A Thumbs Up Book Review
Our Stolen Future
By Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
Review by Sally Fallon
What begins as a scientific detective story–the description of puzzling reproductive and behavioral abnormalities in wildlife–carries forward to a sobering conclusion about the destructive effects of persistent organic pesticides in a book that is fascinating, well written and absolute must reading for anyone seeking answers to the problems of modern life.
Strange declines in bald eagle populations, the disappearance of otters, reproductive problems in domesticated mink, same-sex pairing in sea gulls, alligators with reproductive abnormalities, immune dysfunction in seals, hundreds of dead dolphins washed ashore, mysterious declines in human sperm counts and hermaphroditism in whales–these were some of the problems that Theo Colburn pondered as she searched for a common cause. The suspect was pesticides and similar environmental toxins, but the effects were not like those of outright poisons. And besides, concentrations in the air, water and blood of the animals was very small–sometimes measured in parts per trillion–the equivalent of one drop of gin in 660 tank cars of tonic–although concentrations were much higher in birds and mammals higher up the food chain. Colburn and others were well aware of the delayed hormone-disrupting effects of the pesticide DDT and synthetic estrogen DES, but these compounds had been applied at high dosages and were no longer used in western countries.
A central piece of the puzzle was discovered by biologist Frederick vom Saal. In a series of experiments with mice, he showed that small shifts in hormone levels before birth can have consequences that last a lifetime. He noted that in laboratory mice, about one in six females showed more aggression than the others, even though all the mice were of the same genetics, lived in the same environment and ate the same food. Mice grow like peas in a pod in their mother’s double womb, and vom Saal was able to show that female mice who developed between two males in the womb ended up more aggressive than their sisters. What is significant is that the amount of extra male hormones these mice were exposed to was infinitesimal, but enough during this critical period of growth to cause a permanent change in mouse behavior.
The threat of persistent hormone-disrupting pesticides to the survival of humans and wildlife lies not so much in their overt toxicity (which can be avoided with careful application), nor in their carcinogenicity (which, although tragic does not usually impinge on fertility) but to disruptive, permanent changes that occur in the womb and during periods of growth in the presence of minute quantities of these man-made compounds. In humans, lowered sperm counts, rising rates of reproductive abnormalities, declining intelligence, behavior problems and even reduced ability to deal with stress can all be laid at the door of exposure to levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in utero, infancy and childhood, levels that may have no effect at all on adults. As these chemicals build up in the fatty tissues of future mothers, and are excreted in their breast milk, it is our children who pay the price for our indiscriminate use of man-made chemicals–pesticides, fungicides and even plastics that give off potent endocrine-disrupting substances.
Our Stolen Future ends on a positive note, with the observation that levels of DDT and similar compounds in human tissue have declined over the last 30 years, since a ban on the chlorine-based compounds DDT, dieldrin, lindane and PCBs in industrialized countries. Unfortunately, these chemicals continue to be used in developing nations–DDT and lindane make up at least 60 percent of the pesticides used in India, for example–and these compounds disperse into the environment, accumulating in the fatty tissue of fish and birds and in mammals in the colder regions of the planet. But the use of newer phosphate-based compounds continues in the industrialized world. Although not as widely tested, evidence accumulates that these organophosphate compounds pose a similar threat. Citizen action is needed to abate their use, just as it was needed to ban the use of organochlorine compounds.
We take issue with only one statement in the book, and that is the warning to avoid animal fats. This suggestion is actually inconsistent with a statement on the following page that cows’ milk (and, by implication, the butterfat in the milk) contains only one-fifth the concentration of persistent contaminants than that of humans, because cows are shorter-lived animals, vegetarians and are constantly eliminating contaminants as they are milked daily. Of course our animal foods–indeed all our foods–should come from clean sources, but animal fats provide vitamin A and many other protective nutrients. A thoroughly good case is made for avoiding domestic freshwater fish, however, which still test high in levels of DDT, even years after it has been banned.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2002.