ECOLOGIA Newsletter Sep/Oct 1994 Issue #30

Assault on the Male Estrogen-like Hormones Linked to Rise in Male Reproductive Problems

This article is largely excerpted from the September 1994 issue of Waste Not (# 301), published by Work on Waste USA, Inc. Editors: Ellen and Paul Connett. Male reproductive problems are on the rise in many industrialized countries. These problems include lowered sperm count, testicular cancer, non-descent of the testes, and prostate cancer. For example, the rates for testicular cancer in the U.S. and the U.K. have tripled in the last 30 years, and there has been an estimated 50% decrease in sperm count of men worldwide. Scientists are also finding increased numbers of hermaphrodites - individuals who have the physical characteristics of both sexes- in both wildlife and humans. Through case-studies and research, the causes of a number of these problems are being linked to the increasing levels of synthetic female hormones, which are found in pesticides, plastics and in byproducts of incineration such as dioxin.

Synthetic Estrogen-Like Hormones: Why Are They A Problem?

Hormones are specialized chemicals which regulate bodily functions. Each hormone is produced in a specialized tissue. Upon cue, it is injected into the bloodstream, and travels to another specific place in the body. Its function is to turn something on or off. For example, adrenalin, produced by the adrenal glands, is a hormone which leads to increased heart rate and muscle tension when released, often as a response to stressful conditions. Human hormones function at extremely low concentrations, and they normally break down in the body within two or three hours.

Estrogen is a female reproductive hormone; it is involved in the development of female sexual organs and the regulation of a woman's monthly cycle. Many environmental chemicals compete with, or mimic, estrogen. This means that they can be absorbed into human bodies and can affect certain tissues and organs in a similar fashion as estrogen. But they do not break down in the body the way that natural hormones do. On the contrary, synthetic estrogens are stored in fatty tissues, they can persist for a long time, and they can be present at much higher levels than their naturally produced counterparts. Because of their properties as a female reproductive hormone, artificial chemicals that act as estrogen-like hormones can impact parts of the body which are most sensitive to hormonal fluctuations - the reproductive organs of both men and women. The growth in serious disorders in male reproduction is now being traced to increasing levels of exposure to synthetic estrogen-like hormones.

Transgenerational Effects of Synthetic Estrogen-Like Hormones

A major medical tragedy occurred when as many as six million babies were exposed to the synthetic estrogen DES (di- ethyl-stilbesterol), which was thought (erroneously) to prevent miscarriages, and was prescribed to pregnant women between 1950 and at least 1971. Studies on boys born to these women have shown an increase in reproductive abnormalities, including testicular cancer; girls born to these women have a higher than average incidence of previously rare vaginal cancers, among other reproductive problems. In studies of mice, several important changes occurred in the male offspring if DES was given to their mothers for just two critical days during pregnancy. According to one researcher: "The thing that really shocked us and surprised us when we looked at the male offspring of these DES pregnancies: they actually had both a male and a female reproductive system existing side-by-side. They essentially were hermaphrodites. And we figured out that this feminization process of the males occurred early in fetal life when all of us, mice and humans, have both reproductive systems and essentially exist in a bi-sexual form. And this process of normal development was blocked by DES..."

Dr. Theo Colburn, a senior scientist with the World Wildlife Fund, believes these effects center on the hormonal, or endocrine system. "As I began looking again at the literature closely there were at least 16 top predator species in the Great Lakes that were showing reproductive problems, population decline, fertility problems, immune problems, all developmental problems - offspring, young chicks born with adult plumage. Something went wrong during that embryonic development..."

Alligator Warning

Ten years ago a pesticide spill of kelthane in Lake Apopka, Florida (close to Orlando) contaminated the lake. DDE is a break-down product of kelthane, and is an estrogenic compound. The water today tests clean as far as toxins are concerned. But the estrogenic compounds are stored in fat, not water, and they are being stored in the animals who live in Lake Apopka. Because of a concern about the decline in alligators in Lake Apopka, scientists began tests.

According to Professor Louis Guillette of the Department of Zoology at the University of Florida: "In every [alligator] nest there was something wrong with the eggs. The scientists found traces of a weak estrogenic chemical, DDE, which was contaminating the eggs." Today, 75% of the alligator eggs are dead or infertile. Males that do survive are demasculinized, with a high level of a female hormone, and low levels of male hormones. 25% have a penis that is so small that they can not mate, and they will never reproduce. "Similar changes have been found in the turtles from this lake. Many males have become inter-sexed (hermaphroditic) with reproductive organs more like a female, with high levels of female hormones." 20% of the animals in Lake Apopka have this inter- sex condition. "We are not finding normal males."

