Discussion: Man-made chemicals and endocrine disruption -- what are your views on this alarming new theory being studied and debated within the scientific community?

Dear FRONTLINE,

I watched, with great attention, the Frontline story "Fooling With Nature." I have a personal interest in this show, as I am a member of the research team that originally documented developmental abnormalities in alligators at Lake Apopka, FL. The coverage by Frontline was both interesting and evenhanded. I am somewhat amused by the fact that the Frontline piece should be produced now, four years after the BBC offered "Assault On The Male" to the US market. At that time, PBS decision-makers labeled the BBC production as "too controversial" for airing in the States. I still found the PBS program to be very good and generally informative.

Following the completion of my Ph.D. at the University of Florida (Yes. Louis Guillette was my dissertation advisor), I conducted research at Clemson University on the potential effects of endocrine disrupting contaminants (EDCs) in mouse, quail, and alligator embryos. This research was supported by the Chemical Manufacturers Association. Many of the results from this work remain unpublished, but the data are fairly conclusive. Exposure to EDCs in a controlled, laboratory setting can lead to similar abnormalities as those seen in wildlife populations from contaminated sites - mostly associated with inappropriate gender determination and steroidogenic potential. I continue to work on the effects of organochlorine pesticides in reptilian gonadal differentiation.

Much of the debate about endocrine disruption has focused on the connection between wildlife effects and potential risk to human health. The issues are complicated and the physiology of gonadal differentiation in many animal models is still not fully understood, but the Amercian public has a right to know that there is a potential threat to their health. As Lou Guillette is quick to point out, we do not have enough data to make solid statements about cause and affect relations, but we know that there is a possibility of human effects based on the similarity of other vertebrate systems. DES syndrome is a situation that indicates the potential for human effects from endocrine disruption during embryonic development. Steve Safe's comments about alligators not being humans has some validity, but he should acknowledge the common developmental and endocrine regulatory mechanisms seen in ALL vertebrates. The chemical industry has been quick to discount our work on alligators because these animals do not have sex chromosomes, gonadal differentiation is influenced by incubation temperature. While the initial "trigger" for gonad formation may be unique, the endocrine modulators that direct differentiation are the same in alligators and in mammals - steroid synthesis (production and androgens and estrogens) is critical for the appropriate expression of gender development.

Controversy surrounding endocrine disruption has been a "shot-in-the-arm" for researchers working in my area of interest - comparative vertebrate endocrinology. Five years ago we were zoologists working on the endocrine physiology of reptilian reproduction. Today we have been asked to turn field and laboratory data into governmental policy. A responsibility with which none of us is very comfortable. Studies on endocrine disruption have recieved limited grant support - funding for research on cancer, AIDS, and other human diseases have dwarfed the amount spent on endocrine disruption. Part of the disparity in funding has been due to vocal opposition to the veracity of endocrine disruption. Many chemical and pharaceutical interests have it in their own financial interest to see this issue down-played as having any human significance. An anthropocentric view has also hindered the legitimacy of the issue. Wildlife population effects have been documented in contaminated environments, but human health effects have been more difficult to elucidate under the inherent limitations of an epidemiological approach. The chemical industry and governmental regulators also view these issues in terms of "acceptable risk" to the human population. In my mind, there are NO acceptable risks. We must act to minimize exposure to the environment, wildlife populations, and humans. Let's not view this issue in hindsight fifty years from now and say, "We should have limited the use of these compounds when we first suspected their influence on embryonic development." History will determine the validity of our suspicions. Please continue to inform the public on this, and other, scientific issues. Cheers.

John Matter
huntingdon, pa

Dear FRONTLINE,

I can speak from experience of the consequences from PCB-dioxin exposure. When three family members suddenly get terminal cancer, family dogs get tumors, children have birth defects and numerous other maladies, when animals from the area have tumors and malformities the debate ends. These chemicals, once visited, will forever leave their mark in your DNA. For a country willng to go to war w/ Saddam Hussien over toxic chemicals it's time to eliminate them from our backyards. The companies responsible are powerful and political. Unless you study the literature and documents, as I have, and by impacted, as my family has, you won't appreciate the truth. We have a 7 year federal lawsuit pending, which cost us our house, cash, credit, everything we own in the world, and we still haven't sat next to the judge! These chemicals are in you too. Timing is critical...why must we still be in harm's way in 1998? Believe it!

