A survey conducted last year by the Environment Agency showed that endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or environmental hormones, had been detected in most of Japan’s water systems. It also indicated that dioxin in excess of standardized limits existed in the air in the Tokyo Metropolitan area and many other parts of the country. Organic chlorine insecticides like DDT and BHC and other chemicals such as PCB are still present in the fat and breast milk of healthy people, even though their use was banned 10 to 20 years ago. Moreover, we have recently learned that raw materials like bisphenol and plastic materials like phthalic acid ester leak out of plastic food containers.
We have all benefited greatly from petrochemical products created by 20th-century science and technology. The conveniences and comforts of our daily lives depend to a large extent on plastic products. The price has been high, however. Today, the country is flooded with chemical materials and their wastes. We now know that more than 70 chemical materials, including those mentioned above, disrupt the functions of hormones in humans and animals and reduce reproductive capability.
Some of the world’s leading researchers and administrative officials gathered in Kyoto last December to discuss this situation at an international symposium on endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which was sponsored by the Environment Agency. The symposium confirmed that DDT and PCB in the environment are linked to feminization of males, masculinization of females, abnormalities in reproductive organs and a decrease in the incubation ratio, all of which are found in wild animals.
Although the chemical industrial associations of many countries, including Japan, take this problem seriously and have conducted research, they have failed to disclose any important data in detail. Instead, they have preferred campaigns to declare that certain chemical materials are safe. The Agricultural Chemical Industry Association of Japan, for example, claims that product safety has been confirmed after thoroughly reviewing data obtained from biological tests. But it provides no data whatsoever regarding the standards by which the review was made vis-a-vis the new problem of endocrine disruption. That being the case, it is difficult to accept the association’s assertion about safety.
Three generations of animals have been used for valuable experiments on the safety of agricultural chemicals, but the enormous amount of data thus generated has been treated as a trade secret and, therefore, has never been made public. In these circumstances, how can the public trust what it is told about the safety of these products? The industry should promote multifaceted, integrated research with such objective third parties as universities and national institutes and make the data and the results public.
In an effort to fight problems related to environmental hormones, the government allocated 12 billion yen to seven ministries and agencies in the supplementary budget for fiscal 1998, and another large sum in the draft budget for fiscal 1999. Unfortunately, the manner in which these sums are allocated remains unchanged. There is little coordination among the ministries and agencies. Moreover, much of the money is being spent on monitoring surveys and improvement of equipment; little is earmarked for basic research.
Since it can be assumed that endocrine-disrupting chemicals affect future generations, there should be a grand design encompassing all surveys and research carried out by different ministries and agencies, as well as a long-term strategy to eliminate toxic chemicals from the environment. Of particular urgency is the need to establish a long-range research system that tracks the mental and physical health of newborn babies by analyzing the adverse effects of chemical materials on the mother’s body and contamination within the umbilical cord, which is indicative of abnormalities in fetuses.
It is also important to avoid duplication of research through a division of labor among the industrialized nations and international bodies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Health Organization. Another urgent task is streamlining regulatory laws by introducing a system for registering emissions and transport of environmental pollutants and amending the Law for Controlling Inspection and Manufacture of Chemical Materials.
To protect our families and offspring, we should make efforts to ensure the safety of drinking water and foods and to reduce chemical materials. Local governments and the industry should also indicate the composition of materials and additives for every chemical compound.
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