Transcripts

FRONTLINE
Show #1619
Air date: June 2, 1998

FOOLING WITH NATURE

Produced by Doug Hamilton

Written by Michael Chandler and Doug Hamilton

Directed by Michael Chandler

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE, University of Florida: You either have to accept the fact that animals are, in fact, sentinels and indicators for our own species, or don't accept it.

Prof. STEVE SAFE, Texas A&M University: The alligators are sentinels, as are birds, as are fish. And so we don't ignore that. But if we want to look at human effects, let's look at humans.

LINDA BIRNBAUM, Assoc. Director, Environmental Protection Agency: When I look at this as a scientist, I see an interesting hypothesis. Needs further investigation. As a wife and a mother, when I look at this issue, I get a little bit nervous.

THEO COLBORN, Senior Scientist, World Wildlife Fund: [at Congressional hearing] Nor is it comforting for a woman to realize that it takes only one very low dose of an endocrine-disrupting chemical to change the course of sexual development of her baby.

NARRATOR: An explosive environmental issue has become a major new law, and the debate rages over whether public policy has gotten ahead of science.

LYNN GOLDMAN, Asst. Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency: This is the first time since the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act more than 20 years ago that Congress has spoken on the issue of testing of chemicals.

THEO COLBORN: There is enough evidence to take certain chemicals off the market today, and we should.

DAWN FORSYTHE, Former Manager of Governmental Affairs, Sandoz Agro, Inc.: Everything is at stake for the industry on this one. This is entirely new for them. I mean, it was a day of reckoning that they didn't want to see, and everything depends on what they find out with endocrine disruption.

NARRATOR: Tonight on FRONTLINE: The new threat from man-made chemicals. Are we doing too little about it, or too much?

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE, University of Florida: I talk about science as being a pursuit- the three best jobs on Earth. It's kind of like the adventurer, the artist, the detective, in that you never have all the pieces of the puzzle, you are using your own creativity to form the picture, and that the adventure part is to find things that people haven't found before.

NARRATOR: Lou Guillette searches for alligators on the lakes of central Florida.

RESEARCHER: See the opossum on the stump?

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: Alligators are nocturnal. You go out with a very powerful flashlight, a Q-beam, and you look for eye shine. Alligator eyes shine back to you red, and you approach them. It's like working with any large animal. I don't care if you're talking horses, cows or alligators, when you deal with a large animal, there is an element of danger.

RESEARCHER: He's a big one. See the head? See the head? See the body? Seven feet.

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: That was about nine feet.

RESEARCHER: Nine feet.

NARRATOR: Ten years ago, Guillette was puzzling over why the alligator birth rate was in decline, and why females were not laying good eggs.

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: And you can see how different they are.

[to interviewer] And we tried to erase, if you will, or remove the typical things we thought might be involved- that is, changes in the moisture of the nest or the temperature of the nest, or aspects of female biology or male biology. And we started to realize something else was going on, but I couldn't put it in context.

I was finding these abnormalities. We had the observations of my colleagues in the field, of problems with the eggs and population declines. And so we had all these pieces of information, but they appeared to be disparate pieces of information. They didn't fit together into a puzzle that I could understand.

NARRATOR: Fifteen hundred miles north of Guillette, scientist Theo Colborn was equally puzzled by the wildlife studies of scientists working on the Great Lakes. She thought a solution might lie in bringing their findings together.

THEO COLBORN, Senior Scientist, World Wildlife Fund: I was working on a book on the state of the environment in the Great Lakes, and I had pulled all this literature together, lots of papers- you know, fellows working in Canada, people working in the United States, one out on Lake Superior, others way over on Lake Ontario. None of them knew what the other was doing, you know?

NARRATOR: Colborn was a grandmother with a background in pharmacy when she returned to school and got her Ph.D. at the age of 58. As a scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, she began to notice drastic changes in animal populations.

THEO COLBORN: I sat in a wonderful position, where I pulled all this information together, and I sat looking at it and I said, "There's something wrong here." It began to fall out that there are serious problems, and actually population declines, population crashes. The youngsters didn't hatch or, if they did, they didn't look good- birth defects. Behavioral studies began to come out. The birds weren't behaving right. Females and females pairing, the male birds not being territorial, and male fish with both female and male reproductive organs.

All of these things fall under the purview of the endocrine system. It was amazing. And then, of course, the most important thing was that cancer was not the problem. You know, we were thinking cancer was the big bugaboo. This is going to be the be-all and the end-all. This is where we'd find our answers for both wildlife and human populations.

What was the problem was that these effects were being seen in the youngsters or the offspring of the animals, not in the adult animals.

NARRATOR: Colborn concluded that certain chemicals disrupt embryonic growth, and they do it by mimicking or blocking the body's own natural hormones. They're called endocrine disrupters.

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: And it was all of a sudden, "Bam!" It was one of these incredible experiences when you realize, "I have hormonal abnormalities. I have possibly a contaminated lake. I know I have a top predator that accumulates contaminants." And then it all just kind of came together as a hypothesis.

NARRATOR: Based on Colborn's hypothesis, Lou Guillette shifted his research to hormones, and was surprised to discover in male alligators a marked reduction of penis size in those exposed to contaminants.

