DUCK SOUP: One in a Trillion

"Plastics. There's a great future in plastics." That line from The Graduate is one of the classic cinematic sentences, right up there with "Frankly Scarlett..." and "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore." But today medical and environmental research suggests that plastic's future is at least ambiguous.Hormones are the chemical messengers that regulate much of what goes on inside your body. We commonly think of them in relation to sex drive, fertility or changes in post-menopausal women, but their functions extend far beyond our reproductive systems. From the earliest stages of an embryo's development hormones act as triggers which profoundly affect future behavior, intelligence, growth and health as well as procreation. In fact, hormonal controls rank a close second to genetic blueprints in determining who we are.It appears that these subtle chemicals have worked so well over millions of years that they have become ubiquitous. Despite the vast differences between fish and birds and insects and mammals the same hormones are active everywhere. The estrogen that triggers sexual differentiation in humans is the same as that in seagulls and tuna. Disruption of hormonal levels in pregnant females causes the same attention deficit disorders in mouse pups and human babies.Thalidomide, a notorious anti-nausea medication prescribed for pregnant women in the 1950s, caused severe birth defects because it scrambled hormonal signals. Scientists have concluded that hormones have an impact at levels as low as one part per trillion. To get a handle on what that means, think of one second in thirty-two thousand years: that is one part per trillion. This means the hormone receptor sites in living cells are extremely sensitive.Now here is the troubling news. Researchers around the world have discovered that many man-made compounds act as either hormone-mimetics or hormone blockers. These chemicals bind to receptor sites and either trigger the normal reaction, though perhaps at the wrong time, or prevent the right signal from getting through. In wild animal populations these chemicals have been linked to declining polar bear, shore bird and alligator populations. Strong evidence suggests that immune deficiency syndromes in Atlantic dolphins, seals and St. Lawrence beluga whales derive from the same source.Great Lakes Bald Eagles are disinterested in mating and female Pacific Coast seagulls nest together instead of with males, apparently due to traces of industrial by-products.PCB production has been banned in the U.S. since 1976 because it was linked to cancer. Now it is apparent that PCB is also one of a whole range of man made chemicals which are hormone disrupters including plastics, detergents, lotions and various pesticides.. Such effects have often been overlooked because researchers tend to focus on cancer as the chief threat of toxics.Those who have carefully studied the problem offer the following advice. Avoid food or drink packaged in plastic and water piped through PVC, avoid pesticides, eat certified organically grown vegetables, avoid meat and dairy products -- they are the biggest source of dioxin in America's diet, don't eat fish caught downstream of industrial waste pipes or golf courses, wash your hands frequently and teach children to do the same -- many contaminants are airborne, avoid plastic toys and don't let children chew on them. Such precautions are particularly important for girls from birth to child bearing since these chemicals are stored in fat over a lifetime and passed to babies during gestation and breast feeding.At the same time our society as a whole needs to address these recent and disturbing discoveries. Industries should include hormone disrupters in pollution testing and alter manufacturing methods to avoid use or release of such chemicals. We need to restrict the current introduction of a thousand or more untested new substances each year until the problem and solutions are better understood. Overall we need to look at natural food chains as models for industry and close recycling loops so that fewer wastes are dumped.The rising chemical threat to living systems is one that can probably be solved with science and legislation. Substances which are active in parts per trillion are extremely democratic; they're in you and me and the Clintons, in corporate CEOs and the homeless. Corrective environmental regulations are truly for the common good. The alternative seems to be a future population that is dumber, sicker and more violent -- a price that makes prudent restraint today look like a bargain.

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