Interview with Theo Colborn


She is Director of the Wildlife and Contaminants Program, and Senior Program Scientist, at the World Wildlife Fund. Colborn was a grandmother with a background in pharmacy when she returned to school and got her Ph.D. at the age of fifty-eight. She is the co-author of Our Stolen Future (1996) and organizer of a groundbreaking 1991 meeting at the Wingspread conference center in Wisconsin that brought together scientists to discuss the evidence on endocrine disruption.

Interview conducted by Doug Hamilton, producer of FRONTLINE's "Fooling With Nature." Interviewed February 1998.

DH: How concerned are you about the potential health effects of endocrine disrupters?

TC: I am concerned more now than I was even in the beginning because of the evidence that is crossing our desk every day. This was a new idea back in 1991. When a group of scientists met to discuss this and to think about it, they were amazed when they began to realize the implications of their work -- even though they all worked in different disciplines. This is a multi-disciplinary type of problem that we have to address. And so since 1991 a great deal of science has been deliberately directed towards answering some of the questions that we were asking back in 1991. And now, seven years later, there is enough evidence that I would be remiss if I did not say that I think this is a serious problem.

DH: Take me back to that time when the scientists first come together. Are you referring to the Wingspread conference?

TC: Yes. The reason these people were brought together was because we had seen such very blatant, open evidence among various wildlife species and populations concerning this problem of transgenerational exposure. In other words, the females in the populations were transferring to their offspring, either in the egg or in the womb, chemicals that appeared to be changing the course of development of their offspring. Maybe the offspring didn't hatch or weren't born. Or if they were, oftentimes they didn't make it through to adulthood. Or were incapable of reproducing. But the obvious thing was that it was interfering with what is called their "endocrine system". There seemed to be abnormal or disturbed sexual development, behavioral development, metabolic problems. Which are all associated with the endocrine system. And we weren't sure how tightly these, these phenomena were all connected.

But it was important to bring people together and discuss this. There were people there who had never heard the wildlife evidence. There were people there who had never heard the human evidence: the DES story, diethylstilbestrol, where the mothers shared that drug with their babies during their pregnancies, and how it affected the lives of those individuals whose mothers took that pharmaceutical.

It was fascinating to watch what happened as each one of these individuals got up at this meeting and had a half an hour to present his or her work relative to the title of the meeting, which was "Chemically-Induced Alterations in Sexual Development: The Wildlife/Human Connection."

And it was, by the second day there was a change in the way the individuals were behaving at the meeting. There was a bonding also. Tremendous amount of bonding. And by the third morning, these people were so moved by what they heard that they decided they wanted to produce what was called a consensus statement. They wanted the rest of the world to know what they had discovered that weekend.

And they were willing to also provide papers that were going to go through the peer review process and be published in a book to support their conclusions from that meeting. So that was a new process that took place. Now consensus was not reached solely at that meeting. It took us about two and a half months to get a final document to which everyone signed on.

It was those individuals, then, who went back to their respective institutions and said, "We had better look at how we have been doing science in the past." We are seeing the results of those people rethinking how they did things in various universities and regulatory agencies.

Even today, many of us have said that that meeting changed the whole course and direction of our lives. It really has.

DH: Lou Guillette, who heard about the meeting through one of the participants, said it was a revelation for him. He had been toiling out in the field on his own, working with alligators, seeing some things that didn't make sense to him really...

TC: Yes. It is amazing. Because I will walk into a lecture hall, or walk into an office with a scientist who hasn't heard this before, and they are very skeptical. That is the way we are supposed to be. Scientists are extremely skeptical. And they will listen to me and they will ask me some questions and it is amazing how what should have been a fifteen-minute discussion ends up about a two-hour discussion before I can get away from these people.

Because suddenly people say, "Why didn't we think of this?" And that is the state we are in now. If we had thought of this, the chemicals that we now are beginning to understand are affecting us would never have been released into the environment.

We still need to test chemicals that we produce to see if they cause cancer. There is no doubt about it. And gross and obvious birth defects. But what we are talking about now is a change in how an individual can function. This isn't very obvious.

What about a child whose intelligence has been hampered so that it has an IQ deficit of say, 6.2 IQ points -- which we now have as a result of one study? Or the children who don't socially integrate as well? How do you put a picture of that on television? You can't. It is a very difficult message to reach the public with.

