Theo Colborn
Thursday, October 3, 1996

I am here today to bring you a message of global concern from the scientific community. A message that grows louder with each passing day. The longer we ignore it, the greater our potential peril.

The message comes from physicians, researchers studying human health, laboratory scientists, and wildlife biologists. The story has evolved -- article by article -- in the world's most reputable, well-respected, scientific and medical journals, such as Science, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, The British Medical Journal, and Lancet ... to mention only a few.

Simply stated

Everyone of you sitting here today is carrying at least 500 measurable chemicals in your body that were never in anyone's body before the 1920s. There is now undeniable evidence that a female shares some of these man-made chemicals with her baby in her womb and during breast feeding -- chemicals that are capable of interfering with the natural chemical messengers the body produces to tell the baby how to develop. We have dusted the globe with man-made chemicals that can undermine the development of the brain and behavior, and the endocrine, immune, and reproductive systems, vital systems that assure perpetuity. We are just beginning to understand how these chemicals can affect our children's ability to learn, to socially integrate, to fend off disease, and to reproduce.

You -- your children -- and their children -- are all at risk. Everyone is exposed. You are not exposed to one chemical at a time, but a complex mixture of chemicals that changes day by day, hour by hour, depending on where you are, and the environment you are in. You cannot escape from exposure in your homes, work-places, the outdoors, or in your meeting rooms.

Many of these chemicals build up in body tissue and remain in human tissue for years, others do not build up in tissue but are constantly present in your daily lives. They are in the common everyday products you have become dependent upon, others are industrial chemicals and pesticides to which we are exposed in a variety of ways.

Consider the following:

Mothers who ate moderate amounts of fish from Lake Michigan shared the chemicals in the fish with their babies -- babies with measurable neurological decrements at birth, short term memory problems at age four, and a 6.2 IQ deficit today at age eleven -- they are now about one year behind their schoolmates whose mothers had not eaten Lake Michigan fish. The severity of the effects reflected the amount of a persistent chemical the mother and infant shared.

In a more recent study, mothers who ate fish from Lake Ontario shared the chemicals in the fish with their babies -- babies who also had similar neurological decrements at birth -- and with a new battery of tests were found to be hyper-reactive to unpleasant events just like rat pups whose mothers were fed Lake Ontario fish. Hyper-reactive individuals do not respond well to stressful situations.

Mothers from the Netherlands also shared the chemicals in their bodies with their babies -- babies with measurable neuromotor decrements at birth. These babies also had reduced levels of thyroid hormone that guides the growth and brain development of children, and reduced immune competency, that were associated with the amount of a group of chemicals in the mother's bodies similar to the chemicals found in the mothers from the Great Lakes. But in the Netherlands the mothers represented a cross-section of the population, not necessarily fish eaters. Most disturbing, like the Great Lakes infant studies, the concentrations of these chemicals in the mothers were well within the range of the average population in the developed world.

But this problem is not restricted to Europe and the United States. As researchers tracked the polar migration of persistent chemicals toward the North Pole they found that Native American mothers in eastern Arctic Canada share with their babies seven times more contamination than the mothers in the Great Lakes and Netherlands. The native youngsters have 20 times more middle ear infections than children in the lower North American Continent and they have difficulty producing sufficient antibodies when vaccinated for childhood diseases.

In their search for an uncontaminated population of natives living in the Arctic, scientists discovered that native mothers in Western Greenland in sharing their chemical contamination gave their babies twice as much as their Canadian counterparts.

Amazingly, mothers around the world carry the same suite of chemicals as the Beluga whales in the Canadian, St. Lawrence River. The Belugas carry some of the highest body burdens of these chemicals in the world. This population of whales suffers from a host of problems that include cancers, pronounced disease and mortality among young whales, and 1/3 the reproductive success as Belugas in the Arctic Ocean. The native mothers in Canada carry about the same concentration in their fat as this population of whales.

Even female albatrosses that feed only on the surface of the North Pacific Ocean transfer the same suite of chemicals to their eggs and at concentrations that initiate a measurable toxic response similar to that found in troubled bird populations in the contaminated areas of the North American Great Lakes. The Pacific birds also hold unexpectedly high levels of newly produced DDT in their bodies.

