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Last updated January 1, 2014

Disrupting The Truth

John Peterson Myers,

A scientist from Vanderbilt said the book "should be ignored." A Harvard professor described it as "baloney." A national news magazine said it was filled with "scary generalizations."

But Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring," proved true in its warnings about the toxic effects of the pesticide DDT in the environment.

This is the way environmental health science operates: Initial indications are tentative and usually denounced, especially by vested industrial interests, such as tobacco manufacturers or those who sold leaded gasoline. Eventually, additional science clarifies the picture.

A few years ago, a handful of scientists - including me - began documenting early evidence that certain chemicals in the environment can act like hormones and have the potential to harm human development and health. This information and our call for more research into the problem created a similar firestorm of condemnation, particularly from the chemical industry, which called the science "fiction masked as fact." But recently a special panel of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed our concern.

On Aug. 3 the academy released a long-awaited report on the health effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals. The panel concluded there is strong evidence from studies of wildlife and laboratory animals that chemicals can interfere with the body's natural hormone system and disrupt the biological process of development in the womb. They found some evidence from people, particularly for high exposures and even for moderate exposures of one class of chemicals - PCBs - that a hormone disrupter can affect human development.

The report demonstrated there is ample evidence that humans are experiencing an increase in the same kind of health problems that hormone-disrupting chemicals cause in animals. The academy confirmed that human exposure to these contaminants is widespread and that animal studies are a vital guide to identifying health risks for people. But for many of the most debated health effects, such as cancer and sperm count declines, the report concluded that the crucial studies sufficient to provide a "smoking gun" simply haven't been done.

The academy panel called for additional research. Indeed, it set forth an ambitious, large-scale research program, one commensurate with its conclusion that the risks, while not proven, are both serious and highly plausible.

The academy's overall conclusions echo our warnings of several years ago almost point for point. So what has been the chemical industry's response? Once again, they've been clever. They can't attack the credibility of the National Academy of Sciences, so they distort its findings. The industry's spokespeople say that because the academy couldn't connect the final dots and state with scientific certainty that a health threat exists, the chemicals, therefore, have essentially been found safe.

Fortunately, this time fewer people will be fooled. The central message of the academy report was broadcast, loud and clear.

There is, of course, a lesson in this tale. It has to do with how we as a society should responsibly use science to make decisions. In issue after issue, from tobacco to leaded gasoline to toxic chemicals, representatives of the threatened industry irresponsibly play on the phrase "no scientific certainty." Their repeated use of this tactic suggests they have little appreciation for how science works in the first place.

In the purest scientific process, nothing is ever proven. It is only disproven. That's the way scientists do their business. They prove things wrong until finally you are left with no other plausible explanation. Hence you can almost always get a scientist to acknowledge that existing data fall short of "scientific certainty" even when the pattern of data, viewed objectively by reasonable people, clearly show it is time to reach a judgment and act. Industry uses that uncertainty to protect its products, instead of acknowledging that in the face of plausible, significant risk, we should act to protect people first.

The issue of hormone-disrupting chemicals won't be the last controversy and I won't be the last scientist to be targeted by industry's PR machine. Some of the research questions raised by the National Academy of Sciences panel will take a generation or more to resolve, if the studies begin today. And rest assured that, just as with tobacco science, there will be strenuous efforts to pollute the findings of these studies and attack the scientists who conduct them.

Originally published online

John Peterson Myers holds a doctorate in zoology and is co-author of the book "Our Stolen Future," concerning the presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment. Copyright 1998-1999 Scripps Howard News Service All Rights Reserved.




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