This is not a rare event, like cancer. Cancer may hit one in a thousand. One in every five babies born may have a functional change that is not visible and would have to be detected by trained technicians, trained laboratory technicians. But this individual will not be functioning the way that individual was programmed to function by the genes it inherited from its mother or father.

DH: You are saying that 20 percent of all children born are affected by this in some way?

TC: In one study it was demonstrated that up to 20 percent of the children were affected.

DH: Why weren't researchers looking for this earlier?

TC: I come from the area of pharmacology, which grew into toxicology when we began producing a large number of chemicals that we released into the environment. We wanted to find out what we were doing. And we felt that if we could use high-dose testing, really high doses, we wouldn't miss the probability of causing cancer. That was enough. That if we could rule that out we would certainly be protecting people from everything else as well.

So that is where we are. We have done high-dose testing. But what do you do with a population that is exposed to very, very low doses of something that can have an effect in the womb at very, very low doses and change the way the embryo develops?

DH: The general impression out there, by most people, is that there is quite a bit of testing that goes on before any product gets out on the market.

TC: There have been safety nets. But unfortunately the safety net that we used as our model was this 70 kilogram adult male. And we did not look at what happens during embryonic development in the womb or in the egg. And from the minute the sperm enters the egg, and this individual begins to develop, this whole process is driven by chemicals called hormones: first hormones that came with the egg from the mother and then gradually, as the cells split and split and divide and begin to form an organism, they begin producing some of their own hormones, but not much.

These chemicals are working at a concentration of 1/10th of a trillionth of a gram. That is all it takes of a hormone to make a change in how an individual develops in the womb.

Now, we are talking about chemicals that are getting in the human body at parts per million, parts per billion, parts per trillion. That is a lot higher than what the system operates within. And we didn't understand this. So testing chemicals on a fully grown individual who has developed and isn't developing any more, it would take a much larger dose of something to change the way that individual functions. Now we have to go back and think about what happens with humans those first 266 days from conception to birth.

DH: At one point you said it was obvious that these things were all related to the endocrine system. But it wasn't obvious to an awful lot of scientists looking at it. What triggered your curiosity here?

TC: I was working on a book on the state of the environment of the Great Lakes. And I 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 over, way over on Lake Ontario had done some work, written their papers, had them published in a number of different journals. None of them knew what the other was doing.

And basically, I sat in a wonderful position where I pulled all this

information together. And looking at it I said, "There is something wrong

here." And the easiest thing for me to do is to use -- thank goodness for

computers -- use a spreadsheet at a computer and start producing these

spreadsheets.

And as I plotted those names of the animals in the column on the left-hand side, this is called the "Y" column, and then on the "X" column I plotted the effects that were seen in the animals, it began to fall out that there were serious problems and actually population declines, population crashes, actually extirpation of some populations. They disappeared in some places.

Then there were reproductive effects: all kinds of reproductive problems. The youngsters didn't hatch, or if they did they didn't look good, birth defects.

And then I broke it down by what were some of the effects that the scientists were finding. They were finding thyroid problems in all the fish. In all the birds they looked at around the Great Lakes. This was the Great Lakes that we were looking at at the time.

Behavioral studies began to come out. The birds weren't behaving right: females and females pairing, the male birds not being territorial and scaring off predators.

There was a condition called "wasting" where the chicks in the eggs can't absorb the yolk sack to get energy and to produce protein. Or if they did hatch, wasting could set in after they were born, and suddenly they couldn't metabolize their food. And they would just waste away and die. Wasting was quite common in practically every species that was looked at around the Great Lakes.

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

What was the problem is that these effects were being seen in the youngsters: the offspring of the animals, not in the adult animals. And if you started reading the literature, some excellent work by Jim Ludwig and his dad, it definitely showed that the recruitment of the birds around the Great Lakes was very poor. Those birds that hatched there didn't come back. Each year there were new birds coming into the Great Lakes.

Here was a wonderful, wonderful system where birds could come and reproduce: the bald eagles coming to the shorelines of the Great Lakes, or new birds coming in from outside the area. After they are there a while, their youngsters don't survive.

And we were seeing fish with both female and male reproductive organs, male birds with female and male reproductive organs. It was quite fascinating. These were definitely endocrine effects, but they were being passed from the mother to the offspring. It didn't seem to affect the adult animals.