Frank Mancuso
scarsdale, new york

Dear FRONTLINE,

One of the most troubling aspects to this situation is the fact that some of the members of the scientific community have shrouded the potentially important implications of this new theoretical development by hiding behind the word "proof." Perhaps a refresher on theoretical testing is required. One cannot ever "prove" a theory to be true because one cannot ever measure all instances of a given phenomenon. Data are either consistent or inconsistent with an exaplantion. What is critical in accepting a theory, then, is the body of evidence collected. No single study is sufficient to accept a theory. There are, however, situations where there has been a number of well-designed studies which indicate a certain result. Flouting the langauge of science and demanding a standard of proof that is impossible to obtain is not being an objective scientist, but one in error. It is interesting to note that those investigators screaming for more solid "proof" are also the ones receiving substantial amounts of funding for their projects from a variety of complicitous sources - i.e. the chemical and pesticide manufacturers. It is difficult to build a consensus of opinion in the scientific community when individuals working on one side would loose research funding if the theory were to be accepted as a plausible and likely explanation for these defects. As long as there is intense competition for research dollars the principles of scientific inquiry will continue to be twisted and misrepresented to serve the purpose of greed.

Kristen Salomonson
west bloomfield, michigan

Dear FRONTLINE,

This program seems to be hypocritical. You celebrate the formation and use of power by a newly formed special interest group but cast aspersion toward established special interest groups. While we may be cynical when it comes to the motive of existing special interest groups, they like any newly formed groups are only serving the interest of those who created and fund them.

Presently in society, we seem to champion womens rights and issues but one my still ask If health concerns of modern medicine have not focused on women Why do they live longer than men?. Women may come to regret being the guinea pigs for well intended but sometimes misdirected medicine.

I am not sure that the political process deliberates very well when it comes to a constituency that can show political power. If you want something really badly, you may just get something bad. One can look at the clean air initiative where coal burning power plants and coal producing states wrote in the requirements for scrubbers instead of changing to lower emission coal or credit for burning cleaner fuels.

We have difficulty analyzing processes that seem to be linear but that we know follow exponential curves. When you do not know when the roll off point is, you may make unwarranted decisions because you have been stampeded into action.

It is much easier to garner support when you can generate fear in the populace. Propaganda can be considered a tool for those that know that there will be no retribution or that the ends justify the means. What ever happen to the editorial boards that existed in the press? They seem to be silent except to say We are only giving the populace what they want. There may be a fine line between censorship and blind coverage but there should be someone accountable between an open microphone and what is called news.

It is self serving to ask the American public to fund your pet project in the manner of the Manhattan Project. I do believe there is a difference between a time of war and time of peace. A more comparable project would be the flight to the moon. It is difficult to galvanize support unless the society sees itself externally challenged.

We continually see the effects of the sky is falling. When people watch programs, they unwittingly have views that they support reinforced. Without subsequent personal discussion, perspective and context can not be reinforced. I applaud you web site but only wish others could read and try to understand opposing points of view.

I find it difficult to listen to reporters covering complicated or subtle issues. We have propagated a system that gives to much power to the press whose members usually have no expertise on the majority of topics they report on. What ever happened to obtaining expert testimony? When you show a program where the experts can not agree, what makes anyone believe the populace can make an informed choice?

We have to get past anecdotal evidence and continue to focus on the statistical significance of issues. One can only look at multiple chemical sensitivities and ask where is the science that validates an issue that the general public supports.

We as a society seem to get caught up in celebrity to the point where celebrities become spokespersons for issues simply because they want to be. We are lead around and around until we are dizzy enough to puke. Who is looking at the big picture? While I may personally agree that breast cancer is an important issue, some perspective should be injected to generate debate about what are the top issues that our society should be addressing not just the hot issue of the day. We complain that American business is short sighted by we vacillate so much you can not tell who is leading who. Hyperbole and red meat are the staples of interest groups but they do not lead to compromise but intransigency. We must debate the pros and cons for each issue, but when compromise comes we must embrace the resolution to eliminate conflict.

Gary Robertson
tucson, az

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank you WGBH and PBS for an excellent Frontline show. But the website is even better. The issues are complicated and I greatly appreciate the chance to review the issues at my own pace on screen which accommodates rereading, review and reflection. In particular the interviews with Drs. Birnbaum, Colburn, Guillette, Safe and vom Saal are fascinating because it is a unique opportunity for me read a researcher's comments as he "speaks for himself," at length and in context and to understand how that researcher views his own work. I am keenly aware that because I am not an academic, I really have little other access to the individuals who are actually doing the research.

I do want to respond to David Benson of the Dept. of Biochemistry of Duke University Medical Center because I found his comment "the endocrine disruption controversy demonstrates how not to inform the general public in a manner that is as a whole benificial (sic) to society," arrogant. I do not believe that as a member of the general pubic without any specialized science background it is necessary or appropriate for science experts to "protect" me from ideas or research that I might find alarming, upsetting, or inconclusive. Science is a human endeavor and therefore I don't approach it with much faith. I also don't expect to achieve omniscience anytime soon. But I do have personal experience at muddling through with incomplete knowledge. And, since I and my children must assume the risks (as well as the benefits) of widespread endocrine disruptor use, I insist on all available information on which to decide not to assume some or all of those risks (even if I have to do without some of the benefits). The whole ethical question of "human experimentation" with endocrine disruptors never even arose because we didn't approach their use scientifically--hypothesis, experiment with a control group, etc.--but with a trial and error approach in which the dangers would only appear after the fact of widespread human use. So now don't hide behind the ivy tower and insist on a "scholarly context." The time for that was before widespread human use.

