No chemical threat found;
Panel doesn't find hormone link
By Steven Milloy
Copyright 1999 Chicago Sun-Times
August 6, 1999
A panel of scientists convened by the National Research Council found no
persuasive evidence that chemicals in the environment are disrupting hormonal
processes in humans or wildlife.
But the panel, funded in part by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
recommended research continue into so-called
"hormonally active agents," including pesticides, PCBs and chemicals in plastics.
Acknowledging that high doses of some of the chemicals may pose a risk to
humans and wildlife, the panel said the evidence was inadequate to suggest that
low doses typically found in the environment pose any risk.
"The panel could not confirm the horror stories that have been spread about
these chemicals over the last few years," said Bonner R. Cohen, senior fellow and environment specialist at the
Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
Sandra Tirey, leader of the Chemical Manufacturers Association's Public Health
"The report is a significant step forward on an important public health issue."
But not everyone is satisfied with the report.
"It's a little schizophrenic. It's so heavily balanced that it borders on not
saying anything," said Peter de Fur, an environmental activist at Virginia Commonwealth
Since the early 1990s, some researchers and environmental activists have
theorized that low levels of certain chemicals disrupt normal hormonal
processes, and cause a wide variety of health problems in wildlife and humans,
ranging from cancer to disorders in reproductive, developmental, neurologic and
Many of the chemicals have been released into the environment through
industrial emissions or chemical and pesticide use. Some manufactured products
such as plastic intravenous (IV) bags and plastic food wrap have also been cited as potential sources of
Deerfield-based Baxter International came under fire earlier in the year for
its use of polyvinyl chloride in some of its medical products, including
plastic tubing and IV bags.
Scientific support for the theory, though, has been difficult to come by. After
four years of scientific review and debate, the panel concluded that available
data does not support associations between the chemicals in question and
hormonally sensitive cancers, such as those of the breast, testicles, prostate
and endometrium. Evidence of harm to humans from low-level exposure to the
chemicals was also not persuasive for reproductive, neurologic or immunologic
Claims of declining sperm counts have been hotly debated for years, but the
panel concluded there was no evidence of a global decline in sperm counts,
evidence points to declines in certain regions, particularly Europe. Whether
those declines are linked to pollution is unknown, the report said.
The panel was also unable to explain biological processes through which
chemicals would cause the effects alleged.
About claims that hormonally active chemicals have contributed to declines in
some wildlife populations, including fish and birds of the Great Lakes and
alligators in Florida, the panel concluded
"It is difficult to determine a clear causal relationship between these changes
and exposure to (chemicals) given all of the other environmental factors
The panel, however, refused to dispose of the hormone-disrupter theory without
But the call for more research has been questioned.
"The endocrine-disrupter hypothesis has never been grounded in any reality," said Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and
"It is easy to call for more
research in the absence of danger. I am now convinced that one of the major
problems is that scientists are unwilling to use the four-letter word, 'safe.'
"The call for more research was simply a sop thrown to committee activists in
exchange for their consent to release the report," says Dr. Michael Gough, a former government scientist and adjunct scholar at
the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
"Advocates of the hormone disruption theory blocked release of the report when
they realized it wasn't going to reach the conclusions they wanted. This type
of deal-making is unfortunate, but it's a reality of science-by-committee," Gough said.