DES in Beef – World Congress Keynote

I recently addressed the assembled crowd at the World Congress. I started by showing them this picture of hundreds of thousands of Koreans, some pushing strollers with young children, coming together as part of a month-long candlelight vigil to ask for healthy, safe food. They were upset about the safety of imported of American beef. Whatever one thinks about the specifics of their concerns, their causes, or their politics, it’s moving to see so many people focused on healthy food for themselves and their families.

I then described for the crowd in Modena one of the biggest mistakes of my profession – prescribing the synthetic hormone DES to up to 10 million pregnant women in an attempt to prevent miscarriages. It was approved by our FDA for this purpose, and used in at least thirty countries around the world. The hormone didn’t prevent miscarriages, but it did cause cancer in some of their daughters – vaginal cancers in girls as young as 14. Because of this it stopped being prescribed to pregnant women in 1971. Later we learned that the DES made many of these young women less fertile. We also learned later that DES caused the CDC calls a modest increase in breast cancer in the women who took the DES themselves – about a 20 to 30 percent increase, taking their lifetime risk from 1 in 8 up to a risk of 1 in 6. Hundreds of thousands of real women developed breast cancer who would not have developed it otherwise.

We now know that even the grandsons of women who took DES while pregnant are twenty times more likely to be born with hypospadius (where the opening at the tip of the penis isn’t at the tip, but somewhere along the shaft). To keep this in perspective, 98% of the grandsons are fine – but having 2% with hypospadius is twenty times more common than in the general population.

Giving DES to pregnant women was a tragic mistake.

Most people don’t know that DES was also given to our cattle. By the mid-1950’s, about 2/3 of the beef cattle was given in DES. Hundreds of millions of Americans were getting small amounts of DES every day – without adequate testing. And when DES was stopped for pregnant women, it continued to be used in our cattle for the rest of the decade.

Today different synthetic hormones are used. The answers aren’t in yet about whether they are safe for us (and especially for pregnant women and for young children).

A couple of preliminary studies show some evidence of decreased fertility and increased breast cancer, but the results are far from conclusive.

My point in the talk: This testing should be done BEFORE feeding hormones to hundreds of millions of people. Grass-fed organic beef has stood the test of time. It’s produced without the use of synthetic hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, or feed raised with chemical pesticides. I’m not saying that everyone should eat meat, but I am saying that I prefer organic meat for those who do — especially for pregnant women and young children.

Published on: June 22, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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