Silent Planet

It sounds like a plot from a Star Trek episode, only too incredible. A planet seems doomed; everything that walks, crawls, flies, or swims is poisoned. But in an ironic Hollywood twist, all appears normal. No thick pollution chokes the air, no cities glow from the radiation of atomic bombs. Instead, the people and animals simply dwindle away. Fewer babies are born every year until finally, there aren't any babies born at all. Welcome to Earth, two generations from now. Massive global extinction of animal--and maybe human--life sounds farfetched, but it is one scenario that some scientists fear. "Inability to reproduce leads to extinction--it's that simple," says Dr. Theo Colborn, a Senior Scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. Sometimes dubbed "the Rachel Carson of the 1990's," Colborn leads a new breed of researchers who might have found a single answer to a host of medical and biological mysteries. Why are men producing only half as much sperm as their grandfathers? What's behind the slow but steady rise in breast cancer? And why are those male suckerfish turning into females? The comparison to Rachel Carson is apt. Like the author of "Silent Spring," Colborn warns that if wildlife is in serious peril from pollution, we should fear for our own lives. After Silent Spring exposed the danger of DDT, mainstream science eventually agreed it was a deadly carcinogen. But this time, the threat is not as obvious; exposure doesn't kill YOU. Instead, your children might have greater risks of cancer, weakened immune systems, or might be sterile. The culprit could be a stew of man-made chemicals found in our air, our water, our food. There are hundreds of them found in pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastics, and detergents used every day around the world. Some of these chemicals are killers like DDT that we smugly think banned. But while DDT was prohibited in this country decades ago, the half-life of DDT is 59 years; the remains of pesticides used in 1936 still drift on spring breezes, fall in raindrops and snowflakes. And though PCB manufacture stopped in 1972, over half of the hazardous compound is still in use; the rest has escaped into the environment and travelled the globe. Traces of PCB or related chemicals are now found in all animals: Siberian seals, Antarctic penguins, us. PCB is an organochlorine, a chemical compound discovered in the 1930's. Industry loves the stuff; combine chlorine and carbon and they can make all manner of nifty things. The water pipes in your house, for example, are probably made from PVC plastic, another in this family. The problem, says Colborn and others, is that these molecules are dangerously close to ones needed by our bodies to stay healthy and reproduce. Sometimes they are called "environmental hormones" because their molecular structure is quite similar to the estrogen hormone. Estrogen isn't just women's territory; men produce it, too, and it plays a number of important roles in our bodies. But our endocrine systems are fragile, and too much or too little estrogen upsets the balance. Women sometimes develop breast or uterine cancer when they have too much estrogen, and the sperm count in men declines. Under a microscope, maybe you could tell that this is an outsider--a xenoestrogen that came from a plastic bottle burned in an incinerator, perhaps. But your body doesn't know the difference. As a key matches a lock, a xenoestrogen fits snugly in an estrogen "receptor," and your delicate (but dumb) endocrine system is fooled by these deadly imposters. You still could live to a ripe old age with some of your estrogens receptors plugged with fake hormones; after all, these are very microscopic quantities. For example: it's likely every human has accumulated tiny amounts of dioxin--another dangerous chlorine compound--equivalent to about eight drops of water in a very large swimming pool. (That's .000000000008 of a kilogram, for those with scientific calculators.) Safe, according to government standards. But increase it to just 64 drops and you have a dosage shown to cause reproductive problems in laboratory mice. Even if you're no math whiz, it's easy to see the jump from 8 to 64 is a bit too close for comfort. From the mother to the child, these poisons are passed while the fetus is in its most fragile state of development. Colborn explains: "A developing endocrine system is vulnerable because it has more receptors than an adults. The impact shows up later in life; there's a big difference between exposure [to toxins] as an adult and exposure in the womb. We're now seeing more women with estrogen-receptive breast cancer--why is that? Because their mothers were exposed while [these women] were still in the womb." While dramatic impacts like cancer may show up decades later, some effects may be more immediate. A colleague of Colborn's found significant numbers of women who eat fish with low-level contaminants have smaller babies, some with neurological damage. As the children grew, more appear to have problems with short-term memory and behavorial disorders. Environmental estrogens is a new theory, less than ten years old. But for decades, scientists knew there was a problem. A particular form of wildlife would mysteriously die off, often with mysterious ailments--dolphins appeared with skin lesions that looked like acid burns, for example. Another clue appeared in the early 1960's when a Swedish chemist noticed that PCB's seemed to turn up everywhere in the environment. It even appeared in hair clippings taken from his wife and three children. Here was the biggest surprise: his breast-feeding infant daughter had the highest concentrations of all. It didn't make any sense. Evidence continued to build something odd was going on. Rates of testicular cancer in men have doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled in some parts of the world. Endometriosis (a painful condition where cells migrate outside a woman's uterus) was once a rare disease, but is now reported in the millions. There were no explanations why. Another important clue came from Dr. John NcLachlan, who discovered a link between women with a rare form of vaginal cancer and men with sexual deformations. In common was a drug their mothers took while pregnant to prevent miscarriage: DES. Somehow, the drug was causing sexual birth defects. That was nothing compared to what biologists were finding in wildlife. Hermaphrodite fish appeared; female seagulls near Santa Barbara Island took up nest-keeping together; and alligators in a Florida lake had hopelessly small