When a person seeks out my advice and/or assistance about a healthcare problem, a primary goal is not only to understand the nature of the symptoms but also to understand the context of the complaint. Discomfort and disease do not just arise, they arise out of something — an environment, an inheritance, an experience.
The difference between symptom relief and cure in medical treatment most often depends on the depth of this understanding. This is the great challenge: to explore all the factors related to a person’s health in the unique context of his or her life. It demands time, perserverance and perceptive abilities.
Increasingly, it has become clear to me that the true context of many of the severest diseases common in contemporary western society is the way we, both as individuals and as a culture, relate to the world. We are ever demanding more - more of ourselves, more for ourselves. We demand greater abundance while we are ever more abundant in numbers ourselves. We demand greater comfort, higher performance, more stimulation, longer lives. We want more for our children...
Awash in the effluence of this “moreness”, it is unlikely that there is a simple way to untrack ourselves. And there are serious consequences lurking all around us.
How curious (or is it?) that cancer, which is certainly the greatest medical challenge of our generation, is a disease characterized by unrestrained growth. Nervously, we are compelled to check out every lump, bump and unexplained symptom for fear it is a sign of malignancy. We are filled with concern because so many around us have already been stricken.
And there are other diseases of excessive cellular proliferation, too, which have grown to be commonplace. Cysts, fibroids, benign tumors off various sorts almost seem to be the norm, not the exception, for women. Endometriosis, where the tissues of the uterine lining begin to inexplicably to grow elsewhere in the body, was a rare condition a generation ago. Now, it too is a routine diagnosis.
Certainly, this trend is not an accident. It has to do with the way we think, live and relate to the physical world around us. Increasingly, there is evidence that it has everything to do with the way we fuel our abundant lifestyles by synthesizing material goods.
Plastic is a primary example. We are awash in the stuff. Everything from the computer I’m typing on to the containers we store food in is all part or fully plastic. Even environmentally friendly, granola crunching types buy tofu in plastic containers. Modern society as we know it would simply not exist without it.
Aside from the environmental problems assoicated with the disposal of plastic, there turns out to be a far more insidious problem related to the pervasive use of plastic.
My awareness of it began four years ago at a conference, during a conversation over dinner with some colleagues. One of them happened to be married to one of the world’s leading researchers on global warming. She is always quite up on the latest information about how the human race seems bent on self-destructing.
This particular evening, though, she was less stewed about the ozone layer than with plastics. Just recently she had read an article, which she later copied and mailed me, called “Estrogen in the Environment” (by Rick Weiss, Washington Post Magazine, January 24, 1994).
The gist of the article is that scientists throughout the world are beginning to understand the extent to which synthetic chemicals are adversely affecting life on this planet. And some plastics are foremost amongst the offenders.
The plastic connection was, as often happens in scientific research, discovered by accident. Two scientists working at Tufts University were working on an experiment to culture breast cancer cells. These cells are known to be estrogen sensitive, meaning they are the type of cancer cells that are stimulated to grow when they are in the presence of the female hormone estrogen.
But during the research, the scientists were frustrated because the cells were growing without any estrogen being added to the flask which contained the cells. After months of trying to figure out the problem, it was discovered that the flask itself was the issue.
The company which made the product had used a different type of plastic. And this new type of plastic was found to be giving off small amounts of an estrogen-like substance which was close enough to the real thing to stimulate the development of breast cancer cells.
Now that may not scare you — some messed up data in some experiment at a university lab. But it should. Because if our ubiquitous plastics are contaminating our environment with estrogen-like chemical compounds then this will have a profound effect on the health of all living species.
It has been discovered that these estrogen-like substances not only will stimulate the growth of some cancers, but also cause other physiological changes in living organisms such as disrupting animal reproductive systems. Researchers are speculating that this may account for dramatic increases in female problems like breast cancer and endometriosis.
They also believe it could be the cause of an enormous drop in sperm counts amongst many male animal species — including human — that has been found to have occurred throughout the world over the last fifty years. So as females become “over-feminized” developing overgrowths of reproductive tissue, the males are becoming demasculinized because of excess estrogen in their systems.