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: And the hypothesis is that multiple chemicals in the environment trick the body, trick this developing embryo into thinking that it's getting a signal, a normal signal. Or, in fact, it can actually block the normal signal, so you get an abnormal signal. And in so doing, you get an abnormal embryo. It may have arms and ears and legs in the right spot, but it's not functioning normally.

JIM LUDWIG, Ecological Researcher: If this endocrine disrupter hypothesis is true, is accurate, then the implications for human species - and virtually every other species on Earth that is high up in the food web that gets exposed to chemicals at significant levels - is quite frightening, because what we are really doing is we're fooling around with the long-term potential of the species, both on a social level and on a biological level.

NARRATOR: Jim Ludwig has been studying the effects of contaminants on wildlife in the Great Lakes for over three decades. His father did it before him.

JIM LUDWIG: An example of the embryonic sensitivity is this little guy right here. He has no eyes. Now, there's a very, very narrow time window, about four hours long, during the development of this little Cormorant, when the eyes had to be stimulated to differentiate, a very specific signal. This guy never got it. And that's the kind of disruption that we're talking about and the kind of loss of potential.

Once the software is mis-programmed, once the eyes are left out of the animal, you can't go back and put them in. There's no way to fix it. Once the potential, the I.Q. potential, is shaved off a child, you can't put it back in. That's the key to this. That's why endocrine disruption is so important to understand. [www.pbs.org: More about the wildlife discoveries]

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: And you can take, for example, a metaphor that many have used, the classic idea of the player piano. You have this sheet of music. It has a bunch of holes in it. It has a very specific pattern. And even though the pattern may vary slightly, depending upon the individual, the same music comes out the other end.

But now what happens is, let's say, you have environmental contaminants. You have natural compounds that come in, and they put extra holes in the sheet, or they actually tape up or glue up some of those holes. Sometimes you have the same basic melody, but all accompanying parts have been changed. The question is, is have we stretched that music or stretched that sheet to the point where the music is no longer even recognizable?

NARRATOR: If true, Colborn's theory would mean a radical shift in the way we evaluate the safety of chemicals. But some scientists remain skeptical.

Prof. STEVE SAFE, Texas A&M University: Well, I think if we want to look at human effects, let's look at humans. We've got human data. Let's not look at alligators.

NARRATOR: One scientist sharply critical of the hypothesis is Dr. Stephen Safe of Texas A&M.

Prof. STEVE SAFE: The alligators in Lake Apopka are living in a lake which bordered, you know, an industrial chemical site. There was leakage into the lake. There was contamination and problems with alligators. This isn't new. We've had wildlife problems in many lakes in many regions long before the alligators ever suffered. And this is important, and it's one of the reasons that many of these chemicals were either banned or restricted in use.

NARRATOR: As a toxicologist, Safe asserts the fundamental rule that a chemical's toxicity depends on the amount of exposure to it. Or, as the saying goes, "The dose makes the poison." He argues that at normal environmental levels, endocrine disrupters are too weak to harm humans.

Prof. STEVE SAFE: But in terms of the human effects, that's another story. Are we seeing anything in humans that we can relate to these chemicals? And I don't see a lot.

INTERVIEWER: So what's all this fuss about endocrine disruption?

Prof. STEVE SAFE: Well, I think the fuss occurred because of a number of things that happened around the period of 1992, '93. And what happened is that we had alligator penises shortening, and that's very popular, as you well know. We had a paper published indicating that there was a 50 percent decline in sperm counts worldwide.

And then there were a couple small studies published which led to a hypothesis that organochlorines and xenoestrogens were a contributing factor to breast cancer. So all those things came together in 1992, '93. And it was hypothesized _ not proven, hypothesized - that maybe there's a problem.

LINDA BIRNBAUM, Assoc. Director, Environmental Protection Agency: I think endocrine disruption gets attention because it scares people. I think that's the basis for it. When you talk about teeny weenies in alligators, or you talk about increased breast cancer in people, that concerns people.

NARRATOR: Linda Birnbaum heads the human health research program at the EPA's lab in North Carolina.

LINDA BIRNBAUM: [to scientist] Good morning. You got something to show me?

EPA SCIENTIST: Yeah.

NARRATOR: Forty of the scientists in her lab are studying endocrine disruption.

LINDA BIRNBAUM: [to scientist] And that's exactly opposite of what we might have predicted. Could be. I don't know. It's not what I thought would happen.

EPA SCIENTIST: No, I thought it'd be the other way around.

LINDA BIRNBAUM: [to interviewer] I've been interested in chemicals that affect hormone systems for more years than I care to recount. My expertise has to do with the dioxins and the PCBs, which are very potent at altering hormonal systems. I usually say I don't know a hormone system that dioxin doesn't like to disrupt.

There is some general scientific consensus that effects on hormones and hormone systems may play a role in some bad things that have happened in the wild- to certain fish populations, to certain bird populations, to certain wild mammal populations, maybe to amphibians or reptiles. We really don't know.

But when it comes to people, are there endocrine effects going on from environmental levels of chemicals in people? I really don't think we know the answer.

JUDITH HELFAND: [at conference] How many of you have children? How many of you have a uterus? How many of you have a uterus that works? Okay. I'm glad I could add some humor to all of this. I don't have a uterus. I'm missing the top third of my vagina. I don't have my Fallopian tubes. I don't have my cervix.

