While science is busy scurrying around trying to find the genes that cause homosexuality, a new chemotherapeutic agent to cure female cancers, new diagnostic tests to detect prostate cancer earlier, throwing more and more money at research, the answer likely lies right under our noses.
Sex hormones are critical in governing a broad range of biological activities, including the development of the sexes. Early in fetal life, through a series of molecular switches, hormones signal the development of either male or female structures. It is the relative amount of female-to-male hormones that dictates whether we become male or female.
Over the past couple of decades, research has demonstrated that a kaleidoscope of synthetic chemicals and pollutants that have been introduced into our environment are capable of mimicking the effects of these natural sex hormones.
There are now some 45 environmental pollutants known to cause changes in the reproductive system. Examples include herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, nematocides, PCBs, styrene, combustion pollutants, a variety of metals, ingredients in plastics, break-down products of common detergents and other industrial by-products and commercial chemicals.
Estrogenic pesticides have now even appeared at detectable levels in the Antarctic penguin. 2, 4-D is the largest selling broad-leaf herbicide in North America, with some 60 million pounds of it and its chemical analogs used annually in the United States. This compound is another estrogen mimicker.
A diverse array of chemicals, many structurally quite unlike natural hormones, specifically mimic the female sex hormone, estrogen. Thus, it is not possible to determine by molecular analysis whether chemicals will mimic sex hormones until they are released into our environment and produce damage.
Environmental hormone mimickers may not only induce female and male cancers but in levels far less than required to produce cancer may trigger reproductive effects.
Here are examples of what these pollutants are doing in the biological world:
The eggshells of many birds are thinning. The result is that embryonic birds can be crushed by the mother, as has occurred in the past as a result of DDT contamination.
Gulls have developed grossly feminized reproductive tracts and some female gulls, called lesbian gulls, share nests. Gonads developed intersex characteristics such that tissues had both the characteristics of ovaries and testicles. Males lost interest in mating and developed feminized sex organs.
Reproduction in bald eagles is known to drop when PCBs in their bodies exceed 4 to 6 parts per million, or when DDE, a descendant of DDT exceeds 1 part per million. In the Great Lakes area, eggs are being found with PCB concentrations as high as 120 parts per million.
In Florida, there are super female alligators with ratios of estrogen to testosterone twice as high as normal. Some entire groups of hatchlings show no characteristics of maleness at all. Males had what looked like ovaries and stunted genitalia, and the ovaries of the females, on the histological (tissue) level, looked as though they were exhausted. These anomalies found in animals at Lake Apopka were traced to an effluent from the Tower Chemical Company. Their pesticide, Dicofol, is a molecule that looks identical to DDT except it has an extra oxygen atom. Spills into the lake were also laced with DDT and DDE, even though these chemicals have been outlawed long ago. Remember, although the U.S. may ban domestic sale of some chemicals, that does not prevent manufacturers from producing them for export. (Not an admirable ethic, to be sure.)
Trout exposed to industrial effluent have 500 to 100,000 fold increases in vitel-logenin, a biomarker for exposure to estrogenic pollutants.
The Pallid Sturgeon, an endangered fish native to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, simply doesnt reproduce anymore. Some have gonads neither distinctly male nor female.
Ethynylestradiol is the main estrogenic compound in birth control pills. Women who take the pill excrete the compound in their urine, which then passes through water treatment plants and on into the environment. The level of such birth control pill by-products in potable water supplies is in concentrations below the limits of detection. Nevertheless, these compounds are exerting biological effects on wildlife in the waterways.
Breakdown products of alkyl phenol polyethoxylates, a class of surfactants used in various soaps and even in pesticides, herbicides and cosmetics, have the ability to directly activate the bodys estrogen receptors. These compounds bioaccumulate in tissues, particularly fat tissues. Some 360 million pounds of these surfactants are sold in the United States each year.
Even electromagnetic fields (EMF) generated by power lines, household appliances and wiring demasculinize mature males. EMF abnormalities in rats include the development of abnormal testes and prostate glands. Researchers remark that the reproductive system of the rat is built like a Sherman tank. Certainly, then, if they are affected by electromagnetic fields, humans may be even more susceptible.