Plastics are only one of many substances implicated in this problem. And unfortunately, it is next to impossible for you and I to know which plastics we use are estrogen polltants. The plastic toy little Sally is sticking in her mouth or the plastic fork we are using at a picnic may or not be implicated.
Over the last quarter century, we have come to understand with ever increasing clarity how synthesized chemicals have adversely affected the health of the planet and its inhabitants. The quest to fully comprehend the extent of this problem has led scientists to some very disturbing conclusions.
From the information that is now becoming available, it appears that these pollutants have disturbed the sensitive internal biological balances of most every species of life on earth. Those living in what was thought to be pristine natural environments such as birds that on tiny islands in the Pacific as well as fish swimming in rivers full of industrial waste are similarly affected.
We have seen that synthetic substances similar in chemical structure to the female hormone estrogen are thought to be responsible for a large part of this problem. These are often called environmental estrogens or estrogen-like pollutants.
Earlier I mentioned only one such substance, namely plastic. But plastics belong to a larger group which has been implicated in this problem. Known as organochlorines, they include well documented toxins such as PCBs, DDT, DES and dioxins. And, there are also plenty of other ones mostly unknown to the layperson with long names abbreviated in an alphabet soup such as DDE, PAH, PBB...
And, like plastics, they are found just about everywhere in our environment. Industrial chemicals, paper mill discharges, pesticides are chock full of them. What is worse is that they don’t go away very easily.
They remain in the atmosphere for long periods of time so that rain falling in remotes sections of the globe as well as heavily polluted regions are contaminated with them. Once absorbed into human tissue, it is hard to break down or eliminate them from the body.
Since reading “Estrogen in the Environment” I have came across another article that appeared in the most recent issue of the Amicus Journal (Spring 1995, pg. 18-21). This is the publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a highly respected environmental organization.
This latter article reviews the work an extraordinary woman named Theodora Colborn. Originally trained as a pharmacist, her concerns for the environment led her to enter a PhD program in her mid-fifties.
Colburn is generally given credit for pulling together all the disparate pieces of information from many different disciplines that point to the profound problems caused by environmental estrogens, otherwise known as synthetic estrogen disruptors.
These substances either distort or obstruct the action of natural hormones in living organisms. As a result, not only hormonal, but also nervous and immune function is severely disturbed. Naturally, the less developed the organism, the more susceptible it is to these poisons. Therefore, these influences are particularly devastating to immature organisms — unhatched eggs, human fetuses, ...
Colburn’s research showed that the effects of the estrogen disruptors are appearing in various biological phenomena observed by scientists in recent years. On the surface these phenomena seemed to have no connection, but Colburn has been able to make strong arguments that they are indeed interrelated.
The consequences of estrogen pollutants take many forms. They range from structural deformities, poor survival rates among newborn animals and increasing sterility in wildlife to rising cases of various types of cancer and lowered sperm counts in humans.
In general, it is possible to categorize two types of effects in humans. In females, the excessive estrogen will give rise to overdevelopment of hormone related tissue. Thus it is thought that the current epidemic of breast cancer is a possible result of estrogen disruptors.
Likewise, the increase in cases of endometriosis — a disease where uterine tissue is found to grow outside the uterus — over the last two decades is also linked to environmental estrogen.
In males, the increases in estrogen will lower testosterone levels. This leads to lower sperm counts and a higher incidence of sterility. This correlates to well documented drops in sperm counts over the last four decades.
In the Amicus article Colborn points out that one of the problems with current attitudes toward chemical toxicity and pollutants in general is that safety is almost exclusively measured in terms of cancer. That is, scientists are focused on determining at what levels exposure to a particular substance will induce cancer.
But she maintains that we must become aware that environmental estrogens, even if they are not carcinogenic, can have subtler, more insidious effects that are in the end equally disastrous. And since these substances build up in the system and effect the development of future generations, there may well be no minimal level below which exposure is safe.
The implications of these theories are enormous. In the face of them, it is hard not to become extremely pessimistic about the fate of life on earth. The rate at which we are self-destructing may be too rapid for us to halt our slide into oblivion.