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

 

 

Others correct Easterbrook
Environmental Defense corrects scientific errors in A moment on Earth
Grist Magazine dissects Easterbrook on global warming

Through his various writings, Gregg Easterbrook would appear to position himself sympathetic to core environmental goals but wisely skeptical of environmental exaggerations. This was the central strategy of his widely criticized book, A Moment on Earth. It's not that there aren't things to be skeptical about.

In an article which appeared in The New Republic in August 1999, Easterbrook does it again. His bottom line is that Our Stolen Future might be onto something interesting but the authors are a bunch of unqualified crackpots whose positions are fatally flawed. He thus insulates himself from readers who don't know the scientific basis but take comfort in the superficially balanced approach.

Read his article... then read what scientific experts on hormone disruption had to say about it.

Our reaction:
Easterbrook began by observing that Our Stolen Future "is well-written and well researched." Yet after observing the many errors and distortions in his critique, it was difficult to believe he read the book thoroughly and carefully. We also found little evidence that he may have read the 1999 National Academy report about endocrine disruption, on which he also comments, the release of which in August 1999 appears to be the newshook for coverage in The New Republic. Unfortunately for Easterbrook, the NAS report confirms the basic arguments of OSF and identifies, as did OSF, a host of crucial research questions that must be resolved.

Easterbrook's critique is rife with factual errors even about the simple content of OSF, errors that could have been easily caught by thorough fact-checking. Below follow excerpts from his article and corrections.

 

Easterbrook incorrectly summarizes the central thesis of OSF as: "Too much estrogen can reduce fertility (the Pill contains estrogen) and interfere with fetal development."

Fact: This represents a profound, indeed ludicrous misunderstanding of the issue. He simply doesn't understand what he is writing about. The Pill typically (there are several types) works by blocking the hormone surge that triggers ovulation. This has nothing to do with the mechanisms studied by the National Academy of Sciences or covered in OSF, which are about how an embryo grows to adulthood. Hormone disrupting chemicals alter the course of development of the exposed individual. When they have effects on fertility, it is through some impact on the reproductive tract of the exposed fetus once it reaches adulthood.

Not only is his depiction of the role of estrogen wrong, one of the central points of OSF is that the mechanisms of action of hormone disrupters are quite varied. As documented on pages elsewhere on this website, while some of the best studied act like estrogen, others act like anti-estrogens and anti-androgens. Still others interfere with thyroid hormone, with progesterone and with the retinoid system.


Easterbrook writes: "Colborn spends several pages on deformities in frogs, for example. Recent papers published in the technical journal Science attribute frog deformities to a natural parasite, not a hormone plague."

Fact: We spend less than a paragraph on frog deformities in OSF, in an epilogue published a year after the hardback came out. That discussion explicitly acknowledges the parasite hypothesis as one of three hypotheses under exploration. The original version contained a little over 2 pages on frog disappearances, a substantively very different issue, and in that discussion we present it as an issue warranting research, not a problem that has been solved. We report accurately in the book that one of the leading herpetologists in the world raised the question of whether endocrine disruption was driving frog disappearances. Moreover, were Easterbrook familiar with the emerging science on frog deformities, he would know that while the parasite hypothesis may explain deformities in certain areas of the western United States, experts still identify pesticides as the most plausible (but still unproven) explanation for much of the East and mid-West, the regions of the country where this problem is most pronounced and where the parasite hypothesis does not offer a sufficient explanation. He might also be aware that the lead author of the Science paper to which Easterbrook refers has commented publicly that even if parasites may offer a mechanistic explanation for how deformities take place in the pond he studied, he believes pesticides or some other chemicals may be involved in producing the overabundance of parasites which has led to unnaturally high rates of frog deformities. An excellent book by William Souder, A Plague of Frogs, offers a cogent summary of where the research on frog deformities is headed.


Easterbrook writes: that the National Academy report found the theory of endocrine disrupters possibly true but "unsupported by experiments or health data."

Fact: That is a clever but profound distortion of the Academy's conclusions. The theory is amply supported by hundreds of published experiments on laboratory animals showing endocrine disruption operating in mammals at low contamination levels comparable to exposures experienced by people and animals in the real world.

The National Academy report—700 pages+ long—reviews many of these published results. It concludes that exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals during critical periods of development "can interfere with normal reproductive development." What is lacking, which we readily and repeatedly acknowledged in OSF, is scientific certainty that endocrine disrupters at levels experienced by the public at large Here the academy concludes that "humans are almost universally exposed." Human exposures are commonly within the range of contamination levels shown in laboratory work to cause animal health effects.

