Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn et al
a book review by John Reimann
Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first…. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”
So wrote Frederick Engels over 150 years ago (1876). He was explaining how the human hand led to the development of the human brain and our ability to foresee the more remote consequences of our actions on nature. But he also issued the above warning, one which is more relevant today than ever. This is what people living by toxic waste dumps (more often than not poor people, often people of color), people living downwind of oil refineries, people living in “fracking” zones, and others are learning through first hand experience. Nature is taking its “revenge” and the people are experiencing the more remote consequences of our society’s tampering with nature.
42 Billion Pounds per Year
One of the major ways in which Corporate America tampers with nature is through the production of synthetic chemicals – everything from flame retardants on furniture and children’s clothing to herbicides to food additives. Many of these are consumer products, but then there are those produced for industry, for mining and oil and gas drilling, etc. According to an article in Environmental Health,“An estimated 42 billion pounds of synthetic chemicals are produced or imported every day. This amount will continue to rise 3% every year.” From the fossil fuel industry to agribusiness and the chemical companies, there is big money and therefore powerful forces behind the introduction of these chemicals. People living by fracked gas wells or toxic waste dumps see and feel the consequences. They experience the nose bleeds, the skin rashes, the feelings of low energy. They see the children born with weakened immune systems or asthma. And they are organizing to put a stop to their being poisoned.
In the course of this organizing, they are usually told by the industry involved that the health problems they are experiencing are all just coincidence, that they – the industry – could not possibly be responsible. Whenever they can get away with it, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and similar state bodies parrot the industry line. This is forcing these movements of non- “experts” to at least become familiar with these sciences involved. The movement against industry poisoning must become thoroughly knowledgable about toxicology (the science of poisoning). It is starting to do so.
First published in 1996, “Our Stolen Future” by Theo Colborn et al is an indispensable tool in gaining this knowledge. It is so indispensable because it helps us understand how the human (and non-human) body develops normally and what is the process through which normal development is disrupted.
There is a lot in the news nowadays about genetic testing and genetic research. There is very little, if any, coverage about research into the role of our endocrine system – the system of glands that regulate both our development in the womb and the functioning of our body throughout life. As Colborn explains, the genes often simply serve to turn on or off the secretion of one hormone or another, and it is this hormone which then does the work. In the womb, for instance, the male fetus’s Y chromosome turns on the glands which turn the unisex organs into male organs. If something interferes with this process, even if the fetus has the (male) X and Y chromosomes, they will not develop normally into a male. The fetus can become a male with only partially developed male sex organs or even an inter-sex child (one with both sex organs in part).
A similar role is played by different hormones in the development of the rest of the fetus – from its muscles and bones to its nervous system, immune system, etc.
After birth, and throughout the person’s life (or the life or any other animal), the endocrine system plays a vital role. Colborn describes how the different hormones serve as messages from one part of the body to another, a continual flow of communication, how for instance the thyroid sends out messages to the cells to increase the burning of fuel, the metabolism. “The pituitary… acts as a control center, telling the ovaries or the thyroid when to send their chemical messages and how much to send. The pituitary gets its cues from a nearby portion of the brain called the hypothalamus… that constantly monitors the hormone levels in the blood… If levels of a hormone get too high or too low, the hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary, which signals the gland that produces this hormone to gear up, slow down or shut off. The messages travel back and forth continuously. Without this cross talk and constant feed back, the human body would be an unruly mob of some 50 trillion cells rather than an integrated organism operating from a single script…. (There are) profound interconnections between the brain and the immune system, the immune system and the endocrine system, and the endocrine system and the brain.” p. 32)
What can interfere with the endocrine system – either in its role in the fetus’s development, or in the normal growth and functioning of a person or other animal?
As Colborn explains, when the hormones course through the body (often in infinitesimally tiny amounts, by the way), they are received by hormone receptors in the individual cells. Many synthetic chemicals (and some natural ones) act as hormone “mimics” – bonding with those receptors and thus preventing the hormone from doing so. Other chemicals act as hormone blockers, blocking the hormone.
How, exactly, do these many thousands of synthetic chemicals affect our endocrine system?
The problem is that nobody fully knows… because as a general rule no testing is done to determine that! But Colborn helps us understand the devastating possible effects in her review of some testing of the effects of PCB’s.
PCB was an insulating oil that was widely used for quite some time until its extreme carcinogenic (cancer causing) effects were discovered. One related problem with PCB’s is that they are extremely long lasting, resulting in the fact that every living being – from polar bears to people living in the Amazon – has PCB’s in their tissue. At the time of writing, Colborn reports that some 5-10% of US children are reported to be suffering from some form of attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity disorder. She raises the possibility that PCB’s are at least in part responsible, as they are known to affect the thyroid system. “Extensive research on the developing brain and nervous system has found that thyroid hormones help orchestrate the elaborate step-by-step process that is required for normal brain development.” According to Colborn, PCB’s (and the herbicide dioxin) may mimic or block normal hormone action.
The possible affect of PCB’s on children – especially the offspring of women who ingested higher levels of PCB’s – is not mere speculation. There was a study of Taiwanese children born of women who consumed cooking oil tainted with PCB’s. In that case, there was an abnormally high level of children with various neurological disorders (p. 189*). In a study of children born of women in the Great Lakes area of the US who consumed unusually high levels of Great Lakes fish (known to be high in PCB’s) it was found that these children tended to have higher “weak reflexes and more jerky, unbalanced movements as newborns.”