So that was the big concern to us. We have not tested our chemicals through a number of generations to see what would happen.

I became very, very cautious. And that was the importance of bringing this group of individuals together. People I had never met before. The real skeptics. The real gurus in your field. These were truly experts that met that first time at Wingspread and discussed this issue.

And I had made up my mind then that if they did not see what I thought I was seeing, because at the time you think you are making it up at times, I would walk away from it because there was no way I, as an individual, could do anything about the problem.

But instead, through this epiphany that took place that weekend, they saw what I saw. And they saw more than I did, because they were each knowledgeable, far more knowledgeable in each one of these various disciplines, to understand the implications of what it meant. So with their encouragement, then, I kept moving.

But I think I first realized this probably in early 1988, and I had started working on this in August of 1987 when I began collecting this literature and putting it together. And then also in putting it together for that first book, "Great Lakes, Great Legacy," that told this story, but very simply. And that is where we first broke with the challenge that cancer is not the deal and that we have to look for more.

My family will tell you that they thought I was overly concerned. My family is not involved in the work that I am doing. So the family didn't even understand what I was feeling. But I had at least 15 or 20 very dear friend wildlife biologists who were out there who knew this. They had a gut feeling about this for years. Who really were the ones who encouraged me to keep going.

The W. Alton Jones Foundation came through and gave me a three-year grant to just focus on this particular issue.

DH: The potential problem that you are taking on is huge.

TC: It is extremely huge. When you think about it, you get a funny feeling in your stomach when you think about the implications of the very current research. It is a problem that has forced me, in my position, to say that I think we need a Manhattan Project. A Manhattan-like project. Our military and American industry put their heads together, and within two years or so developed an atom bomb. And then we are going to have to establish an entity that takes the money and designs the research agenda to address this. We have got to come up with screens and assays to test chemicals for these effects. There is not one approved test or assay on the market today or in use to test chemicals for these effects.

Let's look at the problem that we know that hypospadias is occurring in one in a hundred boys. Hypospadias is a condition where the urethra doesn't come out of the end of the penis. The more severe form of hypospadias is where the urethra comes out of the scrotum. This is increasing. This event, that causes this problem, can only happen between days 56 and 84 during gestation. That is, 56 days after conception up to the 84th day 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.

We need to do this research and it needs to be done in a hurry. The science will be done back in the industry laboratories, in the regulatory laboratories and on campuses around the country. The information that comes from these studies will then be reviewed by independent scientists and the results of the work will be communicated independently without any special interest trying to change the objective results that are reached in these studies.

DH: One of the things that strikes me when you are talking is how much we still don't know.

TC: This is one of the things that worries me. We are so hell-bent on finding out what is 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 concentration the hormones act in the developing embryo to tell the embryo how to develop. We are just breaking through on this now. Isn't that ridiculous?

We have got the technology to do this. We haven't paid attention to what is normal. And the problem is, now it may be too late because there isn't anyone in the world who doesn't have a large number of what we call "persistent chemicals" in their body. There isn't a child born today that hasn't been exposed to these chemicals from the day of conception. So we can't go back and find out what was back then or what was normal. This is ridiculous.

DH: How different are we today than we were before the chemical age?

TC: We don't know. We have no way to compare. There is nothing in the literature about what is normal sperm production in any wildlife species that we could find.

I think it is 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. I hope we are going to see more of this. We need this basic research so we can understand better where the chemical can step in at each little access along the way of development.

DH: You come at this issue from a non-establishment point of view.

TC: That is probably why I got the perspective I did. Because I looked at it from an entirely different perspective. I looked at endocrinology differently. I began to look at toxicology. I was not trained in toxicology. I was trained in pharmacology until I went back to college to get my Ph.D. in my old age. Only then did I begin to sit in on toxicology courses.

There is a reductionism in scientists, in the scientific community. I have never been a reductionist. I am always thinking about the big picture. My thesis committee for my Ph.D. will tell you that. They had trouble with me.

DH: Science doesn't encourage that in some ways. There is, I have noticed, a conservative pressure on scientists to be very narrow in their focus.

TC: That is right. This is what your Ph.D. is all about: focusing on something and proving that you can do this one specific thing, and being the only expert in that. That is very, very important.

