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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
EPA SCIENTIST: Yeah.
NARRATOR: Forty of the scientists in her lab are studying endocrine
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
NARRATOR: Dawn Forsythe was the head of government affairs for Sandoz
Agro, and headed the pesticide industry's first committee on endocrine
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
NARRATOR: At FRONTLINE'S invitation, Steve Safe joined Lou Guillette in
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
[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
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
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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ROBERT BLAND: [Charlottesville, VA] Dear FRONTLINE: I admire Mr.
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