NARRATOR: Scientists have known since the 1970s that substantial doses of some synthetic chemicals can interfere with the endocrine system, sometimes with devastating human effects. One clear-cut case is the drug Diethylstilbestrol, or DES. Susan Helmrich is one its victims.

SUSAN HELMRICH, Ph.D., DES Daughter: DES really has defined my life, in some ways. I developed clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina at the age of 21 - I was almost 22 - right after I graduated from college. And I had had gynecological problems my whole teenage life, and never really knowing if something was wrong, but something was wrong. Something wasn't right.

NARRATOR: Like millions of other American women from the '40s to the '60s, Susan Helmrich's mother took DES during her pregnancy. DES moms believed the drug would prevent miscarriages. Instead, decades later, it is wreaking havoc with many of their children.

SUSAN HELMRICH: So at the age of 21-and-a-half, I had a radical hysterectomy, vaginectomy. Lymph nodes were removed, and my vagina was reconstructed with my colon.

NARRATOR: Helmrich has since adopted two children.

SUSAN HELMRICH: Now, I think I worry more for my kids because I think that what we are exposed to as young children is going to have the greatest and the longest impact on our lives.

NARRATOR: DES was a massive dose of an endocrine disrupter, but it led scientists to wonder if hormonal messages could unintentionally be scrambled by synthetic chemicals used in everyday life.

JIM LUDWIG, Ecological Researcher: We don't have to prove the general case that endocrine disruption is a health threat. Diethylstilbestrol did that for us absolutely clearly, cleanly, no questions asked. That was a really nasty experience.

I think that one thing that's really good that's happened is, as this endocrine-disrupter hypothesis has been put forward, it stopped us from spending all our money looking at cancer in adults, and it focused our attention on developing embryos in young because that's where these chemicals are really dangerous.

As a scientist, I would love to be able to wait for proof of everything before I acted. But in this particular situation, because we're dealing with irreversible changes to our population, I think we have to be proactive in order to get a cleaner environment, where we don't run the risks of these endocrine disrupters. The alternative is to wait till the damage has happened, as occurred with PCBs and DDT, and then deal with the terrible consequences of that.

NARRATOR: Jim Ludwig and his colleagues believe we now face the classic public health dilemma. How do you make effective policy to protect human health in the absence of complete scientific proof?

History provides one example. In the great London cholera outbreak of 1854, physician John Snow, working alone, mapped the spread of the disease in one neighborhood and traced it back to a single water pump. Although germ theory would not be understood for more than a decade, Snow acted on a hunch and removed the handle from the pump.

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE, University of Florida: Snow didn't know the mechanism, didn't know the cause, saw the results, but was able to do by association, to be able to say, "Wait a minute. In this environment there is something. And I don't know what it is yet, but there is something about this environment that's causing disease in these people. If I remove that source, however way I can, then these people will get better."

And sure enough, when they removed the pump handle, the disease went away. Do we wait the 10 or 20 years to come up with germ theory, or do we go and remove the pump handle? I think we remove the pump handle.

ANNOUNCER: [Chlorine Chemistry Council Video, "Building Blocks of our World, Chlorine"] Chlorine helps build all kinds of things, like laundry bleach, soccer balls, boom boxes-

NARRATOR: But how do you remove the pump handle from the modern world? Do you ban chemicals? And which ones? There are at least 70 chemicals suspected of being endocrine disrupters, used in everything from pesticides to plastics. Banning chlorine alone would affect 45 percent of American industries.

ANNOUNCER: [Chlorine Chemistry Council Video] And no chlorine means many of the cosmetics and perfumes that we're used to would vanish.

JIM LUDWIG: Probably 40 percent of the drugs that are manufactured in this country for things like antihistamines and you name it - all sorts of different things - a huge number of those depend on chlorinated precursors in order to be manufactured. If you did the simple thing, which would be to ban chlorine use in the United States, you would be banning 40 percent of the drugs in this country, and that is a stupid thing to do.

ANNOUNCER: [American Crop Protection Association Video, "The Circle of Food Safety"] Since the beginning of time, man has faced feast or famine in the continual struggle-

JAY VROOM, President, American Crop Protection Association: Most of us don't understand what it means not to have be engaged in the production of food and fiber on the farm level. And pesticides are a very important part of the technology that American farmers use to produce this bounty. There are risks associated with the use of any technology. I think we all know and recognize that. We need to manage those risks. But the benefits are phenomenal.

LINDA BIRNBAUM, Assoc. Director, Environmental Protection Agency: We're dealing with chemicals that have real benefits, chemicals that are important to how we live our life. And to say that we should just eliminate those chemicals may not be the most reasonable approach.

Prof. STEVE SAFE, Texas A&M University: In terms of organochlorine compounds, the EPA and our regulatory agencies have already acted. I don't know that there's that much more we can do, except to be even more vigilant. And no one's saying we're going to use these chemicals and throw them into the environment. They're either banned or restricted. So, you know, what do we have to act on right now? I don't know. Name me a chemical.

INTERVIEWER: What?

Prof. STEVE SAFE: Name me a chemical.

THEO COLBORN, Senior Scientist, World Wildlife Fund: "Name a chemical, and EPA will act"? That's interesting. Look at the chemicals that EPA has pulled off the market. The only thing they pulled off was DDT, PCBs and a few pesticides. Nothing else has come off the market. I could give you a list that would blow you away of chemicals we know are not safe, but they're still being released into the environment. Steve's statement is not correct.

