I recently finished reading an interesting collection of tribute essays on Rachel Carson called Courage for the Earth. As a whole, the essays were a bit redundant in the biographical sections of Carson's life, but individually well-written. I learned more than I expected to, both about Carson and more about nature.
The most thought-provoking essay was "Changing Sex" by Janisse Ray. She brings up how chemicals are interacting with animals and nature in profound ways, pointing to the many studies of endocrine disruption on a wide variety of animals (alligators, fish, gulls, marine snails, beluga whales, black bears, etc.). Many of these reproductive changes (intersexed, low testerone, gender mutations, infertility, reduced anogenital distance) are attributed to chemicals including the well-known DDT, diethylstilbestrol (synthetic estrogen), polychlorinated biphenyls (widely known as PCBs; used in fluorescent lights fixtures, adhesives ... though widely banned, they remain in our environment and even in mothers' milk), many pesticides, dioxins (formed during industrial practices like bleaching: this is why brown rice, turbinado sugar and whole wheat are better for you!), phthalates (found in solvents, soft plastics like shower curtains and baby toys, and plastic packaging), bisphenol A (which is catching on in the baby bottle industry through biA alternatives like BornFree ... also readily found in dental sealants and water bottles), estradiol, phytoestrogens (plant-based estrogens), pp'DDE, dubutyl phthalate (very common in personal care products) ... we are literally slathering ourselves with endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Since this system regulates our hormones -- not just the reproductive ones -- it is of paramount importance that we stop industries from producing more in their profit-greedy mindset, inform consumers of the dangers, etc.
The interesting point of the essay, however, was how Ray suggests that these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) could be causing some of the reproductive issues humans are facing. She includes infertility, early-onset puberty, distorted sex ratios, intersex infants, genital malformations, and lowered sperm quality and mobility on the list ... but she also mentions transgendered persons and issues of gender variance or ambiguity. I have never considered this before, so it really made me think. And wonder: how might transgendered people feel about this correlation?
Might prenatal and childhood exposure to EDCs be responsible for a variety of abnormalities of human sexuality, gender development and behaviors, and reproductive issues? The October 2005 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives took a stab at answering this.
"A developing fetus receives messages not only through its own hormone system but also its mother's. These signals guide its development, shaping characteristics as blatant as number of toes to those as intricate as details of the brain." -Janisse Ray
"Chemicals are disturbing normal hormone-controlled development," she writes, "affecting gender, sex, and reproduction. And, we are now seeing, low doses are disruption enough." Carson predicted this, and it is our generation that is beginning to notice its effects. Unfortunately, like this article, we're still not believing the science ("no evidence of actual harm"), perhaps due to the financial campaigns of institutions like the American Chemical Council (which produces "informational sites" like this one). Until we believe, we won't act. At least, I suppose, the word is getting out there and becoming more mainstream.
More links for action and information
Women's Voices for the Earth
Pesticide Action Network
Chemical Injury Information Network, Our Toxic Times
Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers