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Fire or Ice? (Does it matter?)

Robert Frost’s ‘Fire and Ice’* doesn’t really have anything to do with global warming or endocrine disruption, but there is a parallel in the presence of two major threats that humanity faces today: global warming and the ubiquitous presence of synthetic chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system. I believe the threat of endocrine disruptors is on a par with global warming—a massive threat to human existence.

The problem of endocrine disruption seems to be less well known, so let’s take a quick look. Over 20 years ago, scientists and health experts raised a warning [‘The Wingspread Statement’] about the pervasive presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Even in incredibly small concentrations, they contribute to weakened immune systems, reduced intelligence, increased aggression, and reproductive disorders when exposure occurs at vulnerable points in development. [Forget parts per million, we’re talking about effects from exposures measured in parts per trillion.]

This major environmental health issue was detailed in Theo Colborn’s Our Stolen Future, probably the single most comprehensive source on endocrine disruption.  Some called her an alarmist, but I think the evidence that’s emerged since her book was published makes clear that she was correct and may even have understated the problem.

Our Stolen Future received quite a bit of attention when it was published—much of it sensationalized news of reduced sperm counts in men—but we don’t hear it discussed in the media or in public discourse these days. In fact, the mountain of evidence is being ignored and efforts to reduce the harm are blocked: elected officials support natural gas development despite the fact that many of the chemicals used in fracking also are known or potential endocrine disruptors; EPA recently denied a petition from NRDC to ban another endocrine disruptor, the pesticide 2,4-D.

Unfortunately, the problem of endocrine disruption has been largely ignored by the healthcare system and government regulators.  Prevention- and sustainability-oriented organizations such as Health Care without Harm and Food & Water Watch have given it some attention, but not enough.

Interestingly, it turns out that the two extreme threats to existence are connected: many endocrine-disrupting chemicals are produced in the extraction, refining, and combustion of fossil fuels, and others are derived from petrochemicals. In addition, many of their effects will be worse due to changes caused by global warming.

One of the big problems is that most safety testing looks at chemicals in isolation and to assume that effect is proportional to dose, but this is not how things work in the real world. First of all, we are exposed to a stew containing multiple pollutants whose effects are synergistic. In addition, it has been shown that endocrine-disrupting chemicals, among others, have little immediate effect on adults, but can have powerful effects on a developing embryo and on young children. We are talking about active effects in concentrations as low as a few parts per trillion! These substances are especially problematic because they bio-accumulate in fatty tissues.

I think many people are unaware there is an endocrine-disruption problem, and most are clueless about the magnitude of the problem.  Even those who are aware don’t always make the connection to fossil fuels and our unsustainable food system. These chemicals are almost everywhere—in household products, toys, plastic food and beverage containers, herbicides & insecticides, and many others. In addition to those we bring upon ourselves, wind and water carry farm chemicals into our communities, and some industries routinely discharge them in waste water.

Does it matter whether we’re done in by global warming or by toxic chemicals? What will it take to stop these attacks on life itself?

More information:

Fire And Ice

by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

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