[at Congressional hearing] The mothers whose babies have been and are being exposed to these chemicals in the womb had no choice. We now know enough to inspire grave concern about the fate of future generations because-

NARRATOR: Colborn's findings galvanized the environmental community, yet when she and the proponents of the hypothesis pushed for legislation, they faced a skeptical anti-regulation Congress. But they were about to gain an unexpected ally.

Alfonse D'Amato is the Republican Senator from New York, whose approval ratings by environmental groups have sometimes sunk to zero.

Sen. ALFONSE D'AMATO, (R), New York: It became rather difficult for some in my party to oppose what made common sense. And if I was willing to stand up and do this, and take on this stand, how could they afford not to join? So I think sometimes it pays to be able to go in the face of the current.

DEMONSTRATORS: We want to know the cause! We want to know the cause! We want to know the cause!

NARRATOR: D'Amato's constituents had organized to find out why Long Island had one of the highest breast cancer rates in the country.

DEMONSTRATORS: Save our daughters! Save our daughters! Save our daughters!

GERI BARISH, Founding Member, One in Nine: So we decided we would take this challenge on ourself, and we became angry, and we said, "Okay, kids, this is it. Let's not talk about our tumors and the size of them, and sit around in support groups. Let's learn how to lobby, and let's get started."

[at meeting] Never did I think that my entire life would be surrounded by cancer -

NARRATOR: Geri Barish had read of a study linking an endocrine disrupter with breast cancer. As a founding member of One in Nine, a women's breast cancer group, she set out to raise money for further testing.

GERI BARISH: I remember saying to Doctor Broader at the time, I said, "Well, how do we get this money? I mean, you know, we're going to have to go to Congress." And that was my first awakening into the political arena. Dr. Broader said, "Stop. Understand what I'm telling you. You don't mix politics and science. It doesn't work. Keep the politicians out of our test tubes."

And at that point, I looked at my partner that I was with, and I said, "Guess what, Fran? They're going to learn. It's going to mix." And the next day we went to Senator D'Amato. You know, "Who are you?" And we said, "Breast cancer activists," and they said, "Uh-huh."

Sen. ALFONSE D'AMATO: They literally stormed the office. They- some of them I've known for years. I've never seen them in that setting. They were determined. They held me hostage.

GERI BARISH: We came in, and we said, "Listen, are we at war?" He said, "No." "Does it look like we're going to go to war?" He said "No." I said, "Look at all that money that's sitting in the Department of Defense doing nothing."

Sen. ALFONSE D'AMATO: "You want up to $200 million?" "Yes." I said, "We're going to lose." "That's okay. We'll take names. We'll see who voted with us and who voted against us," and they did.

NARRATOR: Barish's efforts paid off when Congress appropriated Department of Defense money for breast cancer research, and three years later, when President Clinton signed the Food Quality Protection Act and amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act. The laws required new ways to test if chemicals are endocrine disrupters.

THEO COLBORN: Oh, I was amazed. Believe me, I don't think any of us working in the field even knew this was going to happen. But it got the process moving, and that's important. Congress did something right. It got the process started. We have to take advantage of that. You know, basically, that's how you move forward. You take advantage of opportunities when they arise. This may never happen again.

Sen. ALFONSE D'AMATO: It just called out and cried out for enactment, that even those that really opposed it, the major chemical companies and others, said "We better let this one go."

LYNN GOLDMAN, Asst. Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency: [at EDSTAC meeting] One, I just have a question for clarification, just to understand-

NARRATOR: Lynn Goldman oversees toxic substances for the EPA.

LYNN GOLDMAN: This is the first time since the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act more than 20 years ago that Congress has spoken on the issue of testing of chemicals, chemicals that might be in our food, that might be in sources of drinking water, and that we would use specific tests, so that we can make sure there aren't impacts on the endocrine system. It's a very fundamental change to the kind of legislation we've had in the past.

NARRATOR: The battle over the future of billions of dollars worth of products would now be fought here, in an EPA committee called EDSTAC - the Endocrine Disrupter Screening and Testing Advisory Committee.

EDSTAC MEMBER: [at meeting] How do we put them all together? There is no magic formula.

NARRATOR: EDSTAC has been mandated by Congress to come up with a screening program for endocrine disrupters by the summer of 1998.

LINDA BIRNBAUM, Assoc. Director, Environmental Protection Agency: Congress was absolutely appropriate, saying that we need to determine whether endocrine disruption is a problem. However, Congress was not very helpful to the scientists when Congress told us how to do it.

ED SABO: [at meeting] Good evening. My name is Ed Sabo, and I'm the New York state coordinator for the Chlorine Chemistry Consult-

DIANA HENCHCLIFF: [at meeting] My name is Diana Henchcliff. I'm the executive director of the Alliance of Chemical Industries of New York state and-

NORA WATLEY: [at meeting] I'm Nora Watley, and I'm here representing American Cyanamid Company-

DAWN FORSYTHE, Former Manager, Sandoz Agro, Inc.: It was beyond shock when the Food Quality Protection Act passed the House unanimously, passed the Senate unanimously. What happened to their friends? Their friends voted against them.