Margaret Smith
los angeles, ca

Dear FRONTLINE,

I watched the documentary on endocrine disruption and it will be interesting to see what will happen to people living near the Great Lakes in the future. The Ontario government has recently permitted ICI (London-based chemical producer) a permit to dump millions of gallons of toxic sludge from holding ponds into the St. Clair river. We know that there are thousands of substances in the river and that this recent permit will just add to the toxic soup.

I think that it is too bad that the U.S. government has no say or authority to stop such a blatent act of toxic littering by the Ontario government. The documentary has showed me that the poisons that are currently harming our environment will effect us through our children and unborn. Thank god for civilization.

Mark Aquash
walpole island first nation, ontario

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank you for your recent show on the issue of endocrine disruptors in the environment. I felt that your reporting did justice to all sides of the issue. Because the state of the environment is a concern for us all, please continue in-depth coverage of issues such as this. It is truly important.

davenport, iowa

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was pleased to see the balanced approach your program took with this controversial subject. I would like to emphasize one point that you touched upon in the piece that I feel is very important. There is a real danger in going too far down the road of funding scientific research using the "disease of the month" approach. When limited research funds are distributed based upon the currently popular disease, or to the problem with the most vocal or effective advocacy groups, many valuable, but less visible, programs wind up being unfunded. Scientific research priorities should be set and funded based upon good peer review of research proposals, not legislated by politicians. The politicians and public policy makers can, and should, set overall priorities, but to legislate funding for specific diseases creates a situation where some poor projects related to the funded disease receive funding just to get the money spent, while worthy projects in unpopular areas go unfunded. This whole topic might be the basis for an entire Frontline report. Congressman John Porter, of Illinois, might be able to provide you with more information in this area.

lake forest, il

Dear FRONTLINE,

The "Fooling With Nature" program was professional and evenhanded. However, I thought more examples of current endocrine disrupting threats should have been reported. Also, Frontline gave too much time to the quibbling EPA expert. Her comments were consistently vacuous as they were conveniently neutral. My applause does not extend to this website. The articles by Gary Taubes and Janet Raloff on the "cautionary advice for journalists" page are respectively inappropriate and misleading. Mr Taubes' examples of tabloid-like reporting of space related ponderings have no place in comparison to the real threats of endocrine disruptors and the works discussed in Colburns' "Our Stolen Future." Likewise, Ms Raloff concentrates on weaknesses that Colburn conceded within her book, that the deformities of alligators and birds do not mean humans will respond in the same way. Yet, evidence points that humans will respond in similar ways. Colburns' goal is prevention of costly mistakes like those made on the DES children. Raloff's goal seems to be confusion of the issue. It is the response of profit-seeking drug companies and work-avoiding bureacrats to insist that the public cannot handle complex scientific information. I hope that PBS will ignore this lie.

Rachel Carson urged that we treat every manmade chemical as guilty until proven innocent. This is the common sense approach. Survival instructors echo this approach to wild foods. They eat a tiny portion, then wait to evaluate the results. If humans want to survive, we should listen to common sense and not the economics of convenience.

Joel Ryan
newport news, va

Dear FRONTLINE,

Your report on science based policy making as related to endocrine study sounded remarkably familar. While the topic as slightly different the relationship to the "salmon issue" in the northwest was striking. Big dollars, different interpretations of common data sets, and a debate on the role of uncertain science in policy decisions.

Several $Billion dollars$ have been spent attempting to recovery anadromous fish in the Pacific Northwest. The current spending rate now approaches $0.5 billion per year. The results from this investment are just as uncertain as the science going into it.

What is science, what is politics, what do we do when actions taken in the face of uncertain science do not solve the problems? We have progressed from "taking off the pump handle" to "suggestions that we remove the dams".

Interestingly enough, the sediments in the reservoirs behind the dams in all probability have TONS of the industrial and agricultural chemicals mentioned in your report accumulated in them.

The problem is complex, the politics span 4 states, 13 Indian tribes, and multiple agencies of the federal government. Without science based input we would be without hope.

Mark Reller
helena, montana

Dear FRONTLINE,

I am a DES son born in 1953. From birth, I have suffered immunological problems, always undiagnosed and/or unattributed. Today, I am unable to work, unable to collect disability, and unable to find a physician or therapy that can improve the quality of my life. Recently, without any knowledge of the fact that DES was an Endocrine Disrupter, my wife and I felt that there might be some link between my endocrine system and my disabling symptoms, but I am unable to find a doctor willing to explore this. Ergo, when we saw your program, "Fooling With Nature," were heartened to find some validating theory.