As this demonstrates, these chemicals are found around the world. They are the legacy of the industrial chemistry of the past 70 years ... the burgeoning development of new generations of pesticides, plastics, construction material, and other common products from canned foods to dental sealants.

In the United States alone, it is estimated that over 72,000 different chemicals are used regularly. 2500 new chemicals are introduced annually -- and of these -- 15 are partially tested for their safety. Unfortunately, not one of the chemicals in use today has been adequately tested for these intergenerational effects.

Although effects have been reported in adults who were directly exposed to some of the chemicals, the most insidious and irreversible effects are expressed in their offspring. These are population-wide effects, unlike cancer, acute toxicity, and obvious birth defects, that although devastating, affect a small number of individuals in a population. Everyone is at risk including those who have not yet been born.

When tested in laboratory settings on a chemical by chemical basis these chemicals are associated with a litany of adverse health effects ... weakened immune systems, reproductive problems, metabolic problems, impacts on the thyroid and other organs, and, perhaps of greatest concern -- functional deficits -- such as lowered intelligence, reduced sexual function, behavioral changes -- whose sum is a reduction in potential for all those affected.

We don't fully understand the magnitude of the risks, nor do we fully understand the biological mechanisms through which these problems occur.

We do not know how to adequately test for these effects, nor do we understand fully the consequences of these effects, much less their true costs to society. There are no institutions capable of dealing with the problem at the state, national, or global level.

What should be done? For starters, we need an international research effort to understand better and solve the problem. The man-made chemicals we must deal with are not limited to one nation or group of nations, nor to one geographic region. They have become an integral part of the economies of the industrialized world and are central to the aspirations of the developing world. The chemicals flow in international commerce as well as in the air and water. As a result, any strategy to address the problem must be transboundary and global in scope.

With hindsight we know we must address the fact that these chemicals are moving poleward on oceanic and atmospheric currents and accumulating in wildlife and human tissue in the Northern Hemisphere and taking their toll on those who never produced or benefited from the use of the chemicals.

And with foresight we must take into consideration those nations that are still in the early stages of development, suffering from economic hardship, over-population, and in dire need of clean water and sufficient food. It is imperative that through our research efforts we seek answers to how these countries can meet their food and water needs ... and at the same time not allow them to perpetuate the mistakes we made nor become our accomplices to the problem.

I challenge you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Roundtable on Toxic Substances, to use this Forum to give birth to a blueprint for establishing an international entity to address the questions posed by a large number of scientists concerning the safety of persistent organic pollutants and other biologically active chemicals that behave as endocrine disruptors. This entity should oversee the funding, design, and implementation of a global research strategy to address the threats posed by these chemicals.

I propose the formation of an independent entity that will play a catalytic role in toxicant research, as did the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- which, Mr. Chairman -- you were so instrumental in establishing.

A research agenda such as this will require cooperation among industry, governments, national agencies, academia, and non-governmental organizations in a true spirit of addressing the questions that have been raised about chemicals that intefere with the natural chemicals our bodies produce. In light of the weight of evidence concerning the ultimate threat to human health and survival, and biodiversity, it is imperative to establish this international entity as soon as possible. If the hypothesis holds, the research costs will seem infinitesimally small compared with what the costs might be if society does not heed the messages from the scientific community.

Now for the good news. First and most important, the effects caused by these man-made chemicals are not mutations. Your genes have not been damaged. They were only turned on or off at the wrong time. If we reverse exposure, future generations can develop once again according to the blue print they inherited from their ancestors.

Second, over the past five years scientists from around the world have directed their research toward the problem. Our learning curve has literally shot straight up.

Paradigms have been cast aside on how chemicals should be tested for their safety and how we measure risk. Industrialists are rethinking how products should be designed. The US National Academy of Sciences and sister institutions in other nations are assessing the issue. More than 100 nations have called for negotiations of an international agreements to reduce or eliminate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), some of which are endocrine disruptoring chemicals. The US Congress, in this last session, passed several federal mandates acknowledging the problem. That's remarkable.

Let us, at this Forum, capitalize on this momentum and, as we heard last night, turn our attention to those in the womb. Let's reaffirm their birthright to reach their fullest potential. Let's assure them, once again, the flowering of their spirits.