NARRATOR: Dawn Forsythe was the head of government affairs for Sandoz Agro, and headed the pesticide industry's first committee on endocrine disruption.

DAWN FORSYTHE: The industry was reeling. I've never seen anything like it. What happened to all that political money, the campaign contributions, the soft money, years of contributing to Republicans and a couple of Democrats from agricultural states?

The first statement that I ever saw the industry make was, "We are deeply concerned about women with breast cancer. We feel compassion for them. We will do any research, any study that's necessary to find out what's happening." And I believed it. And here I was, I'd been in the industry for three years. I truly believed that.

NARRATOR: In a 1993 press release, National Agricultural Chemicals Association president Jay Vroom called for new studies on the causes of breast cancer. But seven months later, he urged defeat of Senator D'Amato's breast cancer amendment, which would mandate additional studies for estrogenic pesticides.

DAWN FORSYTHE: This is a confidential memo that's sent to the chemical companies themselves. This, where we are ready to conduct additional tests, is the news release. It's the difference between what they say publicly and what they say privately.

JAY VROOM, President, American Crop Protection Association: Well, I think you've taken the internal memoranda out of context. What we were opposed to in both the Safe Drinking Water Acts and the Food Quality Protection Act was taking one specific health end point and putting that into law. The specific reference to breast cancer with regard to endocrine disruption seemed to us to be inappropriate. I don't think there's any real disconnect between, you know, those two statements.

DAWN FORSYTHE: The problem with industry is it's either their science or it's no science.

JAY VROOM: I'm not sure that that's an accurate representation of our industry's commitment to safety and stewardship of our products, and I would disagree with that observation.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know Dawn Forsythe?

JAY VROOM: I do.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think of her?

JAY VROOM: I think she is an intelligent, committed individual who sees some issues differently than I do.

INTERVIEWER: Did she do good work for the pesticide industry when she was there?

JAY VROOM: She did.

DAWN FORSYTHE: They're used to this constant battle with environmentalists. The thing that happened with endocrine disruption, however, is that you've brought women's groups into the picture. When you have the Women's Health Coalition on one side and the environmentalists on the other, you have a very strong coalition. I mean, you're talking 52 percent of the population. Do you want to tick them off?

NARRATOR: In 1996, Colborn published her findings in a book called "Our Stolen Future." It sent shock waves through both science and industry, not unlike the publication more than 30 years earlier of Rachel Carson's ground-breaking work, "Silent Spring," on the dangers of pesticides. Although Carson was proven largely right, critics at the time branded her emotional and alarmist, and Colborn braced herself for a similar attack.

THEO COLBORN, Senior Scientist, World Wildlife Fund: I think it's been very sophisticated this time. I don't think anyone wants to stick their neck out like they did with Rachel Carson.

DAWN FORSYTHE, Former Manager, Sandoz Agro, Inc.: The reaction to Theo Colborn's book was amazing. When Theo's book first came out, the industry immediately got together, formed a cohesive strategy on how to deal with that, doing a massive search of all the research that was done, try and find those research papers or those issue papers that would refute what Theo had found.

They were hiring New York firms to track Theo, to be in the audience when she was speaking to environmental groups, to report back to industry what was being said, who was doing what, preparing for the onslaught. I mean, they took Theo's book seriously, more seriously than I've ever seen any issue since Rachel Carson.

Prof. FRED VOM SAAL, University of Missouri: I essentially don't trust the system because every time you look into it, you find that there's abuse, because we're dealing with chemicals that are worth billions of dollars, and that kind of money inherently corrupts.

NARRATOR: Professor Fred vom Saal of the University of Missouri is a leading researcher in the field of developmental biology. He has pioneered work on the effects that both natural and synthetic hormones have at extremely low doses.

Prof. FRED VOM SAAL: We've been working with a chemical, bisphenol A. It's what polycarbonate plastics are made out of, CDs. It's the chemical they put on your teeth as a sealant, and it is a very potent estrogen. It mimics the hormone that women produce in their ovaries that is a major coordinator of the development of fetuses, whether you're a human or a mouse.

NARRATOR: Vom Saal found that when he exposed a developing mouse to minuscule amounts of this plastic, it caused permanent changes in its reproductive organs. His findings were at levels 25,000 times lower than previously seen.

Prof. STEVE SAFE, Texas A&M University: It's such a dramatic effect, and he's getting effects at very, very low doses. So, you know, that's obviously of tremendous interest, and I'm sure people are looking at it in his mouse model and in other models. And I think it's important work.

NARRATOR: One of those particularly interested in Vom Saal's work is Dow Chemical, a manufacturer of bisphenol A.

Prof. FRED VOM SAAL: Dow Chemical sent a representative down to my lab a number of months ago, and essentially asked if there were a mutually beneficial outcome that we could arrive at, where I held off publishing the information about this chemical until they had repeated my studies and, after repeating my studies, approval for publication was received by all the plastic manufacturers. I was stunned.

NARRATOR: In a letter to FRONTLINE, Dow Chemical denies asking Vom Saal to withdraw or delay publication of his research results, and insists that the mutually beneficial outcome that they sought was "a better understanding of the implications of Dr. vom Saal's reported research findings."

INTERVIEWER: You've gotten significant grants from private industry over the years to do certain research. Has that effected your science in any way?

