Pollution contaminates our lives. We tend to act and react depending on the visibility of the pollutant. Research is ongoing and new publications continuously point towards the impact of pollution in corrupting our very reproductive systems. It is chemical pollution which we absorb through the food chain and which disrupts the human hormone system in the most critical of moments. They are known as endocrine disrupters.
Way back in the 1962 it was Rachel Carson who in her seminal Silent Spring explained the impact of the pesticides then in use on wild life. Notwithstanding the fierce opposition of chemical companies Carson’s opus led to the tightening of regulation of pesticides and the setting up of the US Environment Protection Agency.
Sixty years ago, Carson, a zoologist, argued that the use of pesticides had unintended consequences as whilst pesticides targeted pests they ended up affecting birds and their offspring. The result being a decrease in the bird population brought about by intoxication as a consequence of the poisoning of their food chain.
Toxic contamination does not necessarily kill immediately. It may block or distort a number of our natural functions.
In the foreword to the book Our Stolen Future (1997) by Theo Colborn, Diane Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers, Al Gore, former US Vice President speaks of “a large and growing body of scientific evidence linking synthetic chemicals to aberrant sexual development and behavioural and reproductive problems. Although much of the evidence these scientific studies review is for animal populations and ecological effects, there are important implications for human health as well”.
It was only a question of time before the relevance of all this to human health was clear.
President Jimmy Carter on August 7, 1978 had declared a state of emergency at Love Canal in the state of New York. A landfill containing over 21,000 tons of chemical waste dumped in the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s caused the contamination of residential and educational environments in the vicinity and resulted in miscarriages, birth defects, respiratory ailments and cancer. Fifty-six per cent of children born in the Love Canal environs between 1974 and 1978 had a birth defect. This led the US to enact the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act known as the Superfund in the last days of the Carter Presidency.
On May 31, 1989 a beluga whale was found floating belly up on the South Bank of the St Lawrence river in Quebec, Canada. An autopsy carried out on the whale revealed that it had both a male and a female set of genital organs. It was a hermaphrodite. This was eventually traced to pollution-induced hormone disruption which derailed the beluga whale’s normal course of sexual development. “One cannot rule out,” noted the autopsy report “that pollutants present in the mother’s diet had interfered with hormonal processes (guiding the) normal evolution of the sexual organs of her foetus”. The beluga whale is a mammal like the human being.
In neighbouring Italy news is continuous on discoveries of tainted food chains. In 2008 it was found that buffalo mozzarella originating from some 83 dairy farms in an area near Naples was tainted with dioxin. The buffalo were grazing in an area of illegal dumps of toxic waste controlled by the Mafia. On the other hand, in the areas around Casale di Principe it was the contamination of the water table which was identified as having led to a large incidence of still births, birth defects and cancer among the local population.
This week, in a new book, named Count Down, reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan argues that the observed downsizing of the male organ can be linked to everyday chemicals reaching us through the food chain. The publication is sub-titled: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race.
Shanna Swan and her team of researchers found that over the past four decades, sperm levels among men in Western countries have dropped by more than 50 percent. They came to this conclusion after examining 185 studies involving close to 45,000 healthy men.
We could do with some information on what researchers in Malta are doing on issues of pollution and their impacts on our health, specifically on endocrine disrupters. This is essential information which is required to inform our health policy. Our national health policy should be based on a holistic vision, that is one which recognizes the ecological interconnections between people, animals and plants.
We require coherent environmental policies which are properly implemented. This should be manifested in safer chemicals in use and proper waste management practices. Then we may start addressing this serious problem.
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 4 April 2021