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Hormone disrupting chemicals - the latest threat to the agricultural status quo

Hormone disrupting chemicals are in the news and, unfortunately, everywhere else as well. Evidence of their damage is appearing in fish, mammals, and even humans. The implications for our food and agriculture system are profound.

The chemicals implicated in disrupting animal, fish and human hormonal systems include such common agricultural pesticides as: 2,4-D; aldicarb, atrazine, endosulfan, malathion, maneb and synthetic pyrethroids.

Even more alarming for the food industry is the presence on the list of phthalates, polycarbonates (Bisphenol A), and styrenes - all common ingredients in plastics.

A new theory is emerging, led by scientists working with the World Wildlife Fund, that these chemicals can, at incredibly low levels, disrupt or mimic the actions of hormones. Hormones are like messengers, providing information on cell growth, division and death.

When these problem chemicals are in the body, they may turn on cell activity at the wrong time or prevent the real hormones from doing their job. These actions are particularly a problem in newborns. The changes are not at a genetic level, but rather to sexual, physical or learning development.

The symptoms include reduced sperm counts, hatching problems in birds, delayed sexual maturity, lack of interest in mating, birth defects, spontaneous abortions, and reduced size of sexual organs at maturity.

In humans, the most compelling evidence of the effects of chemicals is reduced sperm counts in males. A number of studies from around the industrialized world have shown dramatic reductions in male sperm counts over the past 50 years. Interestingly, one Danish study reported that sperm counts for Danish organic farmers were significantly higher than those of the rest of the population.

As the evidence of the damage caused by these chemicals mounts, so too will the pressure on agriculture and agribusiness to change practices. Given the extremely low levels at which these products can induce these hormonal changes, any level of their use may have an impact on wildlife and human populations.

In the short term, avoiding these products completely is impossible. Good strategies for minimizing exposure include buying as much organic food as possible, limiting intake of animal fat (many of the implicated contaminants can accumulate there), eliminating the use of lawn pesticides, and avoiding chlorine bleached paper, PVC plastics and traditional dry cleaning agents.

These practices are only of benefit in the absence of progressive systemic changes. If the evidence of hormone disruption becomes incontestable, most major agricultural pesticides will have to be removed from the marketplace. This, in turn, will induce a wholesale shift to sustainable practices.

For food processors and distributors, the systemic changes required would also be enormous. One of the classes of implicated chemicals, alkyl phenols, are widely used in PVC plastics, common in food packaging and processing. Bisphenol-A is a common ingredient in polycarbonates, the plastic used for drinking water jugs. Bisphenol-A is also found in the plastic liners of cans. About 85% of the cans sold in the USA have such plastic in them. Eliminating such packaging would mean a radical change in the packaging industry, and if suitable alternatives could not be found, might also encourage a more local food economy.

For more information on how this new theory has emerged and its implications, read Our Stolen Future, by Theo Colborn et al., published last year by Dutton.

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