Column on Endocrine Disruptors

My latest newspaper column:

I want to tell you all about an event occurring tomorrow. You don’t need to go anywhere, each of us can participate in our own homes. At 8:30 pm, turn off all the lights for an hour. It is Earth Hour. On March 27, from 8:30 to 9:30 pm, local time, all over the world, people will turn out their lights to symbolize the impact that each person’s actions have on the world. As lights go out, the night will be truly dark, just as it was before humans invented artificial light.

I want to talk about endocrine disruptors. They are found in many human-made substances, including plastics, farm chemicals, particularly herbicides, cosmetics, cleaners, anything with artificial fragrance, stain protectors, and more. Why should we worry about these chemicals?

Well, if you’re a man, I think you should be very worried. Endocrine disruptors, even in very small quantities (as small as 1 part per billion) are being shown to interfere with proper development in animals. Males are affected first, because endocrine disruptors usually mimic estrogen, a female hormone. The problems showed up first in fish and amphibians, as intersex individuals. Males started acting like females, putting out female hormones, and even having female physical characteristics. Now similar problems have started showing up in mammals, and even humans. There are more baby boys being born every year with undescended testicles and hormone problems. There are increasing numbers of new cases every year of testicular cancer.

As well, spina bifida and other cases of birth defects peak every year at a certain time, corresponding to babies conceived between April and July each year. Between April and July is the time when levels of chemicals from farms peak. The chemicals found in the highest concentrations are nitrate fertilizers (which are a column in themselves), followed by atrazine, a weed-killer or herbicide. Atrazine is an endocrine disruptor. It is also the chemical most often found in higher quantities than legally allowed. The US Environmental Protection Agency has set the limit for atrazine at 3 parts per million, much higher than the levels shown to cause problems (which begin with levels in parts per billion). The EPA considered banning atrazine a few years ago, but decided against it. New information on its role as an endocrine disruptor has since come to light.

What can be done? I think the United States should institute a review of all chemicals used in industry and agriculture. Limit as much as possible (without obsessing about it) your use of plastics, artificial fragrances, and stain protectors. If you farm, try to limit the runoff of chemicals from your fields, which will probably save you money in the long run as well.

This essay was previously published in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on March 26, 2010.

cross-posted at Intermountain West Citizens for Sustainability

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