DH: You have obviously come up against a lot of resistance. What is it like to be at the spearhead of this effort that is challenging so much?

TC: I guess you ignore it. I don't take time to read what is being said about me.

DH: Has the attack been bad?

TC: I think it has been very sophisticated this time. I don't think anyone wants to stick their neck out like they did with Rachel Carson. I think industry has been kinder. I think in many instances they'd rather ignore me. The name of the game is to ignore me and not acknowledge that there is such a thing as endocrine disruption.

Industry definitely has taken a different approach, and are spending their money on public relations to point out the good work they are doing: how they are protecting human health, the environment. They are spending more money on telling you about the wonders of their product. And they are basically building up within the American public or the television viewing public, and those who read the press, basically that "We are good companies. We would do nothing to harm you. We will take care of you." So it is basically a matter of establishing complacency, I think, within the population.

So the role they are playing now more is to obfuscate the issue, to attack the science that has been coming from scientists that have been getting NSF grants and NIH grants for years. They are trying to discredit science. And they are trying to raise questions about whether this is a real phenomenon or not. So, between that and building their image, I think they have been very successful.

DH: There is a legitimate role that the skeptic plays in science.

TC: That is right.

DH: And ultimately, over time, skepticism helps to strengthen the evidence.

TC: That is right.

DH: We interviewed Steve Safe, who is a skeptic, and he was indignant at a suggestion that his science was in any way influenced by the funding that he got from industry.

TC: It isn't what Steve is writing. It is what Steve is out saying that is different.

He is one of the best scientists in the country. We have leaned on Steve Safe's work for years. He is the one who broke out the PCB congeners. He is the dioxin expert. This guy does good work in his laboratory. He is a reductionist.

DH: So where is he having a negative effect on this debate?

TC: I don't know whether Steve is having a negative effect or not. He is getting a lot of people upset, but he is certainly helping us bring this issue to the forefront. It is allowing us to get this issue before the public. It has attracted great crowds if we are both on the same speaking agenda. So people can hear this message. I am almost indebted to Steve Safe. The controversy is good for this issue.

It is what Steve says, not what Steve Safe does in his laboratory. He is a good scientist. But Steve has made some very derogatory remarks about the book, "Our Stolen Future". But he has also admitted he has never read it. And he doesn't intend to. By the way, I gave him a copy of my book as a gift. So we'll see. He is so funny. That is Steve. I have good times with him. We laugh a lot. He gave me a Texas A&M nightshirt. I was almost going to wear it today. I was tempted to put it on for the filming.

DH: What is the effect, then, of having him write in the "Wall Street Journal" that this is "bunk"? And to write in the "New England Journal of Medicine" that this is "paparazzi science"? What effect does that have on the legitimate debate about this issue?

TC: That is the casting the cloud. That is the confusing the public part of it that is very, very distressing. It really is.

DH: Well, the whole politicization of this issue is a fascinating thing. You don't fit the traditional role of the scientist. It is more than just the science here. There is a movement, isn't there?

TC: Believe me, I didn't plan this. This is not what I had as a career goal or how I would spend my retirement years at all. This has just sort of happened, and people depend upon me. I can tell you there are a whole bunch of scientists out there who can explain this better, who know it better than I do. I feel compelled to do something to try to make change. And I guess that is why I went back to college in my old age. I wanted to get the education so that I could maybe undo some of the things

that my generation basically foisted on society.

DH: All along the way it has led you further from the scientific laboratory, though.

TC: Oh, yes. Very much so, yes.

DH: And are you comfortable with that? Has there been a cost to you as a scientist for speaking out, for taking on the advocacy role that you have taken on?

TC: Oh, certainly. I am walking a very narrow line because of the traditional thinking that scientists must remain objective. And that is a big concern, and that may be something we are going to have to overcome if we want the truth about the things that we are doing. People are going to have to listen to the scientists and not reduce them in their status because they are speaking out because they are concerned.

And there was an excellent editorial about "Our Stolen Future" in "Science" magazine in which the authors of that editorial said, "The challenge now is up to the scientific community. Are they going to come forward and speak out?"

Those people who have done the work and who are speaking out, as far as endocrine disrupters, have paid a terrible price. Fortunately, those who have been speaking out have always worked on independent money or soft money from NSF, NIH or other sources of money from within their universities. They are speaking from their heart because they are so concerned, and I don't think that they should be discredited because of that. But that is a line, that is the tightrope that they walk. It is very difficult.

