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The Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Linda Birnbaum, PhD, is being criticized by some Republicans for authoring an article that describes linkages between endocrine disrupting chemicals and the onset of disease, as well as the need to understand and monitor the effects of these chemicals. Instead of encouraging efforts for greater understanding of these chemicals, the members of Congress instead blasted the article as a potential breach of National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy. NIEHS, a program of NIH, seeks to reduce the burden of human illness and disability by understanding how the environment influences the development and progression of human disease.
The short article, When Environmental Chemicals Act Like Uncontrolled Medicine, published online May 7 in Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, lays out the case that environmental chemicals can produce unwanted endocrine effects, leading to an increase in certain diseases.
“In the same way as physicians endeavor to understand and monitor the effect of medicines on endocrine pathways, we ought to achieve the same understanding and control of the effects on environmental chemicals,” states Dr. Birnbaum in her article.
“The proliferation of inadequately tested chemicals in commerce may be contributing to the skyrocketing rates of disease ... A new protocol to detect endocrine disruption in early stages of chemical design may provide a useful tool to remove hazards from future chemicals ... [and] A population-based, public health approach may provide the best perspective in understanding the effect of this problem.”
Endocrine disruptors can change the function(s) of the body’s hormonal system, increasing the risk of adverse health effects. Chemicals with endocrine disrupting properties linked to disease outcomes in laboratory studies have been identified. Many pesticides, industrial solvents, flame retardants and other chemicals found in electronics, personal care products and cosmetics have been identified as endocrine disruptors.
Dr. Birnbaum’s article echoes that of a 2013 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that also identifies endocrine disrupting chemicals as having significant health implications for the global population and calls for more research and collaboration. This UN report, which is the most comprehensive report on endocrine disruption to date, highlights some association between exposure to endocrine disruptors and health problems, including the potential for such chemicals to contribute to the development of non-descended testes in young males, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, developmental effects on the nervous system in children, attention deficit/hyperactivity in children and thyroid cancer.
However, in a surprising attack on Director Birnbaum, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) and Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) target her article as a potential breach of NIH policy.
In a letter sent to NIH Director Francis Collins, they argue that Dr. Birnbaum should attach a disclaimer to the article clarifying that it expresses her personal views and not those of the administration. They write, "[S]ome of Dr. Birnbaum’s statements sound less like a presentation of scientific data and more like an opinion—which may be construed as a position of NIH.”
Rep. Broun is chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. In their letter, Reps. Broun and Bucshon argue that Dr. Birnbaum’s recent article makes “broad and general statements” that are opinion, not fact. Her assertion that chemicals are inadequately tested, they write, implies that NIH does not think U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is doing its job. The lawmakers also say that the lack of a disclaimer on Dr. Birnbaum’s article calls into question NIH’s commitment to transparency. “We expect Dr. Birnbaum to be accurate and transparent in the presentation of scientific data and in describing peer reviewed studies.”
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However, what these representatives fail to recognize is that while EPA is mandated to screen chemicals for potential endocrine disrupting effects, the agency has yet to finalize its screening and testing procedures since mandated by Congress to do so in 1996. The tests to be used by EPA were first recommended in 1998, but since then the science has made progress and become more sophisticated, while EPA’s toxicological testing protocol has not been updated, according to some critics.
Unlike the European Union, which as a matter of precaution categorizes chemicals for endocrine disrupting potential, the U.S. has failed to do so. Therefore, Dr. Birnbaum is correct in stating that many chemicals in use today in the U.S. are “inadequately tested” for endocrine disruption. Dr. Birnbaum's article not only echoes the call by the UNEP and WHO for greater understanding of how these chemicals impact the human body, but also suggests a need for preventative action to control the onset of disease.
Similarly, a 2012 study from a group of renowned endocrinologists finds that even low doses of endocrine disrupting chemicals can cause certain human disorders, highlighting various epidemiological studies that show that environmental exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals are associated with human diseases and disabilities. The authors here conclude that the effects of low doses cannot be predicted by the effects observed at high doses, and therefore recommend fundamental changes in chemical testing and safety determination to protect human health.
Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide-Induced Disease Database features a wealth of studies that have linked pesticide exposures to adverse impacts on the endocrine system. These studies explore outcomes and mechanisms for several health effect endpoints including cancer, developmental and learning disorders, Parkinson’s disease and reproductive health.
For more on endocrine disrupting chemicals, Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticides and Endocrine Disruption brochure is available for download, or read Beyond Pesticides special report, Pesticides That Disrupt Endocrine System Still Unregulated by EPA.
“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill
It is time to acknowledge what has long been obvious: President Obama wants Keystone XL built. He won’t tell us this until after Election Day, for fear of alienating his Democratic base, but his actions speak for themselves. The President’s high profile visit to Cushing, OK a week ago today to expedite construction of the pipeline’s southern leg (“Keystone Lite”) only further exposes his true intentions, which are as transparent as the Obama camp’s attempt to change the channel by renaming it the “Cushing pipeline.” Governor Romney, who mistakenly assumes Republican voters don’t care, at least tells us he would approve the toxic tar sands pipeline on “day one” of his presidency.
Both candidates fail to grasp the depth of revulsion this un-American, gas price raising, job threatening, land grabbing, water polluting, export pipeline has generated in the six Great Plains states it would cross. For many of the front line farmers, ranchers and tribal community members I had the honor of meeting on my 2,150-mile “Tour of Resistance” last fall, Keystone XL is not an abstract game of political football, but a matter of deathly importance. More than a few are ready to lay in front of the bulldozers to keep this toxic pipeline off their land. In Pine Ridge, South Dakota, home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the peaceful resistance has already begun.
How did we get to this point and what have we learned to strengthen us for the fight to come? Recent history provides the lessons.
My personal involvement began last winter and spring, when after first learning about Keystone XL, I shared my plans to ride the pipeline route with environmental groups leading the fight against it. That summer, a group of prominent climate activists led by Bill McKibben invited people to Washington, DC for a mass show of civil resistance against Keystone XL. There were 1,253 people that responded by getting arrested in front of the White House, but it was actor/activist Daryl Hannah's high-profile arrest that turned Keystone into a household word. The following day, Al Gore endorsed the protest and Nebraska’s Republican Governor went on record opposing the proposed route through Nebraska. Nine Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including the Dalai Lama, soon followed suit by weighing in against Keystone XL. Activists began hounding Obama at public appearances around the country, with Vice President of Oglala Lakota Nation Tom Poor Bear the first person to spur the President to address Keystone XL publicly. A subsequent call to action by Bill’s group resulted in 12,000 people encircling the White House in early November.
Under excruciating pressure to deny TransCanada’s presidential permit, Obama pulled a fast one by announcing he was delaying a decision on Keystone XL until after the 2012 election. My reaction was to label it an act of political cowardice. Others similarly saw through the political ploy, including eco-visionary, Paul Hawken, who called the move “dangerous.” But most of the well-intentioned environmental movement embraced the false victory, showering the President with praise for his “courage” and “leadership.” Keystone XL was prematurely declared dead and actions planned at Obama campaign offices in 50 states were called off. Front line pipeline fighters felt like the rug had been pulled out from under them.
Lesson #1: When you have your opponent staggered and against the ropes, you don’t back off, you keep on coming until you’ve landed the knock out punch.
Then in January, backed into a corner by congressional Republicans, the President announced he was denying TransCanada’s permit, which sounded pretty good until you got to paragraph two of the White House Statement, where he offered to partner with TransCanada on the southern (OK-TX) leg of Keystone XL. Calls for Obama to be taken to task for this subterfuge were largely ignored, while most of the environmental movement did another victory dance, again declaring Keystone XL dead. This despite the President’s own written words to the contrary and an administration that never stopped publicly telegraphing its support for the tar sands project. Their ploy to break the project up into bite-sized pieces had worked like a charm. This time, it was landowners in Texas and Oklahoma feeling like collateral damage for Obama’s reelection campaign.
Lesson #2: When the President of the United States tells you he supports building a leg of Keystone XL, take him at his word, and respond accordingly.
Since then, Republicans in Congress have been scheming to revive Keystone in a way that will damage President Obama politically. At the same time, congressional Democratic leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Democratic Whip, Steny Hoyer (D-MD), inch closer to supporting Keystone XL, while others like U.S. Senator Clair McCaskill (D-MO) and former president Bill Clinton embrace it outright. The congressional tar sands bandwagon recently grew larger when 11 Democratic Senators backed a GOP provision to fast-track construction of Keystone XL. To their credit, the environmental movement has rallied valiantly to beat back each new legislative assault, but they keep losing ground to Democrats. A movement that rarely misses an opportunity to criticize Republicans for fronting for Big Oil fails to treat well-oiled Democrats, including President Obama, the same at it’s own peril.
Lesson #3: Partisanship, whether real or perceived, is toxic to building winning social movements.
We are not winning. TransCanada is. Obama, ever the quintessential politician, has played the environmental movement masterfully. But this time, he may have gone too far. By making such a public spectacle of backing “Keystone Lite,” Obama betrayed his lack of respect for the movement. Maybe he doesn’t believe large numbers of patriotic Americans will lay their bodies on the line to nonviolently repel this foreign pipeline invasion, but he is about to find out.
The 2012 election demands an honest national conversation not only about Keystone XL, but about how we’re going to keep the planet habitable for future generations. Climate-destabilizing emissions have already exceeded safe levels, and continue to rise, yet there is no serious response from government. To the contrary, leaders of both major political parties seem hell bent on accelerating the cycle of destruction by pushing for the development of even more fossil fuels. The refusal of Obama and Romney, in particular, to fight for the future of their children should alarm every parent in America. Instead of championing obvious solutions—like a U.S.-led green industrial revolution that will reenergize our economy and put millions of unemployed Americans back to work—both men compliantly do the bidding of Big Oil, while clinging to the dinosaur economy.
Early last year, an unprecedented coalition of environmental, religious and renewable energy leaders called for a “wartime-like mobilization” to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020. We urged the President to declare a “global climate emergency” by publicly acknowledging the need to reduce carbon emissions to 350 parts per million in the atmosphere, the level top climate scientists say is safe for humanity. Along with nixing Keystone XL, I can think of no better demand to be made of whoever wants to occupy the Oval Office for the next four years.