penises. There was one common thread: at each site, there had been a chemical spill years before. Colborn found wildlife biologists wondering about similar problems shortly after she joined the World Wildlife Fund. "The answer came about because of wildlife biologists working around the Great Lakes. Little groups here and there knew bits and pieces, and I was given the opportunity to pull it all together. By 1988, I knew what was going on." Inviting scientists from all fields to a 1991 conference, zoologists compared notes with biochemists and toxicologists for the first time. Their consenus: we have a problem. A big problem. And part of that problem is the way researchers determine whether a substance causes harm or not. It's the way science is done: if massive doses of a chemical doesn't kill the lab rats, it's assumed safe. But what if the effects show up years later? Or worse, in the offspring? There's no way to tell because you've already diced up the furry test subjects for tissue samples. "Cancer is easy to see, and has devastating results. But this is not so easy to see" says Colborn. "Toxicologists thought high-dose testing was a great way to look for effects, but we found the results showed up in young [offspring], not adults, as the chemicals interferred with their endocrine system." The group recommended all substances be tested for such results. Since the conference, Colborn has found that expensive, multi-generational testing is not the quick-and-easy solution government wants to hear. "Public authorities don't want to admit there is a problem, but instead of denying the issue, we should be studying it. There are only a handful of labs around the country doing animal tests. There's no money for this kind of research." Budgets are lean for all research, but Colburn's right: the entire field of ecological contamination research--acid rain, water pollution, and more-- gets a paltry $13 million, with a fraction going to study environmental estrogens. But there could be another reason for those empty federal coffers: not everyone agrees with Colborn's theory. Debate even rages over the meaning of reduced sperm quality, the longest studied indicator. For decades, researchers have found men producing lousy sperm. Mostly ignored by both scientists and the media, "The Specter of Sterility" even made Project Censored's list of important but neglected news. And not just once, but twice, in 1992 and 1978--the only medical story to have that dishonor. To Colborn, the issue was conclusively proven earlier this year. "[A recently published study by Dr. Jaques Auger] was done to discredit the theory; he simply couldn't believe it was true, it's so subtle. But he found a major effect: sperm quality is dropping 2.1 percent a year for the last 20 years. Look at the chart and you can draw a straight line to the bottom. When will a baby boy be born who has no sperm?" The plummeting sperm studies are indeed gloomy. Unless things change, the sperm slope bottoms out sometime after the middle of the next century. Put another way: a baby girl born today might not have any grandchildren--ever. The human race is over. But other researchers aren't so sure there's even a problem. Skeptics note that there's more to conception than just having bucketfuls of happy sperm. Besides, the rate of infertility has remained constant for three decades, at about 10 percent. Don't make too much of this kind of research, say critics. By no means does the scientific community agree with the theory of chemicals acting as deadly estrogen imitators. Says cancer researcher Dr. Edward Giovannucci, "The exposure levels of xenoestrogens is so low that it's hard to believe it's a major cause of cancer." Such trace amounts of contaminants fade into the background noise of random chance, he says, making it impossible to prove conclusively. But what about the increased rates of sexual cancers? "A lot of the increase in cancer rates is due to early detection," Giovannucci says. Others point out that the wildlife abnormalities all are connected with proven toxic spills, not just accumulated exposure to everyday pollutants. The EPA takes a middle road: something's going on, but they're not sure what, exactly. "It's viewed in the agency as not just a problem with xenoestrogens," says Dr. Robert Kavlock, Director of the Developmental Toxicity Division. "They can bind to other receptors even better than estrogen, and there are lots of ways the endocrine system can be damaged. There's no doubt that some of the endocrine systems have been disturbed, but there's a question if those effects are happening to humans. We can't say with complete assurance that exposure 30 to 40 years ago is causing the cases of breast cancer or the drop in sperm." Still, the agency is concerned enough to form a new branch dedicated to endocrinology, merging ecologists and doctors investigating the field. Proving Colborn right or wrong may take decades, particularly if research continues at its current snail's pace. Should these chemicals be banned in the meantime? "It wouldn't do any good," Colburn says. "There's too many out there, and it's too late now. The ones that cause direct effects are already controlled: DDT and PCB, for example. But we need to clean up the hot spots." A few of those toxins may not be as controlled as we assume. DDT continues to be used in developing countries, and the World Bank even funds new factories to manufacture DDT for mosquito control. According to the Wall Street Journal, industry giant General Electric wants deregulation of PCB--a message that might fall on friendly laissez-faire ears in Congress. And Washington insiders say the EPA is under pressure to abandon its long-awaited report on dioxin. Some companies have tightened controls on organochlorines--but not without complaint. Says Colborn, "Until about six months ago, the paper and pulp companies said we were crazy because we said chlorine needs to be used in closed systems. Just recently, several have gone chlorine-free; but right to the end, they tried to make us look absurd. Now they've turned around and say, 'look at us, were the good guys.'" But if these industrial hormones are as dangerous as they appear, it will take a massive effort to rid them from the environment worldwide. Colborn asks, "How do you filter the oceans? Eat a pound of contaminated fish and your endocrine system may be damaged. How do you restructure society to do away with these substances?" author

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

What you can do:
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