The Academy report also states that "PCBs have been shown to influence neurological development in animals and that there are consistent correlations in people between prenatal exposure to PCBs and cognitive deficits. No one, fortunately, has been willing to do the rigorously-designed experiments on human embryos and developing children that would be required to satisfy the highest level of scientific proof, because these tests would be immoral. Ironically, the fact that human exposure is almost universal means that non-rigorous experiments are underway already. Easterbrook (and industry) point to the lack of scientific certainty emerging from these weak experiments as proof of chemical safety, when instead it is an acknowledgement of scientific ignorance. This ignorance is why the Academy and OSF place such a high premium on research questions. OSF goes further, however, and recommends precautionary measures be applied to limit the ongoing unintended chemical experiments resulting from widespread, uncontrolled exposures.


Easterbrook writes: OSF based its case for the human endocrine-disruption effect almost entirely on the example of diethylstilbestrol (DES).

Fact: The DES story is central to OSF, but it is by no means the only example of endocrine disrupters affecting human health. As the National Academy report discusses, endocrine disrupting chemicals have affected human health in several well-studied accident-related industrial exposures at relatively high levels. Neurological effects are associated with exposure to at least one endocrine disrupting family of chemicals, the PCBs. The mechanism of toxicity is uncertain but the impact is well-established by several independent studies. Thus endocrine disrupting chemicals do affect the well-being of many Americans at levels to which they are currently exposed.

The crucial question, left unresolved by current research, is whether endocrine disrupting chemicals as experienced by many Americans cause health problems like cancers or sperm count declines. The National Academy report does not conclude this hasn't happened. It concludes the relevant research has not been done. It also concludes that animals exposed experimentally to those same levels experience health effects. And that animal studies are useful guides to predicting human health effects.

The NAS report was limited in the strength of its conclusions, moreover, by the fact that it was unable to systematically incorporate the plethora of studies that have come out since June 1997, which is when they stopped considering, for the most part, new studies.


Easterbrook writes: that the EPA initiative to test for endocrine disrupter effects (EDSTAC) is at odds with the Academy's conclusion.

Fact: The NRC's concludes that its recommendations are consistent with EDSTAC's. It calls for extensive testing precisely along the lines of what EDSTAC is planning.


Easterbrook writes: "when the Antarctic ozone hole was detected, the science world immediately embraced the finding."

Fact: Many prominent scientists expressed skepticism at the time. The history of the prediction and confirmation of ozone depletion is rife with scientific disagreement. His misrepresentation here is a convenient set-up to compare "political" vs. "scientific" support for ozone depletion vs. endocrine disruption.


Easterbrook's comments: "every ecological problem, save global warming, shows a positive trend."

Fact: This is dumbfoundingly wrong. The most conspicuous example here is the loss of biodiversity, which is accelerating. But even among those issues that he describes as improving, the picture is not nearly as pollyannish as he asserts. For example, even if nitrous oxide emissions from some sources are decreasing, the biological impacts of acid rain are showing no signs of reversing and indeed their consequences are emerging as far more devastating to eastern forests and watersheds than had been concluded 10 years ago.

Similarly, the stratospheric ozone situation is hardly positive... global warming is causing a cooling of the stratosphere, more polar stratospheric clouds and increased danger of stratospheric ozone losses in the Arctic.


Easterbrook asserts: that Our Stolen Future was the "one of the best promoted book in publishing history?"

Fact: We appreciate the compliment, but let's be realistic. Best promoted compared to what? To a John Grisham or Tom Clancey novel? To The Bell Curve" or It takes a village or even Monica Lewinsky's biography? Easterbrook's exaggeration here is important because it is one that most general readers will realize doesn't pass the smell test. His distortions on the scientific issues he raises are no less egregious, but are perhaps less transparent to most New Republic readers.


Easterbrook writes (of a controversial study by John McLachlan's lab on synergistic interactions among contaminants): "McLachlan studied the effects of chemicals not on mice or cell cultures but on yeast colonies. Yeast, a fungus, operates according to principles entirely different from those of mammalian cytology; it is a pitiful proxy for a person."

Fact: Academic scientists and industry scientists alike use yeasts to study the behavior of human hormones and endocrine disrupters. These yeasts have been altered using bioengineering techniques to contain human hormone receptors. For this specific use, there is no mainstream scientific argument about their relevance to humans. Easterbrook's comment here simply reveal his ignorance of these research issues.

 

 

 

 

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