Shrinking Genitals & Lawn Chemicals?
OK, so I wanted to get your attention with that headline . . . but, sadly the correlation between pesticides and developmental abnormalities in boys and girls may be true. When you get the chance, check out this recent column in the New York Times:
June 28, 2009
New York Times
It’s Time to Learn From Frogs
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Some of the first eerie signs of a potential health catastrophe came
as bizarre deformities in water animals, often in their sexual organs.
Frogs, salamanders and other amphibians began to sprout extra legs. In
heavily polluted Lake Apopka, one of the largest lakes in Florida,
male alligators developed stunted genitals.
In the Potomac watershed near Washington, male smallmouth bass have
rapidly transformed into “intersex fish” that display female
characteristics. This was discovered only in 2003, but the latest
survey found that more than 80 percent of the male smallmouth bass in
the Potomac are producing eggs.
Now scientists are connecting the dots with evidence of increasing
abnormalities among humans, particularly large increases in numbers of
genital deformities among newborn boys. For example, up to 7 percent
of boys are now born with undescended testicles, although this often
self-corrects over time. And up to 1 percent of boys in the United
States are now born with hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the
penis improperly, such as at the base rather than the tip.
Apprehension is growing among many scientists that the cause of all
this may be a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors. They are
very widely used in agriculture, industry and consumer products. Some
also enter the water supply when estrogens in human urine — compounded
when a woman is on the pill — pass through sewage systems and then
through water treatment plants.
These endocrine disruptors have complex effects on the human body,
particularly during fetal development of males.
“A lot of these compounds act as weak estrogen, so that’s why
developing males — whether smallmouth bass or humans — tend to be more
sensitive,” said Robert Lawrence, a professor of environmental health
sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s
scary, very scary.”
The scientific case is still far from proven, as chemical companies
emphasize, and the uncertainties for humans are vast. But there is
accumulating evidence that male sperm count is dropping and that
genital abnormalities in newborn boys are increasing. Some studies
show correlations between these abnormalities and mothers who have
greater exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy, through
everything from hair spray to the water they drink.
Endocrine disruptors also affect females. It is now well established
that DES, a synthetic estrogen given to many pregnant women from the
1930s to the 1970s to prevent miscarriages, caused abnormalities in
the children. They seemed fine at birth, but girls born to those women
have been more likely to develop misshaped sexual organs and cancer.
There is also some evidence from both humans and monkeys that
endometriosis, a gynecological disorder, is linked to exposure to
endocrine disruptors. Researchers also suspect that the disruptors can
cause early puberty in girls.
A rush of new research has also tied endocrine disruptors to obesity,
insulin resistance and diabetes, in both animals and humans. For
example, mice exposed in utero even to low doses of endocrine
disruptors appear normal at first but develop excess abdominal body
fat as adults.
Among some scientists, there is real apprehension at the new findings
– nothing is more terrifying than reading The Journal of Pediatric
Urology — but there hasn’t been much public notice or government
This month, the Endocrine Society, an organization of scientists
specializing in this field, issued a landmark 50-page statement. It
should be a wake-up call.
“We present the evidence that endocrine disruptors have effects on
male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate
cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid, metabolism and obesity, and
cardiovascular endocrinology,” the society declared.
“The rise in the incidence in obesity,” it added, “matches the rise in
the use and distribution of industrial chemicals that may be playing a
role in generation of obesity.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is moving toward screening
endocrine disrupting chemicals, but at a glacial pace. For now, these
chemicals continue to be widely used in agricultural pesticides and
industrial compounds. Everybody is exposed.
“We should be concerned,” said Dr. Ted Schettler of the Science and
Environmental Health Network. “This can influence brain development,
sperm counts or susceptibility to cancer, even where the animal at
birth seems perfectly normal.”
The most notorious example of water pollution occurred in 1969, when
the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and helped shock America into
adopting the Clean Water Act. Since then, complacency has taken hold.
Those deformed frogs and intersex fish — not to mention the growing
number of deformities in newborn boys — should jolt us once again.
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