Prof. STEVE SAFE: Absolutely none at all. I don't consult with them before I publish. I've never been interfered with at all.

NARRATOR: Safe estimates that 20 percent of his lab's funding in the last five years has come from industry.

INTERVIEWER: You feel no pressure to produce results or look into the questions that would produce the kinds of results that they want?

Prof. STEVE SAFE: I've had no pressure whatsoever.

THEO COLBORN: It isn't what Steve is writing, it's what Steve is out saying. That's different. He is one of the best scientists in the country. We've leaned on Steve Safe's work for years. He's the one who broke out the PCB congeners. He's the dioxin expert. This guy does good work in his laboratory. He's a reductionist.

LINDA BIRNBAUM: I think it's hard for the public to realize that science's data, or part of science's data, in some way that's the technology aspects. And the real science comes in the interpretation. And two equally respected scientists can look at the same data and draw different conclusions, and neither one of them is necessarily wrong.

NARRATOR: But with endocrine disruption, much of the debate has moved beyond the lab, to be played out in the mainstream media. Some have called it "science by press release."

ANNOUNCER: [Greenpeace television commercial] Attractive. Just a minute, folks. Are those white shorts? You need cotton for them. And cotton farms often use pesticides with chlorine in it. That's also used for bleaching in factories. There are alternatives, but-

NARRATOR: Greenpeace produced this T.V. ad for a campaign against chlorine, and Colborn herself was attacked for accepting money from sympathetic foundations for the early research and promotion of her book.

ANNOUNCER: [Greenpeace television commercial] And some of the more precious things in life can feel the effect.

LINDA BIRNBAUM: There has been so much hype about endocrine disruption that it makes it difficult to carry on a reasonable scientific discourse on the topic. [www.pbs.org: More of this interview]

NARRATOR: Last year in "The Wall Street Journal," Safe labeled the phenomenon "one of the big health scares of the '90s." A few months later, in the "New England Journal of Medicine," he attacked the entire field as "paparazzi science."

Prof. STEVE SAFE: I hope my contribution has been to put some more balance into it. And if it's not seen as balanced by some people, so be it.

JIM LUDWIG, Ecological Researcher: If Steve feels it's "paparazzi science," then I would suggest he spend some time with me on the Great Lakes, and he won't feel that way when he's done. You can sit back in the lab and do whatever you want, but come out to the real world and you probably will get a different answer.

NARRATOR: At FRONTLINE'S invitation, Steve Safe joined Lou Guillette in Florida.

Prof. STEVE SAFE: [to Lou Guillette] I don't think I've ever disagreed with alligators or any wildlife species as an environmental indicator, and I would agree fully with you that we have to look at them very carefully. But then we have to look at the human situation very carefully, as well, because we're not alligators and we're not fish or wildlife.

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: Well, that's true. But at the same time, I think that it's the height of naiveté to say that just because there's a wildlife problem, and we can't necessarily identify a bunch of human problems at the moment, that human problems may not exist.

Prof. STEVE SAFE: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I'm sure there are human problems, but a lot of our wildlife problems have actually decreased. We have problems in some places, so we have improvements in a lot of other places. And I think it has to be a balanced approach.

NARRATOR: Lately, Guillette has found abnormalities not just in toxic Lake Apopka, but in far less polluted lakes.

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: The problem that we're seeing on these other lakes, and the disturbing part, is that they can't be associated with a major pesticide spill. These are lakes which we consider to be average pollution, average lakes in the state of Florida. And yes, what we're seeing there are alterations in hormones, depression of testosterone, alterations in phallus size.

"Safe" may not be what we thought it was. That is, the levels that are acceptable for exposure, especially to developing embryos and to children, are not the same as, for example, exposure to an adult.

Prof. STEVE SAFE: The alligators are sentinels, as are birds, as are fish. And so we don't ignore that. But if we want to look at human effects, let's look at humans.

NARRATOR: A troubling sign of endocrine disrupters' human effects singled out in Colborn's book was the reported drop in sperm counts over the last 50 years. One study showed a dramatic 50 percent decline, prompting concern that we had unalterably threatened the very survival of our species.

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: [at Congressional hearing] Every man sitting in this room today is half the man his grandfather was. And the question is, is "Are our children going to be half the men we are?"

HARRY FISCH, M.D., Columbia University: I really was convinced that there a decline in sperm counts. I mean, who wouldn't think there's decline in sperm counts? I'm a fertility doctor, and what I see are people who are infertile all the time, and my practice is getting bigger and bigger. And I actually thought that, geez, the male reproductive tract, the reproductive function, was probably on the decline. And that's what the impetus was to initiate our studies.

INTERVIEWER: And what did the studies show?

Dr. HARRY FISCH: We were surprised that when we looked at sperm counts for men who really banked sperm before vasectomy- it was a good group of men to study. We looked at them from 1970 to 1994, over a 25-year period. I was surprised, but there were no decline in sperm counts. There were a lot of variations from year to year, but overall, there was no decline in sperm counts.

LINDA BIRNBAUM: I think it is absolutely unclear whether or not sperm counts are declining over time in different populations. I think there are many studies that have been conducted, and some say, "Yes, sperm counts are going down," and others say, "No, they're not going down." Scientific discovery is rarely a straight line. It's usually a winding road, and it's very hard when you embark at the beginning, or even jump in at the middle, to know where it's going to lead you in the end.