DH: Who do you blame for making this scientific debate so political, or how do you explain it? How did that happen?

TC: It is political because it goes to the core of the economy. It goes right back to international commerce and trade, and we have become dependent upon these products.

You wouldn't be sitting here today because you couldn't have flown in in an airplane that wasn't using some of these products. This equipment that you are filming me with, the electronics here, has all been dependent upon these chemicals that are now being indicted for causing endocrine disrupter type effects. That is why it is political.

You have got the vested interests. Governments don't want to put restrictions on the manufacturing of the product. The minute you start talking about this, people immediately think jobs. That is what it boils down to. Net profit. It is very political. It goes to the core of our economy and our lives.

DH: I have heard a statistic that 45 percent of American industries are in some way affected by this debate.

TC: For some companies, better than 50 percent of their profits are involved in chlorinated compounds or plastics.

DH: But it seems that both sides play the game. You have worked with PR groups. You have used focus groups to decide how to present your research to the public. You have done some opposition research. You have played the political game, too.

TC: Well we had to. We felt that we were dealing with such a serious problem, it couldn't be just dropped on the public like a bomb. What was the best way to do it? I don't think it was done for political reasons as much as it was to get people to pay attention to something like this.

Let's face it. When you first hear this, you just don't want to address it. Because I, as an individual, feel there is nothing I can do about it. How do you protect yourself from exposure to chemicals like this? That was another reason for doing focus groups: how do you get this information out without scaring people? That is the last thing you want to do.

So, yes, we did. But nowhere near, believe me, compared to what the industry people are doing. Our little effort was very, very meager. I know. It was done on a shoestring.

DH: Is it fair to say that both the environmentalists on one side and industry on the other side are trying to spin this issue to their advantage?

TC: I have never thought of putting a spin on it. All I have ever done is said it like it is. The important thing is to tell the truth from the evidence that you have.

DH: Working with a focus group, you don't see that as spinning?

TC: No. I don't think of that as spinning. See, I thought putting a spin on something was to try to find the angle that would most confuse people. Well, that is the "spin" from your perspective.

I guess the spin from our perspective then was to find the angle at which

we could not alarm people but get the message out to the public.

DH: The EPA, by mandate, is supposed to be looking out for the public.

TC: Well I have reports from the EPA, that are released by the EPA, that are counter to what their scientists have found in their laboratory at Research Triangle Park. They are letting products on the market today that we know are harmful: that the scientists who research at Triangle Park have told them are not safe.

That is why we need this independent research agenda where the message comes directly from the scientists who are doing the work and it is interpreted to the public without the spin from Research Triangle Park to 401 M Street in Washington, D.C.

This happens in state agencies. We have governors who want to remove fish advisories in their states and not issue them to the public. Yet the public health authorities are saying, "These chemicals are affecting our children."

Don't we have a right to try to figure out how to get this message out to the public, fair and square and honestly? That is why we used the focus groups.

DH: The W. Alton Jones Foundation has an agenda in their giving.

TC: Well they haven't given me any money for five, six years now. Jones put no money into the book. Absolutely none. There was a lot of money from Diane's and my pocket. We'll never get that money back, I don't think. We still owe the publishers. And unless you get into paperbacks, you don't make much money.

DH: Tell me what is to blame for endocrine disruption? What is causing this?

TC: Well, frankly, where chlorinated chemicals are concerned, we still have active sources that are out there: material products that we are still using that have PCBs in them, places where we produce DDT, big dump sites still sitting out there. But also PCBs are in construction materials, they are in the lighting equipment, they are blowing around on the air. Believe me, it is amazing.

They have done studies now. It looks like the same amount of PCBs are landing on the ground here as they are in the arctic. They have sort of become stabilized or incorporated over the surface of the earth and the atmosphere we are breathing. PCBs are everywhere. You can't get away from them.

These chemicals have definitely been shown to cause health problems, certainly with intelligence, behavior, with lactation periods -- the ability to produce milk and lactate during the normal length of period that you should. And also we know that a breakdown product of PCB is in everyone's tissue and actually can prevent normal development, physical development, as well.