Detective Work: How Prevalent is Synthetic Estrogen Contamination?

Dr. Ana Soto of the Department of Cellular Biology at Tufts University School of Medicine discovered estrogen contamination of serum samples in her laboratory. She traced it to nonyl phenol which was leaching from her plastic tubes. Nonyl phenol has been produced in the U.S. for the last forty years; in 1993 over 450 million tons were produced. Nonyl phenol is used extensively in industry as an anti-oxidant in plastics, and in the formulation of detergents and spermicide foams. It is persistent and bio-accumulative in the environment.

In the United Kingdom, hermaphroditic fish are found near sewage outfalls. In an experiment, male fish were left for three weeks in cages at 28 different sewage outfalls throughout Britain. The astounding results were that when these fish were tested they were found to have huge amounts of female hormones in their blood. "These males in effect were changing sex." Nonyl phenol was found in both the river water (50 micrograms per liter or higher) and in the sewage outfalls. Tests on fish confirmed that nonyl phenol produces a very high estrogenic effect on male fish. In addition, studies of rats have found decreased testicle size in male rats exposed to 30 micrograms per liter of nonyl phenol.

Fortunately the International Body for Water Quality has initiated plans to phase out nonyl phenol by the year 2,000. But nonyl phenol and kelthane are by no means the only estrogen-like chemicals. According to Dr. Theo Colburn: "It isn't just one product that's causing the problem. It's a host of products. It's the construction material that we are using, it's the plastics we're using. It's not only the pesticides and it's not only the chemicals that we've released in the past that we've banned and restricted, but they're still out there. In essence what we have to do now is to make sure that we revisit every piece of legislation that's coming up for reauthorization to make sure that we include not only cancer as a risk element but that we include these transgenerational health effects: the effects on the developing endocrine, immune and nervous system which are all linked."

Chemicals known to disrupt the endocrine system and act as estrogen-like hormones include: DDT and its degradation products, DEHP (di(2- ethylhexyl)phthalate), dicofol, HCB (hexachloro-benzene) kelthane, depone, lindane and other hexachlorocyclohexane congeners, methoxychlor, octachlorostyrene, synthetic pyrethroids, triazine herbicides, EBDC fungicides, certain PCB congeners, 2,3,7,8,-TCDD and other dioxins, 2,3,7,8-TCDF and other furans, cadmium, lead, mercury, tributyltin and other organo-tin compounds, alkyl phenols (non-biodegradable detergents and anti-oxidants present in modified polystyrene and PVCs), styrene dimers and trimers, soy products, and laboratory animal and pet food products. (Reference: Advances in Modern Environmental Toxicology, Vol. 21, Chemically-Induced Alterations in Sexual and Functional Development: The Wildlife/Human Connection, 1992, Princeton Scientific Publishing Co.)

What Can Be Done?

Clearly, reduction in the use and production of products which contain these estrogen-like hormones is a logical step. In the United States, pesticide and herbicide use is being reduced for many reasons, including farm workers' health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will soon release the Dioxin Reassessment Documents for public comment. We know that trash, hospital and hazardous waste incinerators emit many of the substances that are known to act as synthetic estrogens. Chemical and incinerator industries may put enormous pressure on the EPA to water down their concern for non-cancer effects of these estrogen-like substances. Citizen and NGO involvement in the public comment part of the process is critical.

Much of this material was originally broadcast on the BBC "Horizon" TV program in 1993 and rebroadcast in the United States as a BBC/ Discovery production in September 1994. The video copy is available for loan only ($2.90 within U.S., more overseas) from Ellen and Paul Connett, Waste Not, 82 Judson, Canton, New York 13617 U.S.A. Telephone 315- 379-9200, Fax 315-379-0448.

New Light May Be Shed on the Severity of Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident by Dr. Judith Johnsrud

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is co-sponsoring a project of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Department of Energy (DOE) to study the long-term health effects of radiation released in the 1986 Chernobyl accident. These studies should produce valuable information about thyroid disease and leukemia. They will, however, also raise new questions. Scientific questions involve how measurements of radiation and extrapolations from less-than-certain data were conducted. Medical questions include the choice of diseases to be studied, and illnesses that are omitted from the research. Policy questions involve the implications of the findings, and their impacts on the future of nuclear power and the management of radioactive wastes worldwide.

