Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 
 

Michael Fumento published a broad-side attack on the integrity of endocrine disruption science, scientists and Our Stolen Future in the 19 November 1999 issue of Forbes Magazine, entitled "Truth Disruptors."

It is an artfully constructed piece, but one that rests squarely upon misrepresentation, distortion and innuendo from the very first paragraph.

Fumento begins by quoting from a New York Times story about the EPA decision to undertake a massive "endocrine disruptor screening" effort:

  "The action," it declared, "is in response to a growing body of research indicating that man-made industrial chemicals and pesticides may commit a kind of molecular sabotage within the body's regulatory apparatus, possibly causing birth defects, low sperm counts, breast cancer, mental impairment and a range of other ailments."  

Fumento goes on:

 

"Sounds scary -- and it is scary, to the chemical industry, at least. To do a thorough testing of a suspect chemical costs an average $1.5 million. If the EPA does not call off the hunt at a preliminary stage, somebody has to cough up $23 billion to test just the most suspicious 24% of the lot.

But are everyday chemicals hidden causes of birth defects, mental impairment and other bad things? It turns out that there is no growing body of research to that effect."

 

Fumento writes this just as the the US National Academy of Sciences was in the final stages of developing its massive report on "hormonally active agents in the environment, in which the Academy reviewed just the body of research that Fumento says blatantly does not exist. The review recommended a vigorous research program to answer legitimate questions about potential human health effects, effects identified by a growing, indeed quite large body of literature from animal experiments, and it recommended that a screening program be initiated similar to that undertaken by EPA. It also observed that at this stage of the report, scientific certainty was not possible because the key studies had not been done.

This report, incidentally, was followed in June 2000 by an even stronger report from the Royal Society of London (Britain's counterpart to the NAS), which also acknowledged uncertainty but judged that the risks were sufficiently large and plausible to warrant immediate steps to reduce exposures, particularly for pregnant women.

So how did Fumento justify that statement and his subsequent arguments? He ignored what is in fact "a growing body of evidence" and instead focused on a single study by John McLachlan's laboratory that suggested extremely high levels of synergistic interaction among certain pesticides. Because that one study was withdrawn, Fumento argues, the whole issue of endocrine disruption falls apart.

Fumento's argument fails for two reasons.

  • First, synergy had been demonstrated before this result, and again since the withdrawal, with the effects being at least as dramatic as McLachlan's and with many more chemicals than the few used by McLachlan.
  • Second, the phenomenon of endocrine disruption does not rest upon synergy. It poses public health risks even without synergy, because of the extremely low level at which compounds can have disruptive impacts on development. Indeed we wrote Our Stolen Future long before McLachlan had planned the experiments, much less carried them out and published them.

Fumento's piece continues with error after error and exaggeration. For example, he writes:

  "Here are two things we do know. First, the suspected endocrine modulators that environmentalists want banned are, in effect, utterly swamped by other modulators not on their hit list--namely, natural modulators in plants we eat, hormones from our own bodies, synthetic hormones in contraceptives and postmenopausal hormone replacement pills."  

This statement reveals either an embarrassing ignorance about relevant endocrinology or a willful distortion of it. Early in the debate over endocrine disruption, industry-linked scientists like Steven Safe had done calculations showing that on the basis of simple calculations of "total estrogenicity," plant phytoestrogens were far more abundant in ingested food than estrogenic contaminants.

By the time that Fumento wrote this argument, however, that simplistic argument had been discredited by several additional factors. Four of the most important are:

  • even if more abundant initially in food, phytoestrogens are degraded by digestion and metabolism far more readily than synthetic contaminants with which humans have no evolutionary history. Synthetic contaminants are more likely to make it past the body's natural chemical defense system.
  • phytoestrogens do not bioaccumulate in the body. The synthetic contaminants that do reach contamination levels in the womb and in body fat far greater than those reached by phytoestrogens.
  • Phytoestrogens and synthetic estrogens are only one small piece of the endocrine disruption puzzle. Fumento leaves out the fact that there are synthetic disruptors of many other hormone systems, without known plant analogues.
  • Ingestion is just one form of exposure.

His mention of postmenopausal hormone replacement pills is another whopper, or willful distraction. The concern of scientists studying endocrine disruption is focused on fetal contamination and the impacts it may have on development throughout life, not on hormonal manipulations late in life. A central point is that the developing fetus is far more sensitive than an adult.

A particularly revealing error in Fumento's commentary is in his discussion of Fred vom Saal's work on bisphenol A. Fumento refers to industry-funded studies that attempted, but failed, to replicate vom Saal's research, and argues that this proves vom Saal's results are wrong. What he fails to mention is that the industry funded research not only couldn't replicate vom Saal's studies, their "positive control" failed also. Positive controls are used in toxicological experiments to demonstrate that the experimental procedure works. It is done by exposing one set of animals in the experiment, the "positive controls" to a compound known to cause an effect, and then showing that that effect indeed was induced. Industry's failure to replicate vom Saal's work tells more about their own incompetence. And indeed, now several independent laboratories have repeated vom Saal's experiments successfully.

 

 

 

 
     
     
 

 

 

 

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