Interview: Stephen Safe, Ph.D.


Safe is a Distinguished Professor of Toxicology, Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology at Texas A&M University. Safe has conducted major research into the anti-estrogenic effects of manmade chemicals. He has been a leading critic of the endocrine disruption hypothesis espoused by Theo Colborn and others.

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

DH: How concerned are you about the health effects of synthetic chemicals in our environment, and about this whole issue of endocrine disruption?

SS: Based on at least the human data, I'm not particularly concerned. You have to divide these chemicals into what we know and what we don't know. What we do know, for example, is that the organochlorine endocrine disrupters -- thanks to our regulatory agencies who have banned most of these compounds -- are going down in the Great Lakes regions, in other regions and in human tissue. And so, that's a good thing. Are there any effects? I don't know. I don't think so, but it's a possibility. But, at least they're going down.

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

SS: 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 saying that meta-analysis of sperm count studies indicated that there was a fifty percent decline in sperm count 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.

DH: Is there a problem?

SS: You have to be more specific: is there a problem where? Is there a wildlife problem? Based on what I've been told in the reports, there are clearly wildlife problems in certain areas. In other areas, such as many areas in the Great Lakes, there's a recovery of wildlife. It isn't a complete recovery, but there has been a recovery of bird populations, etc. But, there are hot spots. And there still are problems, particularly associated with organochlorines. And hopefully, with time, we can overcome those problems, because most of these chemicals have either been banned or their uses have been restricted.

DH: One reads an awful lot about endocrine disruption now that makes people very concerned. How do you know if that concern is well founded?

SS: I think there is a concern based on laboratory animal studies, on wildlife studies and some limited results in humans, which I think are perhaps a concern. But, for the most part, I think the concern is overblown. I wouldn't dismiss it, but I'm hopeful that the concerns are not a major health concern. At least in term of humans.

DH: Why do you draw such a distinction between humans and animals? Aren't humans animals?

SS: Oh, absolutely. And I think that the reason why I'm not dismissing the issue is the fact that there is good animal data and there is some good wildlife data indicating that these chemicals can be a problem. I was involved in a lot of these issues in the 1970s, around the Great Lakes, when we really had problems, when the levels were high. And luckily, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies banned these chemicals and the levels are going down in fish and wildlife and humans -- in some areas, not as fast as we'd like. But, it seems a little bit strange to me that we're so worried about them now when many years ago the levels were much higher than they are now. I think we have to be reassured that they're going down.

DH: But the reason there's concern now is that we're beginning to look for different things. We're beginning to look for effects from endocrine disruption as opposed to cancers or death.

SS: Right. I think that's the reason why there is an increased concern and why I wouldn't dismiss it. I think that it's something that has to be looked into and is being looked into. A number of studies are being funded. And I think that's a good idea.

DH: So, you're saying, "Don't worry so much. Fortunately, the levels are going down." So, if you were going to write a headline for America to read, it would be what?

SS: I don't know that I'd really want to write a headline on this at all. I think it's an issue. It's based on hypotheses, laboratory animal and wildlife data. And we are and should be looking at humans. Much of the data does not show that we're in dire straits with respect to many endocrine related problems.

DH: I think one of the points that I've heard you make before is that people tend to jump on these bandwagons too much. And somehow, endocrine disruption is becoming a bandwagon. What you're saying is we've got to know the facts.

SS: Yeah, I think that's true in a way. We all jump on bandwagons, myself included. Particularly if you're a scientist, because you're always looking for funding. So, it perhaps is a bandwagon. But I think, and have always stated, that I think the endocrine disrupter hypothesis is reasonable. I don't see the data which shows that we're having a lot of endocrine related problems, but I still think we should be looking at some of these problems and trying to correlate them with chemicals. We have very little real correlation data.

DH: Where do you think this issue is going to be ten years from now?

SS: I personally have been working on these organochlorines since the early 1970s, and about every five years somebody says, "Well, you'd better get out of that, it's just not going to be around in five years." And here we are, about twenty-five years later, and people are still hyped on them. And so, I wouldn't want to make any predictions about organochlorines and some of these types of chemicals

DH: You spoke a little bit about why this caught people's attention, in terms of studies coming out at the same time, but is there something more? Something about how people, non-scientists, are looking for answers? Is there some sort of fear out there or a need to have explanations for things that are somewhat of a mystery to us?

