Our Stolen Future:
Effects of Biologically
A Book Review
By Michael P. Milburn,
UPdate Spring 1996
was an American scientist with a reputation for careful and meticulous
work. She was also an award winning writer known for elegant and
insightful prose. Her 1962 book Silent Spring warned of the dangers
of chemical pesticides. Silent Spring set out some deeply disturbing
issues in a way that touched off a world wide environmental movement.
decades after Silent Spring, in the shadow of Rachel Carson, Theo Colborn
is creating her own legacy. It was not until after the age of fifty
that Colborn returned to school, pursuing a PhD. A nature lover,
Colborn fulfilled, at age 58, a life-long dream of getting a degree in
ecology. Colborn then became involved in a project looking at the
health of the Great Lakes, those great cesspools of modern civilization.
condition of the Lakes had improved (or at least stabilized), due to the
“greening” of government and industry, Colborn sensed that things were
still not what they should be. Much of the scientific (and public)
interest in toxics had revolved around the question of cancer. No
doubt this was (and is) important work, but it has also served as a blind
to the possibility of other concerns. Colborn almost fell into this
began to see links between the research work of various scientists investigating
the biological effects of chemicals. She found that animals highest
on the food chain were having the biggest problems, especially with reproduction
and development. She began to wonder if many of these chemicals were
actually interfering with hormonal systems, disrupting vital regulatory
processes and causing a host of illnesses. Colborn’s book, Our Stolen
Future, written with Pete Myers and Dianne Dumanoski, gives an overview
of the potential problem.
excerpt from the book published in the March, 1996 issue of Natural History
magazine (upon which this article is based) describes the book as follows:
“[The authors] have found that hormone-disrupting chemicals are ubiquitous
and that the pathologies they cause may result even from extremely low
levels of exposure. Although many synthetic chemicals have been tested
for carcinogenic effects, few have been scrutinized for their impact on
the human endocrine system. As the authors of Our Stolen Future observe,
if such substances are causing wide-scale disruption of the hormones that
enable us to grow and reproduce, we may be witnessing an evolutionary tragedy
in the making.”
What we are
talking about here is various human-made chemicals, many of them widely
dispersed throughout the environment, getting into animals and people,
gumming up the works and causing a whole host of problems. Scientists
have looked at problems from thyroid disruption, fertility changes, birth
deformities, and weakened immune systems. In my opinion, since the
Colborn hypothesis envisions a disruption of organization and regulation,
not specific diseases, this may be the seed of understanding a wide range
of systemic health problems that remain enigmatic.
Future profiles decades of research. Bald eagles in Florida were
found to be sterile in the 1940s. Britain’s otters began to disappear
in the 1950s: Research pointed to a synthetic chemical cause. Mink
raised in farms around the Great Lakes were fed fish, and began to suffer
dramatic reproductive problems: studies linked the problem to PCBs.
In the 1970s, Californian gulls experienced a shortage of males: researchers
wondered if pesticides were feminizing male embryos. In the 1980s,
60 percent of alligators in one Florida lake had abnormally small penises.
And this decade, researchers have begun to focus on human reproductive
problems, pointing to a decline in male fertility.
hypothesis works like this. Hormones are chemicals produced in the
body, used to regulate and control physiological processes. Hormones
travel to parts of the body where they are to do their work. Cells
have molecules called receptors that can link with these hormones, in a
sort of lock and key interaction. When a receptor links with a hormone,
changes are produced in the cell. It is like a key turning on the
seems to be that various synthetic chemicals can mimic a hormone’s ability
to link with a receptor. While the concentration of hormones is very
precisely controlled by the body, these unnatural molecules are not subject
to the normal control of hormones. Thus these molecules can produce
disruptive and dangerous effects. Over fifty hormone-mimicking chemicals
have been identified by scientists to date; some mimic estrogen, an important
well-known regulating chemical, others can conflict with thyroid and testosterone
processes. There is evidence such hormone-mimicking chemicals have
“major cumulative effects” at “seemingly insignificant quantities” and
can work synergetically to produce effects not seen individually.
has played an important role in many discoveries about hormone-mimics.
