Why sounding the alarm on chemical contamination is not necessarily alarmist

Anthony Giddens

Consider the following list of precautions. Continually monitor the content of any water you drink: water from any source can be contaminated; do not assume bottled water is safe, especially if bottled in plastic; distil your water at home, since most public water supplies are contaminated. Take care over what you eat. Avoid fish, which is a prime source of contamination, as well as animal fats, whether in cheese, butter or meat; buy organically grown fruits and vegetables or raise your own; minimise contact between plastic and food. Mothers should consider avoiding breast-feeding, because this exposes babies to a high level of contaminants. Wash your hands frequently during the course of each day: contaminants vaporise and settle on any indoor surface, where they are picked up by those who touch them. Do not use any insecticides around the house or in the garden – avoid the homes of those who do. Don’t buy produce from a shop or supermarket without checking whether they fog their goods with pesticides, as is common practice. Stay away from golf courses, which have become heavily contaminated, more so even than farmland.

Advice about how to survive in the aftermath of a nuclear war? One might be forgiven for thinking so. But this intimidating list of dos and don’ts comes from the new book by Theo Colborn and colleagues, which investigates the damage done to the body by toxic chemicals. If she is right, something of a global holocaust may await us. Not only have entire animal populations been wiped out by becoming unable to reproduce: a whole series of disturbing biological defects is already observable among humans and these are likely to become more and more damaging in the near-future.

Theo Colborn is a wildlife biologist who has brought together diverse pieces of research reporting endocrine disruption in different species of animals. One of her fellow authors is a zoologist; the other is a journalist, for this is a book designed to alert a popular audience to a new range of risks. It carries a Foreword by Al Gore, in which he compares the work to that classic of the environmentalist movement, Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, published some thirty years ago. Carson analysed the toxic effects of the spreading use of industrial chemicals, showing how these were accumulating in the soil, as well as in animal and human bodies. Our Stolen Future takes up where Carson left off, drawing on large amounts of scientific evidence which have since been gathered.

As her subtitle makes clear, Colborn sees her work as tracking down the clues to a puzzling and elusive menace. Her trail starts with birds, otters and fish. Field specialists have been coming up with some bizarre findings in recent years. Florida eagles have become largely sterile; otters have disappeared in some areas of Britain where they were once plentiful; herring gulls living around Lake Ontario have been hatching chicks with grotesque deformities. From around the world other wildlife reports, covering many species, disclose the sudden disappearance of animal populations, impaired fertility, damaged sexual organs and other unexplained physical abnormalities.

And what of ourselves? Colborn picks up here on the celebrated research of Niels Skakkebaek in Denmark. Skakkebaek was one of the first to investigate possible connections between the rate of testicular cancer and a drop in sperm counts. He and his co-workers collected material from over sixty studies carried out around the world. They found that average sperm counts had fallen by almost a half between 1938 and 1990, while the level of testicular cancer had risen sharply. The research survey also suggested that other genital abnormalities were increasing substantially among boys and male teenagers.

The common denominator, Colborn argues, is the ubiquitous influence of hormone-disrupting chemicals in the environment. Most attention thus far has focused on the toxic effects of DDT, the PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxin. According to Colborn, however, over fifty synthetic chemicals, produced commercially, are known to disrupt the endocrine system in one way or another. These differ from naturally occurring oestrogens because they accumulate in the body and are transmitted from parents to their young. They are common in plastics, detergents, sprays and cleaning agents.

Pervasive though they are, synthetic chemicals are for the most part relatively recent. New techniques developed during World War Two led to an explosion in their production and use. There are more than a hundred thousand synthetic chemicals on the market and a thousand new ones are introduced every year. Very little is known about their possible effects, even in the laboratories where they undergo tests before being made commercially available. Pesticides are a particularly important category, since they are deliberately dispersed into the environment and are designed to be biologically active. Many include compounds that have been shown to be endocrine disrupters. Five billion pounds of pesticides are spread in the US alone each year – not only in the countryside but in schools, business premises and homes.

While their implications are apocalyptic, the conclusions drawn by Colborn are inevitably tentative. We don’t know for certain how serious the contaminant effects are and there are no control groups to turn to, precisely because synthetic chemicals are so widespread. Researchers have looked for control groups among people in remote Inuit villages beyond the Arctic Circle: they found high levels of contamination even there.

Those concerned to safeguard animal and human health, Colborn says, will have to act, on information that is less than perfect, for it is possible that the synthetic chemicals are threatening the survival of humanity by destroying the reproductive capacity of the species. That outcome may be very unlikely but we should recognise, Colborn points out, that we are ‘flying blind’. In the course of this century, science and technology have penetrated our lives, the animal world and the physical environment to an unprecedented degree. ‘These alterations amount to a great global experiment – with humanity and all life on earth as the unwitting subjects ... We design new technologies at a dizzying pace and deploy them on an unprecedented scale around the world long before we can begin to fathom their possible impact on the global system or ourselves.’

