Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hormone havoc - this is news?

With some fanfare, the US EPA announced this week that it will begin screening 73 popular agricultural & residential pesticides to find out whether they might be endocrine disruptors. The screening would be the initial phase of a multi-stage review that would not consider new restrictions on pesticides until after many exhaustive rounds of testing.

What's an endocrine disruptor? It's a chemical pollutant that, at low levels, can mimic hormones in the human body. This is problematic when the pollutant plugs into our body's hormone receptors during key phases of human development, blocking or scrambling the developmental signal that the hormone should have been sending. The scrambled signal can result in long-term health problems - in lab animals, effects like feminized males, hermaphrodite offspring, low sperm counts and sterility. Endocrine disruption is also being studied as a mechanism in the development of cancer.

We've been hearing a lot about endocrine disruptors ever since the groundbreaking 1996 book, Our Stolen Future, introduced them to a general audience. In 1997, Congress ordered the US EPA to begin looking at whether the thousands of pesticide products it reviews and registers each year might be interfering with the endocrine system. Ten years and tens of thousands of new pesticides later, EPA is finally making a list: 73 chemicals to be reviewed.

Given all that independent researchers have already discovered about endocrine disruptors, and all the red flags that two decades of studies have already sent up about specific pesticides, EPA seems a little behind the curve here. There's already plenty of evidence to warrant their consideration of new restrictions on several chemicals like atrazine, which has been shown to turn male frogs into females at stunningly low doses.

Considering the long-term implications for human (and wildlife) health, it seems absurd that EPA has taken so long to even begin looking at this critical phenomenon. Though I'm sure the pesticide industry has been happier while EPA simply looked the other way.

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