Chemicals Editorial

Our Planet - Chemicals



United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


A mystery story is unfolding. The story of the invisible undermining of our future by endocrine disrupters is being written, but the ending is not yet clear. Piecing together chilling evidence from wildlife studies, laboratory experiments and human data, Our Stolen Future by Colborn, Myers and Dumanoski portrays these synthetic chemicals as suspects, disrupting the reproductive, immune and behaviour systems of wildlife and human beings.

By whatever name you call them: xenoestrogens, copycat hormones, gender benders, oestrogenic compounds or environmental hormone disrupters, this new class of chemicals poses a life-altering challenge. Strong evidence of defective sexual organs, behavioural abnormalities and impaired fertility in animals exists. But the evidence is not limited to effects on animals. Why have human male sperm counts dropped by as much as 50 per cent in recent decades? Why are women suffering a dramatic rise in hormone-related cancers?

Wars and natural disasters strike swiftly, inflicting their punishment in a manner that is unmistakable and spectacular. In contrast, the unnatural disaster caused by chemical toxins is slow and ambiguous. Damaged chromosomes and brewing cancers remain unseen for years. The maladies strike at random, without a clear indication of cause and effect. We can surmise their activity and origin only by the statistics of chance, and only after they have been in effect for too long to prevent them from claiming numerous victims.

No place on Earth is exempt from the inexhaustible variety of chemicals. We used to believe that we could dump them and somehow they would just go away. But the reality is that they are carried off to destinations we would never have suspected. Even the Arctic, long considered too remote to be subject to any substantial chemical contamination from human activities, is vulnerable.

Thankfully, the global community is acting in cooperation to alter the plot line. UNEP has initiated an expeditious assessment process of a short-list of 12 persistent organic pollutants and other initiatives have been taken: the United Nations/Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution; the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy; the Barcelona Resolution on the Environment and Sustainable Development in the Mediterranean Basin; and more recently, the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities.

A coordinated research effort is required to assess what data are needed. This is complicated research. These chemicals are ubiquitous in the environment. Perhaps our methods of risk assessment used in studying cancer and birth defects are now appropriate to studying the impact of trace levels, evidenced over a lifetime, of chemicals that suppress the immune system or disrupt hormone activity.

It is clear that while we most certainly cannot legislate danger out of our world, we can endeavour to balance the costs with the risks presented. Chemicals have profoundly improved our quality of life but they also have unintended side-effects. Public awareness and the law have to be employed to ensure the desired policy balance is achieved.

High productivity, modern technology and economic development can co-exist with a healthy environment. They must co-exist or development will not be sustainable. In fact, it will not even be real development unless the fundamental resources of the planet and human satisfaction and fulfilment are given equal attention.

Even if science has yet to provide us with a foolproof answer, the causes of endocrine disruption in both humans and wildlife must be established and must be followed up by a solid policy response by national governments, non-governmental organizations, industry and individuals. The disturbing findings over the last four decades that threaten our very survival demand nothing less.

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