SS: I think it's natural to want explanations. I think one thing that we've got to understand is that we've had an increase in life span. At least in North America, and probably Europe, we've never been healthier.

DH: So with this issue of endocrine disruption, you're saying we should keep it in perspective.

SS: I think we should keep it in perspective. And, again, just because I'm doubtful doesn't mean I'm right. I'm bringing a point of view to it, but I'm not dismissing it. Hopefully, that's the point I'd like to get across.

DH: Do you think you're right on this?

SS: I think I'm right, but I don't know that I'm right.

DH: What's the difference?

SS: Well, the difference is, I don't think scientifically all the studies are in. I think there are a number of things that have to be done. There's been a lot of focus on organochlorine compounds. There are other endocrine-active chemicals, or endocrine disrupters, that we're not measuring in humans. They could be important. I don't know. And I think I'd like to see some data on that. So, we have to wait for these things. So, although I'm skeptical, I'm not dismissive.

DH: You're skeptical, but someone else might argue with you and say, "You know, there's a potential human health effect here, and shouldn't we err on the side of prevention, as opposed to skepticism?"

SS: Yeah, I think you've got a good point. But, what are we going to prevent and what's the chemical? Organochlorines have been the focus. Our Environmental Protection Agency and FDA and regulatory agencies have basically banned the use of these chemicals. The levels are going down. What more can they do or we do?

DH: Aren't people still afraid? They see breast cancer rates rising. They see other cancer rates rising and they need an explanation for it. They want an explanation for it.

SS: Well, breast cancer rates are pretty steady. The incidence has increased and, at least for some people in the field, it is ascribed to increased surveillance, increased mammograms. Mortality has increased, I think, only in the older group. And remember, cancer is a disease of old age. But, it's decreased in some younger groups. There are some cancers that are increasing. There are some that are decreasing. There's no question, in my mind, that lung cancer is connected with chemicals -- and those are the components of smoke.

DH: Cigarettes?

SS: Cigarettes, yes.

DH: Let's get back to this: you seem to draw a distinction between humans and animals, between the animal studies and the human studies. Aren't we all animals?

SS: In terms of animal studies and human studies, I think animal studies are very important and if we didn't have any animal data we probably wouldn't look for human effects. But if we have animal data, that gives us a signal that we should be looking. In terms of endocrine disruptors, we have some pretty impressive animal data. And that, I think, is driving some of the worry and concern about endocrine disruptors and I don't disagree with that. I think that's important. 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.

DH: Let's talk about alligators now. There is good wildlife data that shows declining sperm counts and reduced phallus size in animals. There seem to be human studies that run parallel to this. Isn't that a concern?

SS: Oh, it's a concern. But I think we have to take into account a couple things. Number one, the alligators in Lake Apopka are living in a lake which bordered 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 that's one of the reasons many of these chemicals were either banned or restricted in use.

DH: But you're saying it's a specific problem: one lake, Lake Apopka.

SS: I don't know how far it ranges. You'll have to talk to several alligator experts to determine the range of problems with alligators. I'm not an expert in alligators.

DH: But the point you're making is that Lake Apopka is not a model for what's happening in the world.

SS: No, I don't think Lake Apopka is a model for what's happening in the world. But it's not a bad model for what can be happening in some contaminated parts of the world. And I think it gives us a lesson that we've got to be careful. And that's why we have regulatory agencies that try to make us careful, that try to make industry careful. But I think the alligator story in Lake Apopka is very instructive.

DH: What's wrong with looking at Lake Apopka and saying, "The alligators here are affected. It's like what's happening with humans. We should be really worried."

SS: What you're saying is that the alligators are affected, therefore we should be worried. The birds in the Great Lakes were affected and we should have been worried. But, what you allude to is that what's happening to the alligators is happening to the humans. What is happening to humans? Is there a worldwide problem, in analogous terms for the alligators? In my opinion, there is not, or at least it hasn't been proven.

DH: And you would say there's not a problem.

SS: I wouldn't say there's not a problem, but I think the evidence does not show a parallel between what's happening to the alligators and what's happening to humans. We live in a slightly different environment.

DH: Some would point out that you're a scientist looking at chemistry in a laboratory, but ultimately this issue is about effects on species, on biology.