According to Colborn, the first step of any response must be to phase out hormone-displacing chemicals. The use of pesticides must be radically curtailed. We must also move to restrict the continual introduction of new synthetic compounds: indeed we should consider banning the manufacture and release of synthetic chemicals altogether. The National Academy of Sciences in the US has set up an expert panel to assess the threats. Colborn and a group of other interested scientists have produced a ‘consensus statement’, detailing policies which might improve risk-assessment and begin to curb the ‘ chemical assault’ on the environment.

What are we to make of all this? Colborn’s work epitomises some key dilemmas which all of us face in a world where low-probability, high-consequence risks abound. The most disturbing threats we confront are instances of ‘manufactured risk’ – they derive from the uncontained advance of science and technology. Science is supposed to make the world more predictable. Often it does. At the same time, it creates new uncertainties – many of them global in character – which by and large we cannot use past experience to resolve.

Manufactured risk is generated by the onrush of science and technology, but both are also necessary to any attempt we make to analyse and cope with it. We can’t simply ‘turn against science’, as some New Age prophets are prone to do – many of the new risks we face are invisible without the diagnostic tools of science. Yet risk assessment can’t simply be placed in the hands of scientific experts. All forms of risk calculation and coping strategy imply a consideration of values and desired ways of life. They also have a critical bearing on systems of power and vested interests. Very large economic interests are bound up with the production and marketing of synthetic chemicals. The chemical industry is apparently setting aside millions of pounds to counter the findings of Our Stolen Future – the finding that sperm counts are on the decline has already been called into question by research the industry has funded.

A characteristic of the new situations of risk is that the facts of the matter are normally in question and the experts disagree. This is no doubt partly because of the resistance of vested interests, but it is also a result of the novel character of manufactured risk. Bruce Ames, a professor of biochemistry at Berkeley, is one of those who pooh-pooh Colborn’s worries: the effects of synthetic oestrogens, he states in a manner that doesn’t recognise doubt, are minuscule compared to those that occur naturally, even if the traces of synthetic compounds last longer in the body. Both Colborn and Ames are respected scientists.

The generalising of manufactured risk produces a new moral climate in which decision-making is dogged by accusations of scare-mongering, on the one hand, and cover-ups, on the other. Our Stolen Future is a perfect case. The scientific evidence which Colborn has gathered is partial and inconclusive, as she herself stresses. Critics will say, and have already said: don’t scare the public when your findings are so incomplete. She answers: we have to scare people, because otherwise nothing will get done, and because we have to be safe rather than sorry.

So far as I can see, there is no easily available exit from this conundrum. Environmentalists might point to the ‘precautionary principle’ as a basis for strategy. This means erring on the side of caution when considering technical innovations, and placing the burden of proof on the producer rather than the victim. With most cases of manufactured risk, however, the precautionary principle doesn’t help very much. For, as in the case of hormone-disrupting chemicals, the damage – if indeed it exists – has already been done. Moreover, testing for long-term effects is impossible and items tested in isolation may have toxic effects in combination with other substances.

Governments, regulatory agencies and citizens’ groups have to walk a tightrope when they react to risk. Scaremongering may often be necessary, but it also tends to undercut itself. Consider Aids. Large-scale campaigns have been mounted against the disease in order to get people to change the sexual practices which help diffuse it. It is probably true that, as a result, Aids has spread less rapidly than it was claimed it might do. Critics then say: why were you making such a fuss in the first place? Reluctance to create scares, on the other hand, or bowing to the influence of vested interests, will inevitably produce angry talk of cover-ups.

In many instances lay individuals can’t, or won’t, wait for regulatory bodies to make up their minds about levels and types of risk. We must all make our own assessments, on the level of everyday life. In so doing, we must cope with the shifting and contested character of scientific knowledge and with the media hype which accompanies the diagnosis of new risks – a tall order. Would anyone actually adopt the whole raft of precautions I noted earlier? Few surely would or could. Moreover, risks coming from hormone-disrupting chemicals are only one type among a plurality of risks to be considered and weighed. Eating a good deal of fish is said by nutritionists to reduce the risk of heart problems, yet Colborn advises against fish because of widespread contamination. That said, doing nothing – just letting things slide – is not possible. Many of what appear to be the most consequential risks we face may involve dangers that are very real; and in a society which, for better or worse, has radically transformed the natural environment, we can no longer ‘let nature decide.’