In early September 1994 , the NCI Working Group presented a status report to the NRC Commissioners. Their research will focus on the risk of thyroid cancer from exposures to radioactive Iodine-131, especially among the one million children who were exposed in Belarus -- which received some 70% of the Chernobyl fallout -- and in Ukraine. A second study will focus on the incidence of leukemia among clean-up workers. Agreements for protocols and funding, initiated with the USSR in 1990, have now been approved for Belarus and Ukraine.

Estimates of the total radiation release from Chernobyl still vary, from official Soviet government estimates of 50 million curies to release of the entire core inventory (upward of one billion curies); the figures in the range of 100 million to 250 million curies may be most nearly accurate. Other release estimates from Belarussian experts suggest about 15 million curies of Cesium-137 escaped. It has a half-life of 30 years, hazardous life of three hundred to six hundred years, and is identified as a major component of the residual radioactivity that blankets the agricultural lands of most of Belarus and much of Ukraine, extending beyond their borders into Russia and areas of Eastern and Northern Europe. Radioactive Cesium-137 in soils and water is taken up by plants, entering the food chain; when ingested, it is absorbed in tissues throughout the body and will continue to irradiate the recipient as it slowly decays.

Iodine 131 and Thyroid Damage: The Statistics Are Coming In

Ukrainian data indicate the release of some 30 million curies of Iodine 131, of direct importance for thyroid injury. The National Cancer Institute panel expressed surprise at the early appearances of thyroid cancers in the children, and admitted that the actual cancer risk from Iodine 131 is unknown.

In the eight years since the Chernobyl disaster, there has been at least a forty to fifty-fold increase in thyroid cancer of children in Belarus. The occurrence of this disease, considered rare in children, has risen rapidly from zero reported cases in the years 1979, 1980, 1983 and 1984 before the accident. For Belarussian adults, the thyroid cancer incidence has also risen, but more slowly, from about 100 cases in 1979 to 150 cases by 1986, and to more than 500 cases reported in 1993, with a marked increase in the years after 1986.

Ukrainian data are only slightly less dramatic: for persons who were of childhood age in 1986, the cases rose from seven in that year to 47 in 1992. Incidence per 100,000 for Ukrainian children (of that age group in 1986) increased from 0.07 cases per 100,000 in 1986 to 0.43/100,000 in 1992. In Belarus, comparable figures show an increase from 0.1/100,000 childhood thyroid cancer cases in 1986 to 3.4/100,000 in 1993.

The National Cancer Institute Working Group will undertake both case- control and cohort studies of cancers, thyroid nodules, and hypothyroidism. Iodine 131 doses were measured for only about 10% of the exposed children. Of these, thyroid dose estimates indicate that about 80% of the children tested in Belarus and Ukraine had received doses up to 100 rads to the thyroid (0.0 - 1.0 Gy), although only about 2000 children were reported to have received more than 500 rads (5 Gy). [The "Gray" (Gy) is a new international unit of dose measurement; one Gray equals 100 rads ("radiation absorbed dose"). U.S. public dose standards limit the calculated annual individual total effective dose equivalent to approximately 0.1 rad (0.001 Gy) whole body exposure; weighting factors are applied to specific organ doses, which must be kept as low as reasonably achievable.]

The detailed case-control studies will include some 119 Belarussian children who already have thyroid cancer, and a number still undetermined in Ukraine. The cohort studies will examine 15,000 Belarussian children and 70,000 children in Ukraine, with dose reconstructions based on 1986 measurements, fallout maps, and exposure histories, plus follow-up annual or biennial medical exams.

Clean-Up Workers and Leukemia

Data on leukemia for 600,000 clean up workers (the "liquidators") will be obtained from the workers and from official registries. Some Russian and Ukrainian sources have put the number of exposed workers, including soldiers, closer to 1,000,000. Reports from the former Soviet Union suggest that doses, working conditions, and subsequent government treatment of the soldiers who were ordered to the disaster site were markedly worse than those of other civilian clean-up workers. The NCI Working Group did not indicate if both civilian and military components of the worker population were included in their leukemia studies.

The National Cancer Institute Working Group expressed interest in obtaining risk estimates for leukemia from "low" doses and low dose rate exposures. At the present time, they told the NRC, these risks are not known, despite extensive research on previously exposed populations. These include Japanese who received acute doses from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and U.S. and other nuclear industry workers whose doses were deemed "low".

