sperm count.”

Further, they noted, “If there is an effect, it is certainly less universal and inexorable than was first suggested. What may be causing any such phenomenon is much less clear, and the hypothesis of chemical exposure is at present mostly speculative.”

The ED issue had been relatively quiet until March, when GQ magazine published an article by Jon R. Luoma titled “Shooting Blanks,” in which the author noted that “the state of men’s sperm is ghastly. Sperm counts appear to be crashing in a grim synchrony with rising rates of testicular cancer in young men.” The culprit, he said, was estrogen. “Or to be more exact, chemicals that mimic estrogen–pesticides, PCBs, components of plastic.”

All of which, according to Luoma, is the result of the modern chemical revolution that today has placed in our bodies more than 500 synthetic compounds that did not exist before. (While quick to warn against eating food packaged in plastic-lined cans, ED apologists often fail to mention, noted Fumento, that humans also are exposed to natural disrupters found in such foods as soybeans, barley, cabbage, and corn.)

GQ‘s reiteration of the sperm count scare notwithstanding, the ED argument has been losing credibility ever since critics questioned Carlsen’s methodology. Her study examined sperm count reports from 61 studies published over a period of several decades.

“While using all the available published data has benefits,” noted Harvard’s Shomberg and Hernandez-Diaz, “it also means that studies using different methods, on different numbers of men, and from widely different geographic locations must all be presumed to be comparable.”

Other factors to be considered, say the critics, include the destructive effects of war, economic turmoil, and sources of food and its quality, particularly when noting the apparent differences in sperm counts taken in the United States, Europe, and the Third World.

Perhaps the most embarrassing setback for the ED movement came in 1997, when Science magazine retracted a Tulane University study published a year earlier. The study’s authors had claimed that four pesticides tested individually produced no hormonal effects, but when combined, their potency increased dramatically.

The study’s senior author, John A. McLachian, withdrew the paper after his laboratory could not reproduce the original results; other laboratories also were unable to duplicate the findings.

Anti-chemical environmentalists often cite diethylstilbestrol (DES) as the leading example of how dangerous artificial estrogen can be to humans. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, DES was given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages. Instead, DES produced a rare form of cervical cancer and infertility in some of their children.

Said Fumento, “this unfortunate experiment shed light on the chemical’s effects because of a wide variation in dosages. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., used lower doses; those at the University of Chicago, high ones. Side effects were almost unknown among the children of Mayo patients.

“Nonetheless, even the doses recommended at the Mayo Clinic were massively higher than the exposure people get from environmental contaminants. Extrapolate from the diethylstilbestrol record, (toxicologist Robert) Golden says, and you can conclude that one endocrine modulator environmentalists most love to hate, the pesticide DDT, would cause no endocrine effect in a fetus exposed to more than a pound of DDT over the course of a pregnancy.”

Fumento aimed another blow at the alarmists and their media accomplices in a May 12 Wall Street Journal article, “With Frog Scare Debunked, It Isn’t Easy Being Green.”

In that piece, which touches on several environmental problems readily blamed on humans, Fumento takes note of the recent discovery that tiny parasites (worms)–not pesticides or excessive ultraviolet rays–were responsible for the “deformed frogs” that had a lot of people gnashing their teeth and wringing their hands over chemicals in the environment.

“One might think that in light of such revelations, the activists and reporters who blame humanity for all environmental evils, real and imagined, would be left with a frog in throats,” he wrote. “But, no, they just move on to the next crisis.”

Acknowledging that man sometimes is at fault for environmental problems, Fumento said more credit should be given to those who have been responsible for cleaning up rivers and lakes, improving air quality, and reforestation projects.

Finally, he asks, “And why should we treat little green creatures as harbingers of human health, when we can look at humans directly?”