A team at Tufts Medical School in Boston, for example, was looking at laboratory
colonies of human breast cancer cells that multiply under the influence
of estrogen. They were trying to find what caused the cells to stop
growing when estrogen was removed. One day things went horribly wrong
with their experiment. All the cells, even the ones without estrogen,
were growing like crazy. Contamination was suspected.
It took the
scientists months to trace the source of contamination to a plastic tube
used in the course of preparing the cell cultures. A chemical called
pnonylphenol – a type of chemical put in plastics like polystyrene and
PVCs to make them sturdier – was the problem. It had been added to
the plastic in the tube recently by the manufacturer (Corning) who had
not indicated any such change in their catalog. They found that PVC
type plastics containing these hormone-mimicking chemicals were widely
used in food processing and packaging, and even as water piping.
They showed that hormone-mimicking effects like the ones they observed
in cell colonies grown in the lab could also occur in rats.
doesn’t end there. Chemicals able to break down into the type of
estrogen-mimicking compound that ruined the Tufts experiments by causing
wild growth of breast cancer cells in the laboratory could also be found
in many detergents and personal-care products. These alkylphenol
polyethoxylates were used since the 1940s, but banned in Europe in the
late 1980s because they were toxic to aquatic ecosystems. The United
States was still consuming a whopping 450 million pounds a year in 1990!!
As Our Stolen Future points out, here was a potential danger where you
would least expect it: in products usually considered benign and inert
and found in everyone’s kitchens and bathrooms.
in Stanford University, around the same time, also found an estrogen-mimicking
chemical, this time in an entirely different type of plastic, polycarbonate,
used not only to produce lab flasks, but the large plastic bottles used
for drinking water!! In meeting with GE Plastics Company, the plastic maker,
the Stanford scientists learned that this hormone-mimic, bisphenol-A, was
known to leach out from the plastic, and the company had tried to develop
a procedure to deal with this problem. Yet, the company’s equipment
could not measure bisphenol-A at levels below 10 ppb, while only 2-5 ppb
was able to cause effects in the laboratory cells at Stanford.
of reports of these “biologically active plastics”, a group of researchers
in Spain looked at the plastic coatings in food cans, used to avoid metal
contamination. Such coatings are used in most canned food in the
United States (and, I presume, Canada). They found the same chemical
that had affected experiments in the Stanford lab in “stunningly high concentrations”
in corn, peas and artichokes, and all told, in 50 % of the canned foods
they studied. Some cans contained as much as 27 times the amount
needed to make breast cancer cells grow in the laboratory.
Future asks whether we have been suffering from 50 years of exposure to
these importer hormones? Have destinies already been affected because natural
chemical messages have been disrupted by un-natural products? Apparently
some scientists think so, and wonder how broad the impact has been, a difficult
question because of the type of contamination, the effects over generations,
and the long periods of time for effects to set in.
age has created products, institutions, and cultural attitudes that require
synthetic chemicals to sustain them. The task that confronts us over
the next half century is one of redesign. We must find safer ways
to meet human needs. As we work to create a future where children
can be born free of chemical contamination, our scientific knowledge and
technological expertise will be crucial. Nothing, however, will be
more important to human well-being and survival than the wisdom to appreciate
that however great our knowledge, our ignorance is even greater.”
I have not
yet had a chance to read the whole book, just the pre-published excerpts.
I certainly do not feel the same about plastics, and heard recently that
one Ontario community was banning the use of PVC-type water pipes.
If the Colborn-hypothesis is strengthened as more researchers look into
this problem, I think many more such actions will have to be considered,
as the above quote from Our Stolen Future shows.
At the personal
level, I was recently fitted with a plastic-type dental appliance.
I took a bad reaction to it. (I am still tracking down exactly what
it was made of.) The chemically and electromagnetically sensitive individuals
in our society are the canaries and guinea pigs. I am wondering if
others are reactive to plastic materials, dental appliances, water from
a plastic water jug, canned food (with plastic linings), or anything else
related to plastic.