To successfully curb the threat of endocrine disrupting chemicals, an independent and global effort is needed and is expected to be initiated early next year, according to award-winning scientist Theo Colborn.
Colborn first became aware of the developmental effects of synthetic chemicals on wildlife and people in the late 1980s and introduced the idea to the world in the jointly authored 1996 book “Our Stolen Future.”
The work spurred a fundamental rethinking of synthetic chemicals and their threat to wildlife and mankind. The book’s waves continue to ripple through governments, industries and societies as they strive to come to grips with so-called environmental hormones.
“We now know that developing systems in the womb are so fine-tuned that the hormone concentration, as little as a tenth of a trillionth of a gram, can change the destiny of the developing offspring. That is as inconspicuous as one second in 3,169 centuries,” said the spry 73-year-old, trying to give perspective to the minute amounts that need to be measured.
Colborn is director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Wildlife and Contaminants Program and is visiting Japan for the first time, to accept the Blue Planet Prize for her ground-breaking work.
“What we need now is an independent international cooperative research effort on endocrine disrupters,” Colborn said, convinced that if government and industry throw their collective weight behind such a program, a basic protocol for studying suspect chemicals could be set up within a few years.
An international initiative is needed because the chemicals are so intricately woven into the global economy and the problem is so complex, Colborn said.
She envisions a program financed by industry and overseen by a neutral committee.
“By 2001, we hope this will be up and running,” she said.
The institute she plans to establish will be composed of stakeholders in the issue — from industry to nature groups — and will attempt to give order to the complex research needed. They will work to outline what questions need to be answered and how to answer them.
Initially, research will be entrusted to one neutral university that will act as the hub, with more research gradually farmed out to other laboratories. Results will be compiled to provide data for policymaking purposes and to inform the public.
“In 1996, it looked like the United States Environment Protection Agency was going to take the lead on this issue,” Colborn said, when Congress told the EPA to establish procedures for testing the endocrine disrupting effects of chemicals by 2000.
“Unfortunately, here we are almost through 2000 and not one test has been standardized or validated yet in the United States or any other country.”
Budget restraints and bureaucratic inertia have stalled the process, further retarding insights on “inner space,” as Colborn calls what goes on in the womb.
“Unfortunately, the technology that provided these insights on inner space is dragging years behind outer space and cyberspace technology that contributed to the 500 or more chemicals that everyone is carrying in their bodies today.”
Endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic the functions of hormones in the body, working in complex ways to trigger, suppress or otherwise impair sexual, mental, behavioral and immune development and functions.
While research is making headway, progress is slow due to a lack of standardized testing procedures, high costs and poor understanding about how the chemicals interact.
“It is difficult to prove with absolute certainty that a certain chemical can interfere with development and function because to date there are no standardized protocols to test chemicals for these effects. Let me emphasize that no chemical in use today has ever been tested for these effects.”
But with a united effort, more money and the help of industries — if they will “fund inner space research resource as enthusiastically and generously as previous cyberspace and outer space efforts were funded,” then Colborn believes rudimentary screening infrastructure could be agreed upon in a very short time.
Once in place, she hopes it will illuminate the threat of hormone-mimicking chemicals and spur debate and regulation of the chemicals, some of which are already at levels in the environment that have shown effects in labs.
“People are walking around with concentrations of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in their body now,” Colborn said. “Their children will have neural developmental delays, changes in their personality (and) ability to learn and suffer reproductive problems.”
Colborn also praised Japanese research as among the most advanced and expects it to play a big role in unraveling the mysteries of endocrine disruption. However, despite some of the world’s premier scientists in the field, not enough of their work finds its way into the English language journals, she said.
“I notice very fine work coming out of Japan,” she said. “I think you need to encourage your Japanese scientists to please somehow get their work into the peer-reviewed literature that is being picked up around the world.”
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