On June 27, 2009, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times reported that over 80% of the male smallmouth bass swimming in the Potomac River had eggs. You read that right, male fish having eggs. Well, unless a lot has changed since my biology class, males are not supposed to have eggs. Unfortunately a lot has changed.
While you can see a humorous interview of Kristof on the Colbert Report, this is not really a laughing matter. (It’s worth pointing out, however, that Stephen Colbert and John Stewart are increasingly proving that the really important news is being covered by these two brilliant comedians.) You might think maybe it’s freakish, but this is just about fish, right? Unfortunately not. The endocrine disrupting chemicals that we are putting into our environment at a staggering rate are creating fundamental changes in the physiology and even anatomy of our children.
These chemicals, often found in plastics, flame retardants, and pesticides look to our bodies like estrogen. What is happening as a result of bathing ourselves and our children in these estrogenic chemicals? In addition, to the diseases that we discussed yesterday, they may be contributing to the fact that undescended testes and genital deformities are increasing. Seven percent of boys are born with the first condition and one in a hundred are born with the latter, specifically a condition called hypospadias, where the whole in the penis is in the wrong place.
Perhaps most worrisome of all is the number of boys that are not being born. For the first time in human history, more girls are being born than boys throughout much of the northern hemisphere. The number of missing boys in the U.S. and Japan alone is estimated at over 250,000. In the town of Sarnia, Canada, three girls are born for every one boy.
While I was researching my novel, I worked with some of the leading ecotoxicologists in the world. They explained that what is happening to us is happening to other animals on our shared planet. In fact, they were experiencing these changes first. For a long time we have been noting these disturbing developments in numerous species, but some very old arrogance makes us think that we are separate from the rest of nature. We have believed we could spread chemical pollutants throughout the land and water without it having any effect on us. Increasingly, we are seeing what this alienation from the natural world is doing.
We used to think that the “solution to pollution was dilution.” We could spread this stuff far and wide and as long as we did not ingest too much of it, we’d be fine. We are now seeing how wrong we were. Tiny quantities can alter the expression of our genes and cause lasting health problems. One study exposed pregnant rats to a chemical called BPA (see yesterday’s blog piece) and found that their babies had precancerous lesions in their breast when they reached puberty. In other words, seemingly minute exposures can preprogram adult diseases in the womb.
Let’s hope we learn from the animal studies sooner rather than later. Despite our denial, it’s common sense that what Affects them will affect us. After all we share 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees and 60% of our DNA with something as different a fruit fly. At the biochemical level, we are all connected. Let’s hope we realize this quickly. Frogs, salamanders and other amphibians have begun to sprout extra limbs.
Tomorrow, we’ll discuss why some children get sick and others don’t.