Another study was done on children whose mothers had high levels of PCB’s in their milk. At seven years of age they were found to have “signs of impaired cognitive functioning. Colborn also writes: “When the children were tested at four years of age, seventeen of them refused to cooperate during at least one test, all of them children of mothers with the highest levels of PCB’s in their milk.” (p. 193)
These results have clear social/political implications. It seems that the PCB’s have the effect of making it more difficult for children (and possibly adults) to handle stress. This means that those growing up in stressful environments will be more affected by such toxins than others. In other words, if you are poor, and/or are a victim of racism or sexism or homophobia, you will be more affected.
Cancer but not birth defects
PCB’s were banned because they cause cancer. Their role as endocrine disrupters was only discovered later, through the surveys explained above, and that is part of the problem; in general, new chemicals are tested for possibly causing cancer; but they are not tested for causing birth defects or for disrupting the endocrine system.
“The Dosage Makes the Poison”
Colborn also stresses another point: Classic toxicology takes the position that “the dosage makes the poison.” In other words, the assumption is that the greater the dosage, the greater the effect. In the case of chemicals that affect our endocrine system (the system in our body that produces the various hormones that regulate our functioning) just the opposite can be true. Colborn explains why: Each cell of our body contains receptors made to receive particular hormones. Some synthetic chemicals can serve as hormone mimics which lock with those receptors, thus preventing them from receiving the real hormone. Other chemicals can act as hormone blockers, preventing the secretion of the hormone in the first place.
A Different Approach to Science
Perhaps the greatest contribution of “Our Stolen Future” lies in its approach to environmental sciences, which increasingly means the study of the natural world in general. Here, a little history is valuable. As the capitalist class moved to overthrow their feudal predecessors, they did not only transform social relations; other changes were necessary. Based on continual innovation and competition, a clearer understanding of the natural world was necessary. Thus the capitalist class moved this study from the realm of superstition and mysticism to the realm of materialism – the study of specific material conditions. In some ways, the highest form of this science is the classic laboratory experiment in which all factors are strictly controlled and one, and one factor only, is varied. In this way, modern science can better understand the effects of a change in this factor.
What Colborn explains, however, is that in studying environmental issues it is not possible to control all the factors in this way. “There is little chance of showing a simple cause-and-effect link between any one or selected groups of hormone-disrupting synthetic chemicals,” she writes and raises the approach of “eco-epidemiology”. “In this approach, one assesses the totality of the information in the light of epidemiological criteria for causality, such as whether the exposure precedes the effect, whether there is a consistent association between a contaminant and damage, and whether the association is plausible in light of the current understanding of biological mechanisms. But this real-world environmental detective work comes to judgment based on the ‘weight of the evidence’ rather than on scientific ideals of proof that are more appropriate to controlled laboratory experiments… As some have noted, it is akin to the decision-making process a physician uses to diagnose a case of appendicitis – where failure to act has grave consequences.” (p. 208)
With all great leaps in our understanding of health effects of various substances, there were always critics – often industry funded – who pointed out the holes in the arguments and the lack of classical “proof” of the claims. This was true for many years for those who linked cigarette smoking with cancer. More recently it has been true regarding the climate disruption/global warming caused by increased greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. The same is so for Colborn’s theses.
One of the most prominent critics is Stephen Safe, professor of toxicology at Texas A & M University. In one article of his in the Wall St. Journal (8/20/1997) he takes Colborn to task for following exactly the method she outlines above. As was the case for years regarding the effects of tobacco or the effects of increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, Safe raise doubt about the effect of specific chemicals. In large part, he disputes whether or not these specific chemicals cause cancer. But this is not the focus of Colborn’s concern. What Safe fails to do is challenge Colborn’s general method or her general approach to the issues. By failing to do so, he is in effect admitting that her approach and her general concerns are valid.
Since the publication of “Our Stolen Future”, Colborn has put up a web site which goes further. Among other things, it has extensive information on the issue of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), especially as it relates to endocrine disruption, and she has become generally known among and is helping the anti-fracking activists in her state (Colorado). In this, she joins the ranks of some other scientists who have become politically active as a result of their studies. These include the likes of Dr. Anthony Ingraffia of Cornell University (involved in the anti-fracking movement), James Hansen (considered to be the father of global warming science), and others.
In doing so, they evoke the memory of the Grub Street scientists of 18th and 19th century France. The Grub Street scientists organized in opposition to a more elite element of the scientific community. While they still apparently held certain semi-mystical views, they also rebelled against the focus on minutiae of the academic scientists. “They saw themselves as synthesizers rather than analyzers and bold hypothesizers rathe than fact-gatherers…. It was the right and duty of science, they insisted, to go beyond known facts and to speculate on possible and probable causes.” (Clifford Connor, “A People’s History of Science”, p. 392) They also saw science and social change as being interconnected.
Colborn and Rachel Carson
Everything in “Our Stolen Future” as well as in the role of such scientists as Colborn, Hansen, etc. seems to base itself on this approach, but at a new and higher level. It has been justifiably compared to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. The latter sold 200,000 copies before it was even on the book stands and was ultimately published in 17 different languages. Silent Spring has been credited with sounding the opening bell for the modern environmental movement as well as playing a major role in getting DDT banned in the United States. If “Our Stolen Future” has become known but on not so widespread a level, possibly it is because since the publication of “Silent Spring” we have had the “Green Revolution” and the increased grip of agribusiness and the merger of agriculture and the chemical industry. The result is that the message of “Our Stolen Future” takes on more widespread and entrenched forces.
Exactly for this reason, “Our Stolen Future” is indispensable reading for anybody concerned with or organizing around issues related to human health and the environment. It helps that it is also so eminently readable.
Categories: book reviews, environment, science
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