SS: Right.

DH: Are you in a position to really say what's happening to complex biological species, from where you sit?

SS: I'm in a position to read what Lou Guillette and his colleagues write about alligators and appreciate it, just as much as he or I are in a position to read and appreciate what people write on human studies with respect to sperm counts. I work in the laboratory, but we work on animals. We're interested in how genes are turned on. We happen to work with laboratory animals, not animals in the wild. I don't know that excludes me from being interested in animals in the wild.

DH: Right, but your focus is -- you're a chemist.

SS: I'm a chemist, right. But, my laboratory and my students and I are focused on a lot of biological problems in molecular biology, on the estrogen receptor, and that's how I got into this issue. And we're focused on developing anti-estrogens that, hopefully, in the future, might have some use in treatment of breast cancer. So, I'm in this field of endocrine disruption. It happens to be at the estrogen receptor level, at the dioxin receptor level, and trying to understand how they talk to each other and trying to develop analogues for treatment of breast cancer.

DH: I guess one of the things that is interesting here is that two scientists can look at the same thing and see something so different.

SS: Do we see something different? I have no argument whatsoever with what Lou is looking at in terms of alligators. I'm all for Lou and his alligators. I don't think I've ever said anything negative about Lou's alligators and the results I get. I think it's really interesting.

DH: But of limited use when looking at potential human effects?

SS: 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. Let's not discard the alligators, because 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, not alligators.

DH: It's hard to look at humans though, because you can't experiment on them. Isn't that the problem?

SS: That's exactly the problem. Epidemiologists can design experiments to look and see if there is a problem. They can design experiments to see if the problem correlates with a chemical exposure, or not. It's a more difficult experiment, but a lot of the wildlife studies are pretty difficult too. They're correlational. The defect in wildlife correlates with something, and how do you know it's the right thing?

So, those are difficult studies. Where Lou has definitive answers, I think, is in the laboratory where you can do it under controlled conditions, just as we can do our studies with laboratory animals under controlled conditions. The field studies, in many cases, are still problematic. And the same thing goes with human studies.

DH: You said, "Let's not look at the animal studies, let's look at the human studies if we want to understand human effects." But you've also said that you only get definitive answers in the lab. You can't do human experiments in the lab.

SS: That's right. We can't do human experiments in the lab, and we can't do wildlife experiments in the lab. And, in the end, if we want to make a scientific judgement on what's happening to wildlife and happening to humans without doing experiments, we have to just make a scientific judgement. And, my scientific judgement may differ from someone else's. It's up to the individual to listen to both sides, and come out where they believe. There are differences.

DH: So, in a sense, you're saying there's a rush to judgement?

SS: Yeah, I really do think so. When we get on to some of the sperm count studies... If that hadn't come out, who'd care about short alligator penises?

DH: What do you mean by that?

SS: I think that the endocrine disruption issue, which I think is a valid issue and concern, arose not because of one study, but because of a number of studies and a number of hypotheses that came out at about the same time.

DH: Hypotheses that said what?

SS: Well, that said based on laboratory animal studies, on wildlife studies, including the alligators in Lake Apopka, that we should be concerned about exposure to endocrine-active compounds and their subsequent effect on the infant and adult.

DH: But why did the sperm count studies and the alligator studies drive this?

SS: Well, I don't say that they drove it, and I think these studies covered not only sperm counts. There are problems in neurodevelopment that have been brought up, and the breast cancer issue, and many of them focused on papers or were published in papers that appeared in 1992, 1993, 1994.

DH: Let's talk about the sperm counts. It seems from several studies that there is a significant decline, worldwide, in sperm counts. That sounds pretty convincing.

SS: Well, there's one study that was published on a worldwide decline in sperm counts over the last fifty years. And that was a very important study, came out of a group from Denmark. In 1993, they hypothesized that perhaps this was related to endocrine-active compounds, particularly environmental estrogens. And it was later extended to environmental anti-androgens. That was an important study, which really triggered this whole thing.

DH: What's wrong with it? It sounds convincing.

SS: It triggered many other studies. It's being reexamined and reanalyzed and some people think it's lacking and some people think it's okay. I know the people that published the study and I'm sure it was done in good faith, with data they had at the time. But what's happened since then is very interesting. It triggered a lot of sperm count studies. And what's happened is that in several centers, sperm counts were going down.

