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.

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