The upcoming Chernobyl leukemia studies will be designed to provide risk coefficients for low-to-moderate doses, compared with Japanese data. They will also assess the time-response function and influence of dose rate; investigate pathogenesis of radiogenic leukemia; provide for future molecular biologic studies, and finally, estimate future excess leukemias and solid tumors among clean-up workers. A long-term epidemiological follow-up study is included. Its ten year budget for Ukraine is projected to be only $3 million, however, suggesting a relatively limited U.S. research effort.

Not Currently Being Studied: Health Impacts of Long Term Low-Dose Radiation

It is significant to note that these U.S. research projects focus on only leukemia and thyroid disease. They are evidently not designed to examine other adverse health effects, including non- cancer low-dose radiation impacts. Earlier reports from the former USSR have suggested that there may be additional, less easily discernible but important, subtle impacts on human health attributable to chronic low-dose exposures. Residual radioactivity appears to play a role in repetitive low-level irradiations by way of uptake of radionuclides from soil and water into foodstuffs that are widely distributed beyond the recognized zones of contamination, and also in the continuing movement of slightly contaminated surface waters that supply drinking water. Inhalation of wind-blown radioactive particulates (dust and smoke particles) contribute, along with the ingestion of slightly contaminated food and water, to increased chronic low doses from these internal emitters within the body.

The biologic impact of chronic low-dose irradiation is now believed to take the form of damage to the immunological system, especially in rapidly growing young children. Immune dysfunctions are associated with higher susceptibility to infections of many kinds and to the normal diseases of childhood, but with a greater degree of severity, longevity, and recurrence. Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian radiation biologists and physicians who treat the sick children, have suggested that children in this segment of the population appear to experience a higher incidence also of allergies, asthma, childhood diabetes, A Progress Report on U.S. Investigations of Chernobyl-Radiation- Linked Illnesses:

What Is, and Is Not, Being Studied respiratory, gastrointestinal, and endocrine disorders, plus chronic fatigue, lack of stamina, and overall failure to thrive. These societally significant illnesses are not included in the joint American-Belarussian - Ukrainian studies, nor in U.S. radiation exposure standards.

It will be important to maintain a close watch on post-Chernobyl health studies. The radiation impacts of this power reactor accident are a forerunner of what we may expect, worldwide, from an increasing "environmental loading" of ionizing radiation in the biosystem.

Dr. Johnsrud received her PhD in Geography in 1977; her thesis was titled: "A Political Geography of the Nuclear Power Controversy: The Peaceful Atom in Pennsylvania." She is the director of the Environmental Coalition on Nuclear Power, working out of State College, Pennsylvania. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of ECOLOGIA.

Editorial Comment

People in different societies react in different ways to information about the complex and subtle effects of invisible environmental health hazards. On the one hand, Westerners are used to a relatively high standard of living and personal comfort, and to feeling "in control" of their decisions and their destinies. Therefore, Westerners often exaggerate the risk of things that are out of their control - everything from terrorist threats to the dangers of genetically engineered foods.

On the other hand, people from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are living with very real, immediate threats to their health: shortages of food and basic services, and the impact of obvious environmental problems such as water and air pollution. In such a situation, the tendency of the general public is to reject concerns about long term hidden environmental problems as a luxury that simply cannot be afforded.

However, long-term concerns do affect us all. Trans-generational damage, such as damage to the reproductive systems of young children, really is a threat to the human species. An intellectual understanding of such hidden environmental threats is the first step toward working to reduce them.


The spread of A.I.D.S. around the world is occurring through transmission of the H.I.V. virus from one person's blood or semen to another's. Education is crucial to efforts to prevent this disease, since it is primarily spread through sexual intercourse or the use of intravenous drugs.

H.I.V. is much more prevalent in some nations, and among some groups of people, than others. Specifically, it is much more prevalent in the United States than in Central and Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union.

Three Russian medical professionals have just written a short pamphlet, in Russian, designed to provide visitors to the United States with basic information and advice for protection against contracting A.I.D.S. The three women (two doctors and one medical journalist) were in the United States on a month-long Health Care Providers Exchange organized by ECOLOGIA in cooperation with Goodwill Industries, under a grant from U.S. A.I.D. (Agency for International Development), administered through A.E.D. in Washington. Their pamphlet will be provided to all future participants in ECOLOGIA's international exchanges.

Other American organizations, and other travelers to the United States, are encouraged to contact ECOLOGIA for copies of this informative Russian-language handout.


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