EarthTalk: Can you explain what “hormone
disrupting” chemicals are, how they affect our health
and what they have to do with environmental problems?
-- Tom Rose, Oakland, CA
Many of the human body’s process, including reproduction,
mental processing and metabolism, are controlled and regulated
by hormones, chemical “messengers” produced by
the endocrine glands. In the embryo and fetus, hormones guide
the development of the brain, the nervous and immune systems,
the sexual organs, and the liver, blood and kidneys, among
other organs and tissue.
Hormones work by attaching to “receptors,” molecules
on cell surfaces that carry information into the cells, triggering
certain actions. In recent years, scientists have found that
certain man-made chemicals disrupt this process by blocking
it altogether, throwing off the timing--or by actually mimicking
natural hormones and binding with the cells themselves. Such
chemicals have been dubbed “hormone disruptors.”
Since the 1940s thousands of chemicals have been released
into our air, water and food. Chemicals now contaminate virtually
every corner of the globe, and the average person has over
100 chemicals in his or her body. In one study of pregnant
women, the average woman had 286 chemicals in her fetal blood.
Many of the worst chemicals have been banned or phased out,
but they continue to linger in the environment and will no
doubt do so for centuries to come. Among the worst culprits
in hormone disruption are: PCBs, used heavily in the electrical
industries until banned in 1978; phthalates, still widely
used in the plastics industry; and dioxin, one of the most
hazardous of all chemicals, a byproduct of paper-bleaching,
waste incineration and coal-burning, among other industrial
The effects of this growing “chemical soup” were
first noticed in wildlife. Alligators in Florida’s Lake
Apopka, for example, have been unable to reproduce in recent
years due to underdevelopment in young males. North Sea seals
exposed to synthetic chemicals have also developed reproductive
problems as well as suppressed immune systems. And gull colonies
in California and elsewhere suffered significant population
losses after exposure to chemicals interfered with their reproductive
According to Our Stolen Future, co-authored by Dr. Theo Colburn
of the World Wildlife Fund, former Boston Globe reporter Dianne
Dumanoski and Dr. J.P. Myers, now Senior Advisor to the United
Nations Foundation, numerous human health problems also owe
their origin to hormone disrupting chemicals. They include
low sperm count and increased testicular and prostate cancers
among men, and increased rates of breast cancer, endometriosis
and tubal pregnancies in women. “What we’re talking
about is an overall low-dose exposure and a cumulative effect,”
says Holly Lucille, author of Creating and Maintaining Balance:
A Woman’s Guide to Safe, Natural Hormone Health.
With so many chemicals permeating our environment, it is almost
impossible to attribute specific health problems to specific
substances. Individuals can hedge their bets by eating organic
and choosing personal care and household products that avoid
chemicals. They can also pressure their elected representatives
as well as business leaders to work to reduce the amount of
pervasive chemicals in the environment.
CONTACT: Our Stolen Future, www.ourstolenfuture.org.
COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
chemicals in the environment disrupt hormone function and
may be responsible for increased rates of breast cancer, endometriosis
and tubal pregnancies in women.
Is bamboo really an environmentally friendly alternative to
wood for making paper? If so, why are we still cutting down
trees to keep our copiers and printers humming? -- Ali
Forte, via e-mail
Bamboo is a fast-growing
and renewable resource, and it has long been used throughout
Asia as a raw material for many goods, including paper. With
North America’s supply of forests now dwindling, bamboo
is starting to look like a viable alternative to wood pulp
to make paper for Western consumption. It has a similar consistency
to wood pulp, and most existing paper mills can adapt to it
with existing infrastructure.
On the other hand, clearing forests to establish bamboo plantations
across the globe hardly makes environmental sense. Aaron Lehmer
of ReThink Paper, a project of Earth Island Institute, calls
the rapid expansion of bamboo plantations in Southeast Asia
“alarming,” and says that it is “setting
up a status quo whereby natural forests are increasingly being
developed” for bamboo cultivation for paper.
Most of this bamboo is feeding paper mills in China and India,
says Lehmer, but increasing demand from North America and
Europe could deplete existing supplies and force Southeast
Asian producers to push deeper into the forests. This would
deplete primary habitat for hundreds of threatened species
of birds, pandas, reptiles and amphibians. “Since there
are no international standards or certification mechanisms
in place for bamboo, neither paper producers nor consumers
have any way of knowing whether the bamboo they purchase is
coming from endangered ecosystems,” he adds.
According to the World Bamboo Organization, a trade group,
12 million acres of bamboo reserves exist across Asia today.
If demand for bamboo were to increase, Lehmer says, surely
the environment in these areas would suffer. Indeed, environmentalists
in India are already crying foul over government-subsidized
bamboo extraction from that country’s supposedly protected
forests, including the world-renowned Nagarjunasagar Tiger
Reserve, one of the last suitable habitats in the world for
the big endangered cats.
ReThink Paper would rather see North American paper producers
convert existing mills to process locally generated agricultural
waste, such as wheat or rice straw. These are usually plentiful
and inexpensive, and paper companies could reap significant
financial benefit getting raw material from local farmers
eager to offload otherwise unmarketable “biomass”
waste. This makes eminent environmental sense, too, says Lehmer,
compared to importing bamboo chips from far away on planes,
trains, ships and trucks that emit tons of climate-altering
carbon dioxide en route.
The debate over papermaking reminds us that modern society
has yet to go “paperless” as many predicted we
would. But our inability to achieve that goal as yet doesn't
make efforts to cut back worthless. Everyone can do their
part at home, school and office to reduce paper usage, even
if only one sheet at a time.
CONTACTS: ReThink Paper, www.rethinkpaper.org;
World Bamboo Organization, www.world-bamboo.org.