Sixty-seven percent of male Florida panthers, an endangered species with only about 30 to 50 animals still surviving, have undescended testicles. Only 14% of males had this condition just 10 years earlier. Even normal males are producing abnormal and deformed sperm cells. Some males had an estrogen to testosterone ratio that was inverted, having more estrogen than testosterone rather than vice-versa.
Environmental estrogenic pollutants are particularly dangerous to the male since the males reproductive system is more sensitive to the effects of estrogen than any other organ system.
Even though adult animals may appear perfectly normal, they may be reproductively dysfunctional. Some species of animals, though apparently healthy right now, may be in effect extinct.
The ubiquitous nature of feminizing hormones in our environment effectively bathes us in a sea of estrogenic substances. The full consequences of this exposure are only beginning to be understood. We are breathing it in our air, eating it on our fruit, and absorbing it through our skin; children are receiving it in the blood and milk from their mothers.
Many countries are now seeing a sharp rise in testicular cancer, more than tripling over the past 50 years. Also, the sperm count in men has fallen almost 50%, as documented in a study of some 15,000 men between the years of 1940 and 1990.
The rate of cryptorchidism (undescended testicles) has increased by almost two-fold in the years from 1950 to 1970. [We are so clever. First we saturate the bodies of our babies with feminizing pollutants and cause their testicles not to descend, and then we cleverly implant a silicone prosthetic testicle in the scrotum so that they appear normal. Then, the silicone causes an autoimmune disturbance resulting in the debilitating disease lupus erythematosus. (Vol. 8, No. 2).]
Another condition, hypospadias, in which the urinary tract is not formed properly in the fetus, doubled between the years 1964 and 1982.
Early exposure to feminizing hormone pollutants may disrupt the Sertoli cell in the testicles. These cells direct the development and descent of the testes and control the development of sperm and the secretion of male hormones responsible for masculinization. Sertoli cells are particularly sensitive to follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), but exogenous estrogenic pollutants inhibit FSH. Reproductive problems experienced in the general population are identical to the problems experienced by the male offspring of women who, during pregnancy, receive treatment with diethylstilbestrol (DES), a potent synthetic estrogen.
The broad range of estrogenic substances in our environment makes it almost impossible to determine a persons exposure. Though a limit might be set on each of the estrogenic compounds, their effects are additive. Thus, if a person were only taking a tenth of the supposedly safe dosage of 10 different compounds, the additive effect would be toxic. In our clamor to rid our environment of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances, we have ignored the estrogenic effects. Alarmingly, the threshold levels for compounds to produce reproductive and sexual aberrations are often far less than those necessary to produce cancer.
If estrogenic compounds are capable of changing virtually every reproductive tissue in the body, as well as disrupting hormone balances, might they not also affect sexual behavior? Might the rise in sexual crimes and homosexuality be at least partially a result of our swimming in an increasingly concentrated sea of estrogens?
What can we do? First of all, take seriously the dangers of synthetic chemicals and pollutants in our food and environment. Dont minimize the dangers or worry about being picayunish. It is likely that you simply cant be careful enough. Also, do your part to decrease industrialization by decreasing consumption and waste. By decreasing demand we decrease the odds of pollution.
It is of interest that phytoestrogens found in whole grains such as rye, as well as in legumes such as soy although estrogenic possibly have the ability to compete against environmental pollutant estrogens. They are antagonistic to estrogenic adverse effects and apparently do not exert the harmful estrogenic effects of the environmental pollutants.
Since estrogenic compounds are fat soluble, the more fat you have, the greater the potential reservoir for these pollutants. This is yet another reason to maintain healthy body weight.
The ubiquitous nature of synthetic estrogenic compounds and their potential adverse effects is a serious and insidious threat to life on Earth. The power to change things is in our hands.
We must restore our natural context if we are to enjoy health and leave a livable world to our children.
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