A recent study, actually published in two separate papers, compared these chemicals, the PCBs and the dioxins and the furans in average food and also in fast foods. And basically found the same concentrations. You can't avoid these chemicals.

DH: You have a statement you make in all of your speeches about our own personal exposure.

TC: Well, I don't think you will find anybody on the surface of the earth today that doesn't have at least 500 measurable chemicals in their bodies that were never in anybody's body before the 1920s: chemicals that we know very little about.

DH: How do we know this is bad for us?

TC: We didn't think it was, but now we know. Because there are so many and we know that in some instances in the industrialized world, PCBs are at concentrations in the human body today where offspring all have neurological damage. And this has been traced now through age eleven.

At that particular concentration, as these children mature they will show short-term memory problems and by age eleven they may have as much as a 6.2 IQ deficit.

DH: A lot of people hear of these individual studies, like the effects of Great Lakes fish on IQ, and they think, "It is not me, because I am not there." Is that a fair assumption for them to be making?

TC: No. One of the things that came out of the Great Lakes study, and then corroborated with a study that was done in the Netherlands, is that for someone to have 1.2 parts per million of PCB in their body is not unusual. You don't have to be a fish eater to accumulate that amount of PCB in your blood fat.

Now remember, PCBs are in practically every fatty food you eat. They are in meats. They are in dairy products and cheeses. They are in ice cream, as are dioxins and DDT. The fattier the food, the higher concentration of these chemicals. So a lot will depend upon your dietary habits more than where you are living.

DH: Is there an average PCB exposure in the population?

TC: Well the average is about 1 part per million across the industrialized world. The farther north you go, the more concentrated it gets. Women living in the eastern arctic, Inuits up on [Baffin] Island in Canada, basically are running about 7 parts per million. The western Greenlanders, across the strait from them, are running 14 parts per million.

Now of course those Greenlanders are really isolated. They don't get any outside food. They are totally dependent upon narwhal seals, beluga whales, you know bird eggs, that sort of thing. So their diet definitely has an impact on them.

But you don't have to eat fish to run about 1 part per million in your body. We are seeing effects at 1.25 parts per million. Which isn't much higher. At 1.25 parts per million in the mother's blood fat, an infant will be born with measurable neurologic damage. Now the average person in the industrialized world is walking around with one part per million in his or her blood fat. So this suggests that a sizeable proportion of our children that are being born today are being affected.

And this has been corroborated by a study from the Netherlands where they looked at PCBs and dioxins. And they didn't look at fish eaters particularly in that study. They just looked at a cross-section of the population.

And it appears now that there are other chemicals that behave the same way. We don't know as much about the movement and the activity of the plastics, but we found some very unusual plastics that we didn't expect to find in the birds in the Pacific Ocean, as well.

DH: You tend to focus a lot on the child, on the fetus. A lot of this debate is centered around that. Is that because of what the focus groups found most effective?

TC: No. Because that is the truth. The whole problem lies during fetal and embryonic development: the early stages of development. This is what we discovered in the wildlife. All we are doing is telling the truth. These chemicals affect the very simplest forms of life, which is the single cells that begin to split and form individuals, whether it is a bird, a fish, a horse, a human being.

The problem is that our testing up until now has always been on adult animals. Our message is definitely on what has happened to the prenatal individual or the individual in the egg, and early life stages, because this is where the chemicals have their greatest effect. At extremely low concentrations. Not because focus groups told us to, believe me. This is just the science, the way the science has fallen. This is transgenerational exposure that we are talking about.

DH: It is very clear, in talking to a lot of people, that not everyone is convinced of the science yet. They feel that it is a good hypothesis, but they are not convinced that we have been able to prove the mechanism yet or firmly establish this with a degree of scientific proof that they are comfortable with.

TC: They are probably demanding too much. Remember, the endocrine system is extremely complex. It is not just sex hormones. It is the thyroid hormones. It is things called prostaglandins, which I am sure you have heard of. It involves neurotransmitters. It involves so much -- enzymes -- that to understand every mechanism of action is going to be impossible.

We have enough evidence about the mechanisms of action of some of these chemicals, and the processes that take place, that we can act now and move now. There is enough evidence to take certain chemicals off the market today. And we should. But we are not moving on that.

Using what is called the "weight of evidence" approach, it is time to do something and we should do it soon. So I think that is becoming a weaker argument as the weight of evidence piles up. And believe me, my filing cabinets are overflowing with this kind of information.

