Chlorine is such a slut, and that’s a huge part of the problem. It will combine with just about anything that is or was alive, in other words anything that has carbon in it — such as petroleum, sugars, carbohydrates, wood — and it will do it anytime, anywhere. Under water. In the air. Under the earth. In our bodies.
When it does combine, it forms an organochlorine, and that can create a chilling problem because organochlorines can disrupt the way our hormones work.
Our bodies operate on three fundamental networks: the nervous system, the immune system, and the endocrine system.
The endocrine system keeps the internal workings of our bodies in balance. It uses hormones as messengers that tell specific cells when to grow, how to grow, and when to stop. Hormones also instruct internal organs on integrating their activities as, for instance, in the digestive system once food arrives. And they are always ensuring that the formulas that make men and women different are continually topped up.
Hormones act as a finger flipping a switch. After the switch is flipped they depart. If the switch isn’t flipped when it should be, or if it is flipped improperly, it will mess up the business of keeping things in balance. Sometimes the result will be negligible; sometimes significant. So disrupting the work of hormones is scary.
There are 51 synthetic chemicals that are known to disrupt, some from large families such as PCBs with 209 members, furans with 135, and dioxins with 75. Most of the disruptors are organochlorines.
Some disruptors mimic and some block estrogen, the main female hormone. Some block testosterone, the main male hormone. Some prevent hormone messengers from being produced in the first place. Some deactivate the enzymes that break down hormones after they have delivered their messages. Some compete more vigorously than natural hormones to become messengers.
Recent research argues powerfully that disruption has led to birth deformities, breast cancer, testicular cancer, and the fifty per cent drop in sperm rates. It also points to the possibility that disruption can lead to behavioural problems in children, such as hyperactivity and the inability to concentrate.
The research is outlined in a highly readable new book called Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers.
Some organochlorines are deliberately manufactured as key components in pesticides or in consumer products such as household solvents. Some are unwanted byproducts of manufacturing, such as dioxins which are produced at pulp mills when paper is bleached with chlorine. Some are released when plastic trash is incinerated. Some plastics that we had thought were inert leach gases that contain disruptors other than organochlorines.
The main problem with organochlorines is that they have extraordinarily long lives. They resist breaking down for periods that range from a couple of years to centuries.
They linger in our bodies for five or ten years but, because of their long lifespans, they remain available for recycling once they have been excreted. They are in the air, in water, in the food we eat, on everything we touch. There is no place on earth, and no human being, that is not already contaminated.
Perhaps the greatest immediate barrier to dealing with disruptors lies in how we think about contaminants. Our mindset, for hundreds of years, has been shaped by poisons. The greater the dose, the greater the harm.
Not so with hormone disruptors. In their case it’s timing that is important, not the dose. Think of the analogy of the switch. It’s when the switch is turned on or off that counts, not how vigorously it is flipped. Timing is everything. An extremely small concentration of a disruptor, delivered at the right time to the right place, can wreak havoc.
What this means is that environmental regulations that set permissible levels for emissions are useless in dealing with disruptors because they are based on the notion that danger is linked to dose and they assume, incorrectly in the case of disruptors, that very low doses are safe.
It also means that all those people who claim chemicals are safe if they meet “environmentally approved standards” are using the wrong measuring stick.
We’re in a new ball game here.
NEXT: Disruptors in the womb