But the important thing that we now know, that we really didn't know in 1992, is that within regions there's tremendous variability. It's called demographic variability. And so in the American studies that were published by Harry Fisch and his coworkers, in New York the sperm counts are high and have been steady for the last twenty or twenty-five years. They're higher than in Minnesota, and much higher than in California. And in all three locations, they found that the sperm counts were steady over the last twenty or twenty-five years. And this has now happened in a number of locations where, within a fairly small area, there are big variations in sperm counts.

DH: Aren't there are other studies, though, that took that criticism into account and reworked the correlation and showed that indeed there is a decline, even excepting the geographic differences?

SS: Well, I don't think that most people in the field would accept that there's a decline. Not in the light of the recent studies.

DH: Doesn't the preponderance of evidence make you concerned that something is happening?

SS: I don't think the studies do make one concerned. At least my analysis of them, and a number of people who've analyzed them. I think that it's not a closed issue.

DH: Why are there so many scientists who do feel that this is a convincing hypothesis when you seem to say it's not?

SS: Well, the word "so many" is your word. There certainly are a number that don't believe it at all. Then we just have to continue on and do more work until there's more resolution. And that's the utility of science. When there's more agreement maybe we can stop worrying. And in the mean time, studies are underway. Let's see what the results are before we come to any final conclusion. And remember, on this kind of issue there'll be some people on both sides of the issue that facts will not dissuade. And I hope I'm not one of them, but that's a possibility.

DH: Some people would say you're one of them.

SS: Yeah, some people would say that. On the other hand, I would say certain other people on the other side might be examples of that too. I think it just remains to be seen. I think I've tried to keep an open mind. I've not dismissed it. I try to discuss it in terms of what we know in the literature. And if some people judge that I'm intractable in this then it's unfortunate. I don't mean to be.

DH: Why do you think people have that feeling about you?

SS: Well, some people may have that feeling about me because when I get up and give a lecture, perhaps I'm too forceful.

DH: Tell me what you think Theo Colborn's role has been in this issue.

SS: Well, Theo's really been the catalyst, I think, in terms of her long-range observations of wildlife problems, particularly in the more contaminated Great Lakes. And she's followed those problems for years, and she's also involved in many other things.

DH: She wrote a book that certainly has brought a lot of attention to this issue.

SS: Yes, that's correct.

DH: The central idea of the book is the hypothesis that chemicals are out there mimicking hormones, and that it's having significant effects in wildlife and potentially in humans. Is that a fair...

SS: I think that's a fair estimation of it. I think the hypothesis is fine, and that's what's being tested in experiments that are going on everywhere.

DH: You think the hypothesis is fine, but you've said in your own writings that it is total bunk. You've dismissed it.

SS: I think "total bunk" is overdoing it. And if I said it, that's probably overdoing it. What we've tried to do is discuss the sperm count issue, and I don't think that the data shows that there's a worldwide decrease in sperm counts. Some people do, some people don't. And that's my opinion based on the data, and that's all I can tell you. My opinion based on the data in other areas of the endocrine disruptor hypothesis is either doubtful, or that perhaps there's something there. We can talk about it.

DH: Fred vom Saal has shown, in some of his work, permanent physiological effects in rats exposed to extremely low doses of certain chemicals. Does that concern you?

SS: I think vom Saal's work is very, very interesting.

DH: Are you convinced by it?

SS: Well, I have no reason not to be convinced by his data. It looks very interesting to me.

DH: But you say it needs to be replicated in other labs?

SS: Oh, obviously. It's such a dramatic effect of a relatively weak estrogen, in most of the systems, and he's getting effects at very, very low doses. So that's obviously of tremendous interest, and I'm sure people are looking at it in his mouse model and in other models. I think it's important work.

DH: Tell me why it's so significant.

SS: Well, the interesting thing about vom Saal's work is that they're finding an effect at a very low dose, and then that effect goes away at higher doses and the reverse effect happens. And that's very unusual. The significance of those effects I think we need to look at carefully, and he may have uncovered something that people are missing. Or maybe not. I think it's very important work.

DH: Does it challenge in some ways the basic understanding of toxicology right now: that the dose makes the poison?