DH: When we interviewed Steve Safe, he said, "Name the chemical, and show that it is doing something wrong, and the EPA will act."

TC: Name a chemical and the EPA will act? That is 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 are still being released into the environment.

Steve's statement is not correct. And it takes forever for EPA to act. And a lot of lawsuits.

DH: Is there another way at it?

TC: Well, basically that is what the EDSTAC process is addressing. This is the Endocrine Disrupter Screening and Testing Advisory Committee that was established by EPA. Eighteen months in effect now. Tedious, with multiple-day meetings. Looking at how you are going to address the problem of 70,000 chemicals in use today. That is a conservative number, I have been told.

How we are going to look at them and decide which ones need to be tested first? Can they be tested as a class? Are there some that we know so much about now, already, that we can move on, rather than just screening and testing them for these effects, but move into the long-term multi-generational studies that we know we can do? And that process is being worked out now through a subcommittee called the Priority Setting Workgroup.

DH: And the fear of breast cancer, probably more than anything, drove policy makers to mandate this?

TC: I was amazed, believe me. I don't think any of us working in the field even knew this was going to happen.

DH: It was a big surprise for industry too.

TC: Do you really think it was the breast cancer that drove it? I don't think it was.

DH: Well, they had a big impact on Al D'Amato, who pushed for this legislation.

TC: Well maybe they did.

DH: D'Amato was motivated by the breast cancer groups.

TC: I don't know, maybe you're right. Maybe it was breast cancer. That's fascinating. We wrote into our book that I thought it was a very weak, very poor connection [between environmental contaminants and breast cancer].

DH: People have said, given that weak connection, maybe Congress should reconsider the law that they passed mandating screens for endocrine disrupters.

TC: No, I think 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 arrive, which may never happen again.

People are becoming more and more aware of it. You hear it in the mainstream jargon, on talk radio, you see it in the newspaper, in the everyday magazines that are going into people's homes, the women's magazines. It's getting out.

It is a very difficult message to tell people: that maybe your child will be born and it won't be the same because of the presence of these chemicals in your body as it would have been if it hadn't been, if these chemicals hadn't been, around to interfere with and get the wrong messages to the genes in your body while your baby was developing. And maybe your baby won't live up to its fullest potential because of this.

DH: Some people say Lake Apopka is a really polluted lake, and "the dose makes the poison".

TC: Well, people said that about the Great Lakes. We're beginning to realize now that the Great Lakes are about average.

We went out to Midway Island where birds that fly the North Pacific Ocean -- they're albatrosses -- feed only on the surface of the ocean. We were amazed when they did the chemistry on some of the eggs and some of the blood from the birds and found that these birds have dioxins in them, believe it or not, and PCBs. And they're at a concentration just at, and slightly below, the level where we're finding troubled populations of birds around the Great Lakes.

DH: What if you're wrong about this? What if it's not endocrine disruption? What if we figure out it's definitely something different?

TC: Let's put it this way: the amount of money that's going into research up until now has been peanuts. Are you willing to gamble? That's what it boils down to.

DH: Are we in the position now that Doctor Snow was in 1854 when he took it upon himself to disable that disease-ridden water pump?

TC: The only thing is, he cut if off dramatically. No one is suggesting that we cut this thing off dramatically. We know we can't. We want to work with industry. We want to compromise. But we have to be very careful how we compromise, and we could be sucked into this thing if we're not careful.

How far will industry go before they clean up their act? And, I think right now we've seen a perfect example of what can happen with the cigarette industry. And up until now I've been thoroughly convinced that the industrialists did not know about the products that they were producing or they would not have produced them.

DH: What about the parallels between you and Rachel Carson? She writes a book. She is vilified. You write a book. You are vilified. Do you find yourself at all thinking about her? Do you draw any strength from her?

TC: I don't compare myself with her at all. She was a beautiful writer. She didn't have to get a writer to translate her science to the public. She worked alone. She certainly was a pioneer. No, I think she stands alone. On her own pedestal. I should not be compared to her.

 

special reports .  picture gallery .  quiz .  cautionary advice for journalists .  interviews .  timeline
how do hormones work? .  discussion .  links .  tapes & transcripts .  press reactions
frontline online .  wgbh .  pbs online

 
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

 

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS