406, 4 (2000) © Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Britain's science academy is calling for worldwide action to deal
with chemicals that may disrupt the body's hormonal functions.
a report published last week, the Royal Society calls for national
and international coordination to deal with the dangers it claims
are posed to humans and wildlife by endocrine-disrupting chemicals
(EDCs) — substances that are thought to mimic or block hormones,
in doses too small to trigger a conventional toxic response.
report, called Endocrine-disrupting Chemicals, was produced by a
working group led by the society's vice-president Patrick Bateson,
professor of ethology at the University of Cambridge. It
says there is strong evidence to link EDC exposure to effects on
some organisms. It recommends minimizing human exposure to EDCs
— with pregnant women being strongly discouraged from contact
with EDCs, such as plasticizers and insecticides.
research is being hampered by lack of standardization. A US study
of 15,000 chemicals, for example, has been unable to begin a planned
high-throughput screening programme because researchers have been
unable to develop the right assays.
are no ways to test these chemicals, no standardized screens or
assays, even in one nation," says Theo Colborn, an expert on
the endocrine-disrupter hypothesis who works at the World Wildlife
Fund in Washington, DC.
says that new research has recently become available on prenatal
exposure to the industrial chemicals polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
and co-contaminants, which shows a correlation with reduced IQ,
behavioural problems and adverse effects on the immune system.
British report goes further than one last year from the US National
Research Council (NRC), which left an open verdict on the issue
of public health risks (see Nature 400, 607; 1999).
scientists remain sceptical of the endocrine-disrupter hypothesis.
Stephen Safe, for example, deputy director of the Center for Environmental
and Rural Health at Texas A&M University and a member of the
NRC panel, says that the recent evidence about PCBs is not clear-cut.
Safe says that, although he does not necessarily disagree with the
endocrine-disrupter hypothesis, he considers that it needs more
work, and is not convinced by the evidence so far.
EDCs cause some problems? They have and probably will, but the general
hysteria is unwarranted," says Safe. He blames what he calls
"synthetic chemical chemophobia" for current public reaction.
contrast, Bateson says the issue is a "cause for more worry"
than genetic modification. He thinks there is a case for making
people more aware of the possible dangers, and is arguing for a
national body to oversee work on the issue. The society wants to
ensure that "sound policies" are developed and warns policy-makers
that they must appreciate that the concerns of the public already
have some foundation.
Royal Society report coincides with growing international concern
about the harmful effects of EDCs.
April a meeting of the environment ministers of the G8 group of
industrialized countries signed a communiqué stating that
the risks posed by hazardous chemical substances were one of the
greatest concerns expressed by the people of their countries. The
ministers called for a "furtherance of knowledge acquisition
on endocrine disrupters through jointly planned and implemented
projects and international information sharing".
is currently touring the world in a bid to raise money to set up
an independent international body, which would be funded by industry
and government and would co-ordinate research and expertise.
this year the UK's Environment Agency published a strategy for reducing
potential EDCs. But Bateson thinks European bodies — including
those in Britain — are "bitty and uncoordinated, with
lots of activities all over the place".
Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2000 Registered No. 785998