The resistible rise of global catastrophe
by Peter Mac The terrible post-war threat of nuclear war is still with us. The scourge of AIDS continues to ravage the world's population. And the effects of global warming are becoming all too evident. Some scientists are now arguing that if the world's industries continue to pump out ozone-depleting gases, the polar ice caps might actually undergo a structural collapse, rather than just melt. If this happens, within 50 years the sea level could eventually rise by as much as 7.5 metres, swallowing the world's coastline and much of low-lying countries such as Holland and Bangladesh. The loss of lives, as well as the loss of industrial, residential and commercial infrastructure, would be incalculable. Actions to solve these problems are being opposed by some of the world's largest corporations and their political representatives because of short- term adverse effects on their profit margins. At Kyoto in 1997, scientists warned that a reduction in greenhouse gas emisions of 60 to 80 per cent is essential to halt global warming. Despite this, the US Government, assisted by those of Australia, Canada, Mexico and Japan forced a progressive lowering in the initial target level for reduction of emissions, from 20 per cent to less than three per cent. There has also been intense corporate opposition to action intended to deal with a far less publicised but equally serious threat to life on the planet, i.e. the steady increase in the incidence of hormonal abnormalities in both humans and animals. Scientists have been aware for the last half century of a gradual world- wide increase in animal birth defects such as deformed male genitalia, as well as low sperm counts and dramatic decreases in the size of certain animal populations. Such phenomena have long been attributed to the effect of certain man-made chemicals known as endocrine disruptors (EDs), which either mimic or block the normal activity of hormones in the reproductive process when released into the natural environment. Some scientists, particularly those either employed by or receiving funding from major corporations, argued that this was attributable to known isolated incidents of pollution, and that attention should be primarily focused on human populations rather than on the natural environment. Such arguments neglect the inseparable environmental link between animal and human life. Nevertheless, there has indeed been a great deal of research aimed at identifying the effect of these chemicals on human populations, and much of this has taken place in North America. There are many areas where further work is required, but over the last 20 years many of these projects have yielded clear evidence of hormonal abnormalities, including increased rates of testicular cancer, lowering of the immune system, and genital defects in the newborn, as well as the strong probability of reduced intellect in young children. Although the evidence is not altogether clear, some studies have also shown a significant lowering of human sperm counts in certain test groups.. In the early 1990s one scientist, Dr Theo Colborn, managed to collect the results of all the recent major research projects in North America, and her assessment revealed a vast pattern of hormonal abnormalities. She subsequently argued in her 1996 book "Our Stolen Future" that endocrine disruptors have the potential to not only reduce the quality of human life but eventually to threaten the continuation of human and animal life itself. She and other scientists proposed the launch of a major testing program to identify endochrine disruptors among suspect chemicals, including those in common use, with a view to eventually banning or limiting their release into the environment. Not surprisingly, the proposal for ED research into common chemicals was met with vigorous opposition from conservative politicians and multinational chemical corporations. One scientist researching bisphenol A (a common chemical used in plastics manufacture) discovered that for this chemical the dosage required to induce permanent changes in the reproductive system of mice was 2,500 times lower than previously believed. He subsequently claimed that a representative of Dow Chemicals, one of the manufacturers of the chemical, had approached him with an offer of a "mutually beneficial outcome" which would involve the suppression of his research report until the company had repeated his experiment and the plastics industry had given the go-ahead for publication of his results! Fortunately, this kind offer was rejected. Meanwhile, the testing proposal found many supporters. The environmentalists formed a formidable alliance with women's organisations, for example the "One in Nine" women's support group, who demanded to know why the incidence of breast cancer among women living on New York's Long Island was several times the national average. To the horror of the military industrial complex this group proposed that some US$200 million in funding be diverted from US military expenditure to breast cancer research purposes, with a particular focus on EDs. Some 40 years earlier, Rachael Carson's sensational book Silent Spring had warned of the dangers posed by the widespread and indiscriminate use of insecticides. As a result Carson was ridiculed and villified as hysterical and irrational by chemical corporations. Although ultimately vindicated, she died not long after publication of her book from a cancer which many believe to have been induced at least in part by the stress of that experience. Dr Colborn expected a similar attack over her book, which was a key document for the Congressional committee hearings concerning the endocrine testing program. In point of fact the chemical corporations treated her publicly with considerable personal respect, but they nevertheless tracked her movements, recorded her public statements and hired scientists to pour over every reference in her book in order to detect scentific weaknesses and denigrate her work. However, despite the billions of dollars contributed for years by the chemical companies to political party funds, the Congressional committee declared it was not convinced that there were serious flaws in the arguments in favour of testing for the presence of EDs. Moreover, the case put by those opposing testing was fatally weakened by some astonishing defections from their ranks. The chemical companies expressed great sympathy for the breast cancer victims while continuing to oppose the testing program, and a former representative of Sandoz Agro, one of the companies, publicly turned against them in disgust at their sugar-coated hypocrisy. A former leader of the opposition to the Bill to fund the research, conservative New York Congressman Alfonse D'Amato, changed his tune after members of "Nine to One" stormed his office and virtually held him captive for four hours, forcing him to seriously discuss the issues and their concerns. Despite the desperate efforts of the corporations, in 1997 funds were diverted from military purposes to breast cancer research, and the Food Quality Protection Act and the Safe Water Drinking Act were passed. The new laws for the first time required research to determine whether certain chemicals contained endocrine disruptors. Legislation was also passed to establish a new government agency responsible for determining an appropriate method of screening for EDs. Some 75,000 man-made chemicals are now candidates for testing. Although the passing of the Bills requiring testing for EDs was only the first stage of action necessary to rectify this vast problem, it was nevertheless a major victory for the environment and for the human race. Moreover, it carries a crucial lesson, i.e.that multinational corporations can be forced to accept action to remedy the effects of problems they create or exacerbate. Likewise, the military industrial complex can be defeated and the horrific weapons of war destroyed by mass action. Governments can be forced to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases to safe levels. AIDS can be combated by the mass production of relevant drugs free of cost, as the Cuban Government offers its people, or by nationalisation of the drug industry and/or the assumption of other powers by government, as is happening in Brazil. And finally, all of these crises are demonstrating that the interests of the mass of the world's people are diametrically opposed to those of the multinational corporations. As the saga of the endocrine disruptor testing program showed, the former can most certainly triumph over the latter. This will undoubtedly require a long and bitter struggle by the peoples of the world, but it can and must be done.
* * *Acknowledgements: WGBH Educational Foundation and the Centre for Educational Reporting Inc., Fooling with Nature 1998. Torrice Productions, Rising Waters, 2000. Colborne, Dr Theo, Our Stolen Future.