Stan Davis
brooklyn, ny

Dear FRONTLINE,

The use of chemicals, especially pesticides has always been a concern to me. After watching 'Fooling with Nature' last night, my concern has blossomed to fright. When I consider the implications of what Theo Colburn and others stated, I am very, very frightened. It is hard for me to believe the chemical companies when they say there is no need for alarm, because I know what their motivation is and it is not the health of people or the environment.

So what is the average person to do? All I know is that any part per million of chemicals or pesticides in my body is to much for me!

alexandria, va

Dear FRONTLINE,

In your program "Fooling With Nature" scientist Steve Safe was quoted saying:

> "Let's not look at alligators," Safe says. "We've got human data...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 [in this] > contaminated lake and humans."

Maybe Dr. Safe would like to get on the telephone like I did and call Florida's Public Health Department and the Department of Children and Families. As I was passed from person to person it became very clear that Florida is not even attempting to collect any data about children born with birth defects potentially caused by endocrine disruptors. What data is Safe talking about??

My best source of information came by way of my children's pediatrician who told me about attending a statewide medical conference and listening to doctors (particularly from south Florida) talk about increased miscarriages and fertility problems, numerous birth defects including the same syndrome as the alligators (small penis size) and pondering the cause(s). One doctor who treated migrant populations reported that he was seeing far more birth defects than when he began his practice the previous decade.

My neighbor grew up in Miami and several years ago his son was born with this problem. The child's penis was so small that circumcision was delayed for four months. He also has numerous other problems and may be sterile. If we are not going to collect this data from hospitals or doctors - then how are we going to assess the damage - go door to door asking folks? What if sperm is being permanently damaged causing these abnormalities?

It is bad enough that the sugar industry (one of our nation's largest recipients of corporate welfare) continues to pollute the Everglades including massive burning which aerosolizes the toxins - now residents are having Malathion raining down on their heads in an attempt to destroy the med fruit fly.

Florida's Secretary of Agriculture, Bob Crawford, actually supports Monsanto's rBGH product being used on our dairy cattle even though the evidence is clear that it causes infections in the animals leading to more and more antibiotics being used which find their way into our milk supply. We can't even buy milk labeled "rBGH-free" because they co-mingle the milk between dairies so our only choice is to stop drinking it.

As a Floridian several things are abundantly clear to me: Florida is not collecting data about potential endocrine disrupters and has no intention of doing so unless we get off our duffs and force them to. Consumers here are last on the list because our legislature hasn't figured out yet that consumers are also voters. The citrus and sugar crops are more important than the human inhabitants of this state. Our legislators spent the first week this past session arguing about partial birth abortions - a procedure that probably affects less than 25 women a year - rather than deal with their abysmal record on education and environmental concerns. We have let them get away with being lazy and negligent - expecting them to safeguard our health and safety. It's time we woke up and took back our birthright before our state becomes a sewer.

tallahassee, fl

Dear FRONTLINE,

I almost never stay up this late on a week night (1:00 AM), however tonight I found your documentary on endocrine disruption impossible to turn off. Halfway through the program I found myself reeling from the amount of well presented information and opinion coming from opposing voices, most of which troubled me to the core.

If only I could trade in my electrical engineering degree for a medical/biological type education which would enable me to help solve this troubling nightmare.

Thanks for your work Frontline & PBS,

Brad Whaley
chandler, az

Dear FRONTLINE,

As a mother & grandmother who has been diagnosed with breast cancer & knows the toxicity of the smells of plastics, I cried as I watched your program & I am angry, not so much for myself but for my children (3) and my grandchildren (7). I have known for a long time the toxicity of chemicals, you see I have been a hairdresser, most of my life.

I am going to be ok, because I said no to the surgery, chemo, tamoxifen & have been using natural methods to let my body heal itself & most of all I got rid of all the chemicals, & plastics in my house. Alcohol is another chemical (almost all of windex is alcohol) I use Vinegar & water, bonami ( no more chlorine for me ! it can be done) & arm & hammer super washing soda, a water distiller, water filters & cottlon shower curtains and rugs, washing everything twice before bringing them into the house.

According to the last testing I had there is only a small spot in my breast that could be a shadow off the pericardium wall. My Dr. say's keep doing what you're doing.

The lady that spoke about all the great food we have should become a vegetarian as I have had to become & then try to go to the market and get home with fruits and vegetable that are not rotten when you cut them open.

Thank you for this eye opening story, thank you for not remaining silent.

Carol Brezette
henderson, nevada

 

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