January 2002: Volume 44, Number 1
Taking the Hardline with Endocrine -- Disrupting Hormones and Other Truths
by Ronald Y. Pérez,
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I should have made something up.
Nearing deadline for this column and many thoughts removed from even pondering about what topic to tackle, a colleague asked me if I had decided on what I would be writing about this month. I answered, "I haven't." Then the unthinkable happened. He said he had an idea. Judging from his enthusiasm, I expected an Earth-rattling idea.
Instead, I got the following two words: Endocrine disrupters.
Unable to bring myself to utter a more viable option or feign temporary hearing loss, I tentatively agreed to the topic. Sure, I had heard of the term before. And, yes, it has to do with water quality. Other than that, the picture was fuzzy. A whole column devoted to endocrine disrupters? Surely he jests. Apparently not. Which brings us to this point.
Let's begin with a definition of endocrine disrupters for the 90 percent of you who have no idea what I am talking about (Beware, this may be a case of the blind leading the blind.): "Secreting internally; producing secretions that are distributed in the body by way of the bloodstream." Yes, the office rumors are true, my colleague does have a sick sense of humor. Oh, but I smell humor in this column. Or am I smelling…uh, never mind. On with the column and an amazing amount of information available on the web.
When tackling a topic like endocrine disrupters, it only seems right that you start off with the USEPA.
Predictably, the USEPA comes through in a big way. At the top of the home page reads, "Endocrine Disruptor (sic) Screening Program Web Site." In short, the program "focuses on providing methods and procedures to detect and characterize endocrine activity of pesticides, commercial chemicals, and environmental contaminants." Pretty clear there, but as I scan across the page, a heading catches my eye -- What Are Endocrine Disrupters? I click on the button as I'm not too impressed with the aforementioned secretion explanation.
According to the first sentence, "Endocrine disruptors (sic) are chemicals, which interfere with endocrine system function." "Endocrine systems" is another way of saying hormone systems. Short and to the point, but nothing juicy. I also learn that nearly all animals, including mammals, non-mammalian vertebrates and invertebrates have an endocrine system. What a load off my mind. Here I thought I was lacking one. Though people have told me before that I am full of… information. But I digress. The Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes the USEPA to screen endocrine disrupters found in drinking water sources.
Aside from the general meaning of endocrine disrupters (or ED from this point on), there are some headings of note. These include What's New, Program Overview, Priority-Setting Activities, ED Methods Validation Subcommittee, Background: EDSTAC & SVTF, Policy Development and Related Links. I found the What's New heading to be the most appealing. It lists eight documents within the past five months that shed some light on ED that were culled from meetings, seminars, conferences, etc. My search for something off the beaten path continues.
The huge heading speaks volumes -- "Introduction to Hormone Disrupting Chemicals." A-ha, they decided to drop the ED in favor of "hormones." Who exactly are "they?" Actually it's one guy. Dr. A. Michael Warhurst, an environmental chemist who works for Friends of the Earth in London, started the site in July 1995. Very impressive for a one-man operation.
Let's take a look at the specifics. First off, everything is labeled for easy access on the home page. For additional information, the visitor is asked to click for "more details." The main headings are Health concerns, Suspect chemicals, The endocrine system, Issues, Policy responses, Take Action! and About this site. Take Action! catches my eye right away. What can I do to help further ED education? In two words, "safer chemicals," whether it be in paints, perfumes or soaps. That's where Friends of the Earth is a valuable conduit. Curiously, the Suspect chemicals button didn't work.
Some health concerns given by the site are broken down by gender. For men, the possible effects include testicular cancer, lowered sperm counts, reproductive abnormalities and "reducing proportion of male babies." For women, the effects listed are breast cancer and early puberty. Some serious stuff there. As one can see, the site does take a rather proactive stance on the ED issue but also raises some good points. Perhaps one of the better features of the site is located under Policy responses. There, pertinent documents are listed under country/continent name -- European Union, UK, USA and an overall look at the issue in other areas of the world.
OK, before anything else, you will punch in this address and get a very plain screen. This isn't the home page. At the top right corner, you will find a search function. Type in "endocrine" and you will be greeted with approximately 57 documents. You may be asking why not type in "endocrine disrupters," which brought up only seven items. In this instance, a broader search is bound to get better results.
As most of you know, the Sierra Club -- like Friends of the Earth -- has an environmental agenda that it tries to carry out through various means. Part of its mission statement is to "educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment." Scrolling through the 57 documents provides a nice variety of information. A quick scan shows excerpts from a PBS show, but the majority of it is cultivated from news reports via the club's newsletter and magazine. Unfortunately, the site would only let me view the first 20 entries.
I clicked on the third entry entitled "Health and Environment." I was whisked away to a series of slides. The sub-headings are Air Quality, Pesticides, Toxic Waste Sites and Emerging Threats: Endocrine Disrupters/ Biotech. OK, before I can deem this promising, I discover none of the slides have links, so no further ED content is attainable.
In an attempt to uncover something sordid or even somewhat lascivious, I am afraid to report nothing more than some secretion and hormone fodder. In all seriousness, ED isn't something that should be brushed aside. Obviously, they are dangerous -- with potential adverse health effects -- and can occur in our drinking water sources.
Well, my hopes were high entering this column for the possibility of a few laughs at the expense of ED. No dice. In the meantime, I refuse to share my subject ideas for future columns with my colleague.
As expected, the USEPA lends a good deal of information. For a government site, it's also very easy to navigate. For those of you interested in doing some research on ED, this is where you need to start. If anything becomes policy, you'll get it here first.
The environmental site is rather subdued in its presentation. The message doesn't override the basic information on ED, or in this case "hormone" disrupting chemicals. Whereas USEPA focuses on one area, this site reviews policy issues around the globe.
With its reputation preceding it, I expected a lot more from this site. Granted, ED is perhaps not first on the group's list of things to eradicate but it has everything to do with the environment, right? Some of the site's features need some tweaking as well.