A World Without Men
Gender-bending industrial chemicals are skewing the birth ratio in favor of baby girls. Could a world without men be a few short generations away?
By Elizabeth Barker
Last summer a team of Scandinavian scientists announced that twice as many girls as boys are being born in the Arctic, a region said to serve as a “pollution sink” for the rest of the planet. Earlier in the year a report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences determined that the ratio of male-to-female births has substantially dropped in the United States and Japan, yielding about 250,000 fewer boys than would have been born had the sex ratio circa 1970 endured. In both cases, researchers pegged environmental exposures as a probable factor in the shortage of boy births.
As more and more research reveals a decline in the number of bouncing baby boys born each year, scientists are zeroing in on a class of synthetic chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. Including plastic ingredients like phthalates and bisphenol-A, these commonplace compounds are known to mimic female hormones and thwart the production of testosterone, explains Shanna Swan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. So far, most studies have focused on how endocrine-disrupting chemicals can affect the reproductive systems of animals. But in 2005 the journal Environmental Health Perspectives published Swan’s findings that — among a group of 85 mother-and-son pairs — boys whose moms had high levels of phthalates were more likely to show signs of “demasculinization” (such as a shorter distance between the anus and the genitals and incompletely descended testicles). What’s more, that recent report from the Arctic detected high levels of hormone-mimicking pollutants in the blood of pregnant women throughout Inuit villages with an excess of female births.
“Every month there is another study that suggests all these different endpoints may be the same problem,” says Charlotte Brody, R.N., executive director of Commonweal, a Bolinas, California-based nonprofit health and environmental research institute. And baby boys aren’t the only population threatened by endocrine disruptors: In another study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (released last year), University of Rochester environmental health researcher Richard Stahlhut, M.D., linked abdominal obesity and insulin resistance (two conditions associated with low testosterone levels) to phthalate exposure in men. Women and girls, meanwhile, face increased incidence of premature puberty, infertility and Breast Cancer
— all of which could be related in part to chemicals that interrupt hormonal signaling, according to Brody.
Like about 95 percent of all synthetic chemicals used in the United States, most endocrine disruptors were never tested for their impact on human health — or on the environment — before turning up in our baby bottles, plastic wrap and perfume. “What we need in this country is a government that will protect us from all these dangerous chemicals, but instead there’s no one minding the store,” says Brody. Stahlhut likens the current system to the pre-FDA, “wild wild west” days of the pharmaceutical industry, when there was little to no regulation of drugs and therapeutic products. “I’d like for us to do better than that,” he laments. “But if you look at any health hazards we’ve already learned about — whether it’s lead or smoking — there’s always been exposure for decades and decades before someone says, ‘Oh, look, there’s a problem here.’”
Perhaps most readily associated with pesticides and plastics, endocrine disruptors are found in a dizzying array of everyday items, from laundry detergent and lipstick to water bottles and children’s toys. With studies showing that the gender-bending chemicals may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development, environmental organizations like Healthy Child, Healthy World (HCHW) urge parents — and parents-to-be — to curb their exposure to known endocrine disruptors such as phthalates. “Children have increased vulnerability because their ability to detoxify isn’t as strong as the average adult’s, and because their organ systems are still developing,” explains Christopher Gavigan, HCHW executive director and author of the upcoming book Healthy Child Healthy World: Creating a Greener, Cleaner, Safer Home. “Pregnant women are incredibly vulnerable as well, since phthalates can enter the womb or be delivered later through breast milk.”
“Cutting back on plastic is key,” says Gavigan. “The more natural materials you have in your home, the better off your family is,” Brody concurs. “That goes for what you cook in, what you eat from, what your bed and your couch are made from.” To keep away from pesticides, eat organic whenever possible, seek out gentler means of pest management and take off your shoes at the door so you don’t track in chemicals from outside. Using non-toxic cleaners is another smart step, according to Brody. “The notion that a product has to take your breath away to be strong enough to get your house clean is just a Madison-Avenue-created bad idea for your health,” she says.
Still, most enviro-experts warn that endocrine disruptors are ultimately inescapable. “Even though I recommend choosing PVC-free, phthalate-free products whenever possible, I can’t say conclusively that it will significantly reduce your exposure,” says Swan. “These chemicals are so pervasive, and you’re probably not going to be able to eliminate them from your food, drinking water, house dust and air.” Brody agrees that although her clean-and-green strategies serve as “little things that may make us a bit safer,” exposure to endocrine disruptors isn’t a problem that can be remedied through individual action. “The bigger issue is that we need a government that punishes companies that make harmful products and rewards those that don’t,” she says.
While national groups such as Women’s Health and the Environment
(womenshealthandenvironment.org) are heading up critical awareness-building and action campaigns to protect consumers against troublesome chemicals, the most sweeping change has taken place beyond U.S. borders. Last year the European Commission, for instance, enacted the REACH program, through which all chemicals sold across the continent are now safety-tested before hitting the market. “Like with climate change, the question is whether or not we’re going to let other countries take the lead,” says Brody. “Either we’re in the way or we’re out of the way.”
Since the United States. isn’t likely to get its own REACH program any time soon, Stahlhut suggests “keeping Zen” while taking care to cut any avoidable chemical exposure. “Given the way the current model works — where the industry invents a new class of chemicals, turns it loose, and then 20 years later someone asks if it’s safe — it’s important to choose less exposure when possible, without being paranoid,” he says. In other words, don’t panic or slip into despair anytime you end up sipping from a plastic bottle — but go for glass whenever you can. “I think we should certainly be upset about the way these things are handled and fight for a change,” Stahlhut continues. “But we also have to understand that this is the world we’re living in, and it’s very imperfect. It’s not an environment that allows us to be completely clean, but we can always try to be cleaner.”