PHYSICIAN: [to patients] Hello, big guy. How're you doing? He's still happy to see me. How are you guys doing? Are you still nervous? It's okay. It's okay for you guys to be nervous that's your job, okay? My job is not to be nervous. We're going to take great care of him.

NARRATOR: Last fall, the Centers for Disease Control reported a doubling in hypospadias, a condition in male babies in which the urethra does not come out at the tip of the penis.

THEO COLBORN: This event that causes this problem can only happen between day 56 and 84. During gestation is when that problem is laid down. Something interfered with the hormonal message at that time to tell that penis to develop properly with the urethra.

NARRATOR: Is hypospadias a sign of endocrine disruption? This boy's case was mild, but in its most severe form, differences between males and females become blurred.

LINDA BIRNBAUM: There's fairly good agreement that in quite a number of countries, testicular cancer has increased. There is growing evidence that there is an increase in hypospadias. I think the jury is not in yet on whether or not there is a decrease in sperm count. However, this is a hypothesis that all ties together, and does make me wonder whether or not something might not be happening.

NARRATOR: Something might be happening with the human effects of endocrine disrupters around the Great Lakes, where Colborn first began her research. Subject to intense clean-up and study for the last two decades, the lakes and their tributaries offer a prime testing ground for the paths of chemicals through the food chain.

EPA SCIENTIST: We want to take a sample just south of the 12th Street combined sewer overflow and-

NARRATOR: These men are working for the EPA on the Detroit River, measuring sediment contamination left over from industrial waste.

EPA SCIENTIST: Even though it looks like mud, since we're not seeing the biological activity, we can get a good idea that there's something going on here, and something's happening that could be toxic. I'm not really worried. We do a pretty good job of protecting ourselves out here with our suits and the monitoring that we do.

NARRATOR: Yet in that same river, fisherman Michael Canada catches catfish and perch to take home for dinner

MICHAEL CANADA: Well, I've been fishing for a long time with my father, ever since I was young, and never left, so- I just started back the beginning of this year, when it was warmer. So I'm bringing my sons, getting them into the sport of it. They kind of like it.

NARRATOR: Canada eats the fish in spite of EPA and state warnings that they may be contaminated.

MICHAEL CANADA: A lot of people say, you know, don't eat fish out of the Detroit River. You know, to me, I think that's just a chance, I mean, a lot of people are going to have to take, you know, because the water is not clean, either, that you drink out of your faucet. I don't have no problem with the perch that I ate. It was good.

NARRATOR: But there are indications that eating fish with PCBs and other contaminants may have long-term hidden health effects, and not just on reproductive systems, but also on the development of the human brain.

Prof. SANDRA JACOBSON, Wayne State University: [to mother and child] And I will answer any questions for you afterwards, okay? Hey, Max. Okay. Hey, Max, look. Okay, are you ready? Hi, sweetie!

NARRATOR: Sandy and Joe Jacobson of Wayne State University have been studying I.Q. levels in children whose mothers had high levels of PCBs in their blood, mostly from eating Great Lakes fish. The Jacobsons have found a 6 point I.Q. loss in those children who were heavily exposed to these chemicals in the womb.

Prof. SANDRA JACOBSON: There were over 300 children that were seen in our infant study, and we saw them again at 4 years and at 11 years, and we were very concerned to see would these effects persist. And unfortunately they did.

NARRATOR: This child is performing normally on a standard I.Q. test, but the participants in the Jacobson's study did not.

Prof. JOSEPH JACOBSON, Wayne State University: And we were, in fact, quite surprised to see at age 11, when we tested the children again, that the effects, if anything, were clearer than they had been at the younger age. But the evidence suggested that the damage that was done prenatally is quite persistent and, as far as we can tell, permanent.

NARRATOR: While the Jacobsons caution that endocrine disruption cannot be proven as the cause for the I.Q. loss, PCBs are known hormone disrupters.

LINDA BIRNBAUM, Assoc. Director, Environmental Protection Agency: We know that some of these neurodevelopmental changes can be caused by alterations in the endocrine system. We know that some of these chemicals can cause those kinds of alterations in the endocrine system. So we're beginning to build a bridge: Chemical can alter endocrine system; altered endocrine system can cause this effect; therefore chemical can cause this effect. That's the bridge that is being built in a number of different kinds of studies, but I don't think that we've completed the span.

JIM LUDWIG, Ecological Researcher: When you look at an individual baby, the tendency is to look at the baby and say, "The life is in front of this child. It's all there for this child. The child can do anything they want." What the endocrine disrupter hypothesis is saying is, "No, that may not be true." A little bit of potential intelligence is shaved off. Where that child falls on the continuum of sexuality may have been shifted. The immune system in the child may have been altered, so that when you see the child the day it's born, it may not be the child that it should have been.

SUSAN HELMRICH: I think about what children are being exposed to every day, most of which I have no control over- my children, particularly, and so when I look at a group of children, I think about, you know, "Is anything wrong with them?" because when I was their age, something was wrong with me, we just didn't know it. So it is frightening, and I do think about what the children of the '90s are being exposed to. You know, is there another DES out there?

LINDA BIRNBAUM: I think, as parents, we all worry about our children. But I think we have to look at the world that our children are living in and realize that they have tremendous access to food, to education, that their lifespan is likely to be greater than ours. So while we may have concerns - and I'm not discounting that there may be real concerns - I don't think that we should be paralyzed by them or overly worried about what chemicals may be doing to future generations.

GREG KOONTZ, Regulatory Affairs, Chemical Producers and Distributors Association: [at EDSTAC hearing] However, I'm concerned, for several reasons, that the EDSTAC may end up recommending a program that is not cost-effective and will incorporate costs with little if any benefit.

NARRATOR: Pesticides comprise a major class of suspected endocrine disrupters. As a representative for a trade association of pesticide companies, Greg Koontz worries that these small businesses will bear the brunt of any regulation.

GREG KOONTZ: [at EDSTAC hearing] To begin with, the whole concept of endocrine disruption does not appear to be nearly as great as people were claiming a year ago. For example, the Tulane study performed by John McLachlan had to be withdrawn a few months back because scientists at other universities, including McLachlan's own research team, were unable to replicate the results.

[to interviewer] We are concerned that there may be a massive screening and testing program that's very costly and time-consuming, that overshoots any problems, if any, that could be caused by endocrine disruption.

NARRATOR: It has been hard to build a firm base of policy on the shifting sands of conflicting science. The breast cancer study that prompted Geri Barish to act is a perfect example. When it could not be replicated on a larger scale, critics argued that it was one more reason to call the entire EDSTAC process into question. [www.pbs.org: A look at the conflicting science]

LYNN GOLDMAN, Asst. Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency: [at EDSTAC hearing] I think another misconception is that the legislation that created this process was enacted because of a single study. You just need to know it is the body of literature that we are examining and that will contribute to the deliberations.

GREG KOONTZ: The process is being rushed, and it should not be. This is something that requires some thought.

NARRATOR: Meeting the Congressional mandate will not be easy. No endocrine disrupter screen has yet been approved for wide-scale use. The EDSTAC law does not give EPA any new powers to regulate these substances, and there are over 75,000 chemicals to be tested.

THEO COLBORN: It's a problem that has forced me, in my position, to say that I think that we need a Manhattan Project, a Manhattan-like Project. We have spent peanuts on this research up until now. We're so hell-bent on finding out what's going on in outer space, and we don't even know how the embryo develops. We truly don't. We don't know at what concentrations the hormones act in the developing embryo to tell the embryo how to develop. We're just breaking through on this now. Isn't that ridiculous?

I think it's time we get a little more introspective now and start looking internally at how our internal systems work, the environment of our body, the environment in the womb.

NARRATOR: The Administration has made endocrine disruption one of its top five environmental priorities. And EDSTAC must have its screening process in place by the year 2000. But what then? Nearly 150 years have passed since John Snow dealt with a cholera germ he did not even know existed. But we now face a similar dilemma. At what point is there proof enough to act? And what action do we take?

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: I think it's very important for us to recognize that we are dealing with a hypothesis, and we still don't have definitive data on wide-scale populational effects. But it's also- there's no question in my mind that embryos are being affected, that there are populations of children and populations of wildlife that will never reach their full potential because of exposure to environmental contaminants. I truly believe that. The question is, is whether that cost is acceptable.

Prof. STEVE SAFE: [to Guillette] I think you do have similar problems on much less contaminated lakes. You might also want to look for other etiologies.

Prof. LOU GUILLETTE: Oh, there's no question that you have to look at the whole picture. But interestingly enough, if you actually have a laboratory causal study, you can show that exposure to certain kind of pesticide causes-

ANNOUNCER: For more on this report, visit FRONTLINE on line for a rundown on how hormones work, and what you should know about them, a picture gallery of wildlife species and what scientists are discovering, a closer look at the debate on whether humans are at risk, and the questions about breast cancer and male fertility, and more of the scientists' interviews at FRONTLINE on line at www.pbs.org.

Next time on FRONTLINE: Once upon a time, seven friends shared a dream that would take them places. Ten years later, four have been imprisoned, one is dead by his own hand, and two are in the White House. What really happened "Once Upon a Time in Arkansas"?

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Now it's time for your letters. Our program featuring independent counsel Donald Smaltz and his Mike Espy investigation drew a lot of praise, but also some complaints.

ROBERT BLAND: [Charlottesville, VA] Dear FRONTLINE: I admire Mr. Smaltz's determination, but what price justice? Smaltz's investigation cost the taxpayers - that's you and me - $14 million. For what? ... Ken Starr and company have so far spent about $35 million of our money. Like a movie production that's out of control, people like me are starting to wonder, will this be Titanic or Ishtar?

ERIC BOEHLERT: [Brooklyn, NY] I've heard of giving interview subjects the last word, but the first word, the middle word and the last word? That's pathetic.

ROBIN GILLESPIE: [Lewisville, TX] Finally, finally, finally someone in the television media has been brave enough to broadcast the real story behind the independent counsel. Kudos, PBS.

PATSY LUKE: [Jackson, MS ] At last, some support for the independent counsel, and it is welcome. As a native of Arkansas and now a resident of Mississippi, I feel it is past time that corruption on both the state and national level be investigated before all confidence in government is lost. Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: Let us know what you thought about tonight's program. [fax: (617) 254-0243; e-mail: FRONTLINE@PBS.ORG; U.S. mail: DEAR FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]

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