Endocrine disruptors. To ban or not to ban?

This was the question that was asked in today’s hearing. Last time I wrote about toxic chemicals in our everyday products. This time I’m writing about toxic chemicals in our drinking water, specifically endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mess with our endocrine system which is a system of glands that release hormones. They have been linked to the emergence of intersex fish, meaning there are fish that are starting to have both male and female sex organs. Gross I know, but the question is, are they bad for humans?

Most of the panelists agreed that endocrine disruptors are bad for us, even in the smallest doses. According to Dr. Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the endocrine system works on tiny amounts of hormones, so low doses may disrupt the body’s system and lead to diseases. Furthermore, endocrine disruptors could lead to a wide variety of health problems because endocrines govern many organs in the body. To make thing worse, endocrine disruptors are ubiquitous and have effects far past the duration of exposure.

The only differing view point came from Dr. Borgert who leads the Applied Pharmacology and Toxicology consulting firm. He stressed the importance of basing our decisions on solid science and gave three criteria for it. One, we have to know what we’re measuring. Two, we have to test under controlled conditions. Three, the experiments have be repeatable with the same result. Needless to say, he was of the opinion that we do not yet have a thorough enough understanding to say that endocrine disruptors are causing problems in animals or humans.

Unfortunately, the research that should be done by the EPA regarding endocrine disruptors has been too slow and ineffective. The EPA has a screening process that selects certain chemicals to be tested to see if they are endocrine disruptors, but it does not determine which ones actually are. There was universal agreement that the EPA is not functioning sufficiently in this regard.

There were a couple of things that bothered me during the hearing. One thing that bothered me was the mention of solid science. Dr. Borgert made it clear that we shouldn’t act until we were certain that endocrine disruptors were causing health problems. He cited some historical examples of scientists being wrong and how their decisions based on incorrect science led to unintentional negative effects. But my understanding of science is that absolute certainty is very rare. It seems that there will always be a couple of scientists who disagree with something. So where do we draw the line? We have to act on what we think is correct don’t we? We can’t always wait until we’re 100% sure. Of course there are chances that our current understanding of something is wrong, but we can’t prevent that.

The other thing that bothered me was Dr. Borgert’s lack of alternative explanation on why we are seeing a rise in birth defects and health problems in America. I mean something has to be causing these problems right? What is it if not endocrine disruptors?

My suggestion is that we act on the majority of evidence because absolute certainty is just too rare to be reliable. If there is disagreement amongst the scientist on what direction the majority of evidence points to, then we should base our action on what the majority of scientists think.

– Jason

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