Spoerl lecture addresses endocrine disruptors

April West

The Spoerl Lecture Series ended with lecturer Nancy Langston from the Department of Forest Ecology and Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison presenting “Toxic Bodies: An Environmental History of Endocrine Disruptors.”
Langston’s lecture sought to demonstrate that what we put into our bodies also has an effect on the environment.
Endocrine disruptors, put simply, are chemicals put into our bodies that disrupt our hormone systems. Endocrines mimic hormones. Our chemical composition is changing to adapt to the environment, making it harder and harder to understand the effects of endocrine disruptors.
Today, one in six children are born with neurological problems that are correlated to chemicals in the environment.
The first piece of evidence to support this correlation is found in trout that are part male and part female. Findings show that the higher the sewage concentration in the water, the more feminine qualities the fish have, such as egg-producing capabilities.
Another example Langston gave was male alligators born with genitalia too small to function, thus hindering the species’ reproduction rate.
Langston also discussed imposex marine snails. The female snails have a penis that blocks eggs from getting out, but they keep producing eggs until the snails themselves fill up and explode.
Problems in human reproductive systems include genital cancers and undescended testicles. Langston showed a slide of a two-year-old female with developing breasts, showing that unnaturally early puberty is also a problem.
Professor Langston discussed a historical case study of debates over the approval of DES – Diethylstilbestrol – between the 1930s and 1960s. DES was the first synthetic hormone ever synthesized in 1938, and it is high in endocrine disruptors.
In the 1940s it was prescribed for menopause and was then was quickly approved for use in pregnant women to reduce the chances of miscarriage. Unfortunately, however, it was soon shown to greatly ****increase**** the chances of miscarriage.
DES has caused many problems in the offspring of women who took the hormone. Langston used this DES case study as an example of the negative effects of endocrine disruptors that scientists have failed to realize in the past.
Langston went on to discuss the effects of endocrine disruptors in livestock. She illustrated the environmental links of how filling livestock animals with hormones, after consumption, results in those hormones returning to the environment.
For example, some farmers put hormones in chicken necks under the assumption that no one would eat them. However, animals that were fed the chickens experienced miscarriages, and men that worked with the chickens wrote to the complaining of impotence and breast growth.
The Food and Drug Administration told them not to worry and told farmers to use older men that would not mind impotence or breast growth. Soon after, meat companies began suing the FDA.
Langston’s third and final example had to do with the use of endocrine disruptors and their attempts to overcome natural human hormones. Scientists discovered the natural hormones estrogen and testosterone in the 1920s.
From this discovery grew the notion that women are completely controlled by their wild and fluctuating hormones and thus they desired to stabilize them. The attempts to stabilize went even so far as performing ovariectomies on women so that they could become “normal.”
This grew from the idea that men would stop getting sexually transmitted infections, as prostitutes would become unnecessary because their wives were no longer “out of control.” So began a race to create cheap and safe synthetic estrogen.
In 1940, the first synthetic estrogen was approved by the New Drug Application. Approval took a while because the director of the NDA was aware that it caused cancer and birth defects in farm animals and their children when it was tested on them.
Companies eventually persuaded the NDA to approve it based on the idea that human and animal bodies were so different that their findings were not consequential. It was first approved in 1941 for menopausal women and soon after for pregnant women.
When postmenopausal women began bleeding again, the FDA insisted that it was normal. In 1971, 90 percent of daughters of women taking synthetic estrogen experienced reproductive and fertility problems and 48 percent reported transgender conditions.
Professor Langston used these examples to show the necessity of having hormone use and distribution regulated. This task continues to get more difficult with the number of current endocrine disruptors at a level of 200,000.