SS: Not really. What he's shown is that maybe we didn't look at low enough doses. That's what he's shown. He's got a very unusual, what he calls "inverted-U" shaped dose-response, which in a way contradicts the idea that the dose makes the poison, in one sense. In another sense, it might not. And that's why I think we have to do a lot more work on that model, not only in mice but in other species, and find out is it happening in humans and to other animals and wildlife. I think it's very important.

DH: What do you think of his work as a scientist, in general?

SS: I've read some of his papers and I think they're very interesting to me.

DH: He's been critical of you, and said that he is skeptical of a lot of what you've said because of the amount of industry funding you've gotten.

SS: Well Fred and I are not friends. That's for sure. I'm not going to make the comments about him that he's made about me. I find it very strange -- one of his colleagues is funded by industry. My views on this area have been the same before I was funded by industry, while I was funded by industry and since I've been funded by industry. And if Fred vom Saal and his ilk think I lie for industry, I can tell him he's crazy. Just as I can tell people on the other side that if they think Theo Colborn lies for the World Wildlife Fund, they're crazy. Because she doesn't. She gives her honest opinion and so do I. And I think it's a McCarthy-like tactic. And it's an outright lie.

DH: A MacCarthy-like tactic? What do you mean?

SS: It's sort of like innuendo; because someone has a different opinion, therefore they're being paid off. That's false. That doesn't fit with science, and I can tell you it's not true in my case. And it's not true on the other side, in Theo's case and in other people's. Just because someone is funded by an environmental organization, I don't think that they are going to lie because of that. I don't believe that at all. We can have an honest difference of opinion without accusing people of distorting. I give my opinion, and that's it.

DH: Do you think that industry would continue to support you if your findings disagreed with what they wanted?

SS: I did have some funding. I don't have some funding now. Will they fund me again? I don't know. I haven't had that much contact with them. What responsible industry tends to do now is they'd like to know if there's a problem. I believe that one of Fred vom Saal's colleagues is funded by the Chemical Manufacturers Association. A number of people whose views disagree with them I think have been funded by them. I don't know who they fund. But what I do find with many of them is they'd rather know than be fooled down the line and have a lot of problems. Now, there may be exceptions to this, but that's been my general impression of the industry people that I've interacted with at meetings.

DH: You cannot talk to scientists without their saying, "You have to look at where someone's funding comes from." They're also quick to say that it's not necessarily making someone lie. But they do look skeptically at science funded by industry, and will question where the funding comes from for a particular piece of research.

SS: There may be some skepticism. Most of my funding comes from the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Health Sciences Institute, and the Cancer Institute. That's where most of my funding has always come from.

DH: What percentage of your funding comes from industry?

SS: At the present time, perhaps one grant. But it's very targeted to a specific biochemical reaction. I don't know, ten percent, twelve percent.

DH: What about over the last five years?

SS: Over the last five years, maybe closer to twenty percent or less.

DH: We looked a little into your funding, and you have received a hundred and fifty thousand a year from the Chemical Manufacturers Association for the last three years. You've gotten money from the National Cattlemen's Association, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, and you've certainly gotten consulting fees.

SS: You're right about the Chemical Manufacturers Association. In terms of the Cattlemen's Association, someone at Texas A&M asked me to do it, and we are an agricultural school and I did it. I'm not sure what consulting fee I got from that, but since 1994 I don't take any personal money. I get a good salary from Texas A&M University and I'm not profiting from these grants at all.

DH: You get no honorarium from...

SS: Well, that's not true. If I get an honorarium when I'm speaking, I'll take that. But I do minimal consulting, and over the last three or more years any consulting money I get I give to the university -- with one exception. I'm involved with a drug company in developing a new anti-cancer drug, and I'm on their scientific advisory board and I get paid a little money from them.

DH: They pay you a hundred and eight thousand dollars a year for your research for them. Is that right?

SS: I think it says that the direct costs are about seventy, seventy thousand or seventy-five thousand, yes.

DH: What sort of pressure does that put on you to pursue a certain kind of research?

SS: Oh, it doesn't put any pressure on me at all. I'm just thrilled to be able to have extra support to try and develop a drug. Whether it'll come to fruition or not, I don't know. Many drug companies and biotechnology companies fund research in universities. This is just one example.

DH: So, you've gotten significant grants from private industry over the years to do certain research. Has that affected your science in any way?

SS: Absolutely none at all. I don't consult with them before I publish. My students do most of the work, and I supervise it, and I've never been interfered with at all.

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

SS: I've had no pressure whatsoever. And feel no pressure whatsoever.

DH: Do you think that they would continue to support your work if you proved that their chemicals caused terrible health effects?

SS: They may or may not. If I were an industry I probably wouldn't.

DH: Why do you not get funding from the Chemical Manufacturers Association anymore?

SS: I have no idea. I just haven't got it and that's fine.

DH: Would you like that money? A hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money for scientific research.

SS: Because I'm in the spotlight over this issue, and because people like you and Fred vom Saal bring it up as if I'm a dupe of industry, it's probably better now that I don't have it.

DH: Do you think that someone should look at where a scientist's funding comes from in analyzing their science?

SS: No, I don't. I think that the Society of Toxicology is going to address that in a paper and take the stand that the source of one's funding should not determine the honesty of the science. And I know it wouldn't in my case. And I'm sure it wouldn't in most of the people I know on either side of the issue, whether they get it from an environmental organization, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, or the Chemical Manufacturer's Association. In fact, in the last round of endocrine grants the Chemical Manufacturers Association is co-funding some grants with EPA. I think scientific dishonesty is really against science, regardless of who's funding it. What can happen if you're funded by a certain organization, whether it be an environmental or an industrial, is that you may focus in a particular area and you may have to address that issue.

DH: We've seen memos by a public relations agency for the chemical industry that said things in them like, "Find scientists who will support our position. Go out there and find groups that can speak on our behalf."

SS: Right.

DH: Isn't that clear indication that the industry is trying to manipulate the scientific process in some way?

SS: Well, I can't speak for industry. Besides meeting people at meetings, I've had minimal contact with this so-called industry behemoth that you bring up. I presume it's the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and I've interacted with them. I've been to their offices once, interacted with them on another issue. I don't know if they're doing it or not. They're certainly not doing it to me. And I think I mentioned to you before, my views are the same from before I got funding, while I was funded, and since I've been funded. So, my bias -- if you want to call it bias -- hasn't changed.

DH: You say that the good scientist should be skeptical and try to find the best evidence that's out there. Yet at the same time, many of your public statements seem to try to dismiss this entire issue. You've called it "bunk". You've called it "paparazzi science". You've written in major publications like "The Wall Street Journal" and "The New England Journal of Medicine", and in all of them you've dismissed this issue.

SS: I think if you read the articles carefully, I haven't dismissed the issue. I'm one of the few people who has been given the opportunity to say, "Well, hey, it's not as bad as all that." And I try to give the reasons why. If people don't want to accept those reasons, in terms of papers that are published by people and the data that's out there, if they don't want to accept them, that's fine. But, in terms of, of media and the media stomping on a subject, I'm in the barest, weakest, minor minority.

DH: [Laughter.] Okay. But, you say you are just trying to counter the weight of the media attention that the other side has gotten.

SS: No, no. I'm not saying that I'm countering the weight. I'm trying to balance it a little bit and present data that I think is important. When "The Wall Street Journal" phoned me up, I initially said, "No, I think there's some important papers coming out that I know about. When they're published then I'll address a few of the issues." And that's what I tried to do. I did not write the headline of the article and I would not have written that headline. But I wrote what's in the article, and I tried to expound on it and give the reasons why I believed it.

DH: But in that article you say things like, "In light of the new findings, will Congress reconsider the laws it passed last year?" You're asking a question to politicians, saying, "You really should reconsider; the evidence just isn't there."

SS: Well, I think they should reconsider. And why shouldn't they look at new data and reconsider it? They may not find it compelling, but I don't see anything wrong with that statement.

DH: And you've said, "Just because Denmark has a problem and a few alligators developed small penises doesn't mean our sperm counts are going down or that our reproductive success has declined. I just don't think we should extrapolate."

SS: That statement is a fair one. I think it's clear that in the diet we have all sorts of endocrine disruptors. And we, in collaboration with a number of other groups, are looking at some of the natural versus the synthetic. And we take in a lot of naturally occurring estrogenic compounds.

DH: But aren't the organochlorines stored in your body?

SS: They're persistent, yes.

DH: Doesn't that make them more dangerous?

SS: Well, it makes them less acceptable, that's for sure. But the levels in serum are quite low compared to the very high serum levels we see of some natural estrogenic compounds.

DH: Why do you think that this issue has become so politicized?

SS: These days almost everything becomes politicized, so that's not surprising. The people that I know in this field, on both sides, are all honorable people. Now, you may be looking in a different direction than someone else, but I don't think it'll affect the science. It's just not a pleasant situation under certain circumstances and certain meetings because people have taken the issue personally.

DH: And many scientists would say that you have taken the issue very personally and escalated the heat by calling this "paparazzi science", by saying this is an "environmental hoax", things like that.

SS: The minimal media coverage that I get I don't think is going to make much of a dent into the issue. There's no way that Steve Safe can compare to an alligator on Lake Apopka: not in any way, shape or form. I hope my contribution has been to put some more balance into it. And if it's not seen as balance by some people, so be it.

DH: When you talk about "paparazzi science", are you just referring to the media and it's coverage of the science? Or are you referring in some way to the science itself, and the debate within the scientific community?

SS: Not the science itself, but it's sort of like the scientific debate and its interaction with sound bite paparazzi type stuff.

DH: Do the Jacobson's findings raise your level of concern?

SS: Oh, yes. The Jacobson studies raise my level of concern. And I think one of the things we've got to consider is that Joe and Sandy Jacobson carried out their work a long time ago. And levels, certainly in humans, of PCBs have declined. It's still a correlational study, but it's a very interesting study and I think it spurred new studies both in this country and in Europe.

And the results really aren't all in. We're looking at a situation now where PCB levels, if they were the cause, are lower than what they were in the early 1980s when the Jacobson study was initiated. So, I think it's a very interesting study and I'm really glad to see that a number of follow-ups are currently in progress. And I think we'll have to see what's happened. Luckily, PCBs, whether it's the cause or not we don't know, have been banned.

DH: Do you think that the Jacobson's studies have been misused by those who support the endocrine disruption hypothesis?

SS: No, I don't think it's been misused at all. And I think it's a very important and valid support for the endocrine disruptor hypothesis. It may be that PCBs don't cause their effects strictly through endocrine pathways, but I don't think that matters.

DH: What purpose do you think the EDSTAC process will serve?

SS: Hopefully it'll come up with a series of screenings and tests for endocrine disruptors and then decide on some of the more important ones.

DH: Do you think the science is there to support the political process that's in place?

SS: I really don't want to comment on the political process. EPA has been mandated to do something, and I think they're doing it in the best way they can. Do I think that Congress should have mandated the EPA to do this? There are a lot of scientists that don't agree with Congress mandating science. But EPA is doing what they're supposed to do, so it'll have to work itself out.

DH: What really was it that brought you to put yourself forward on this issue?

SS: In 1993,I think it was the "Lancet" paper on the hypothesis about environmental estrogens and male reproductive capacity, but particularly the breast cancer hypothesis. And my involvement in this was, there was a great concern about these organochlorine compounds out there that were acting as estrogens and therefore contributing to breast cancer. And my research was focused on organochlorines that are anti-estrogens. And they were never discussed in the context of the estrogenic organochlorines. Nor were natural estrogens and natural anti-estrogens discussed. And I'd been teaching a graduate course, and really had become influenced by Bruce Ames' work in terms of synthetic industrial-derived carcinogens versus the natural ones in foods. That combination got me involved in this area. I thought, "Hey. Something's missing here." And so, I started.

MC: Lou Guillette has a little button in his office that says "Rachel Carson was right".

SS: I think Rachel Carson was right in many things, and I think we can be thankful to her for bringing up the use of organochlorines in excess and bringing up the wildlife effects. And we can be thankful to her, and subsequently our regulatory agencies, for stopping it.

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, what do we have to act on right now? I don't know. Name me a chemical. The reasons for banning DDT and PCBs were pretty simple. These, unfortunately, are the kinds of chemicals we don't handle very well, and wildlife handles them poorly. They are persistent, organochlorine chemicals that persist in our body and present a long-term threat. And that's been dealt with. And, in areas where it hasn't been, we should continue dealing with them. And I think EPA is continually trying to decrease emissions of organochlorines.

 

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