Endocrine Disruption Theory Takes Serious Hit

Published January 1, 1998

In 1997, endocrine disruptors joined radon, Alar, dioxin, asbestos in schools, and electromagnetic fields in the rogues’ gallery of environmental hoaxes.

In a letter published in the July 25 issue of Science, John A. McLachlan of the Tulane-Xavier Center for Environmental Research at Tulane University took the wind out of sails he himself had hoisted a year earlier with the publication of a study concluding that many pesticides and other chemicals were far more toxic in combination than they are individually. McLachlan’s findings seemed to confirm the scientifically controversial but widely publicized views found in Theo Colburn’s book, Our Stolen Future. There, Colburn had argued–more anecdotally than scientifically–that combinations, or synergies, of synthetic chemicals were wreaking havoc on human hormonal processes.

Publication by Science of the Tulane study received worldwide press attention and prompted Congress to include estrogen research requirements in the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Food Safety Protection Act passed in 1996. EPA Administrator Carol Browner was effusive in her praise of the Tulane study, telling the Washington Post that, “The new study is the strongest evidence to date that combinations of estrogenic chemicals may be potent enough to significantly increase the risk of breast cancer, birth defects, and other major health concerns.” Browner promised to change EPA research priorities accordingly.

Yet, while the praise was pouring in and the research dollars pouring out, trouble was brewing. Teams of researchers at four other major laboratories reported they were unable to duplicate the Tulane results. Worse still, the Tulane researchers themselves couldn’t reproduce their findings.

Faced with an increasingly embarrassing situation, the humbled Tulane researchers quietly withdrew their study, explaining in the letter to Science that, “Whatever merit this publication contained, and despite the enthusiasm it generated, it is clear that any conclusions drawn from the paper must be suspended until such time, if ever, as the data can be substantiated.”

The Tulane paper’s withdrawal should have been accorded by the media the same sensational treatment that its original publication a year earlier received. But, as the intrepid Diane Katz of the Detroit News has meticulously documented, those reporters so eager to hype the original scare chose, with few exceptions, to look the other way when it was revealed that the apocalypse had been canceled.

“I was on vacation all of July,” explained AP science reporter Paul Recer, who had written a 629-word article on the original Tulane findings. “I can’t follow every issue as a specialist could,” he told Katz. Equally unrepentant was Michele Lesie of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who cited Tulane’s research in a 1,119-word article on breast cancer. Saying she was unaware of McLachlan’s retraction, Lesie was quick to add that withdrawal of the research “doesn’t mean the chemicals aren’t dangerous. We just haven’t come up with the checks and balances to say that.”

Katz also excoriates the media for failing to ask who was behind the endocrine disruptor scare. As did Katz, other reporters could have discovered that John Peterson Myers, one of the co-authors of Our Stolen Future, is director of the W. Alton Jones Foundation, which controlled $323 million in assets in January 1997. Theo Colborn was a senior fellow there while the book was researched and written.

“The foundation specializes in funding environmental and anti-nuclear projects, with grants totaling $113 million between 1990-1996–including more than $1 million for the endocrine disruptor issue. Some $80,000 went to the Tulane Center for Bioenvironmental Research, headed by John McLachlan,” she writes.

The media also benefit from the foundation’s largess, according to Katz. The Society of Environmental Journalists received $50,000 from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, as did the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation.

Meanwhile, Tulane University is conducting an investigation into how its researchers reached their conclusions, and McLachlan has been forbidden to talk to reporters.