The Coming Silent Seasons?

Part Two: invisible apocalypse – the feminization of nature

Chlorine is a poison, one that can, in the right dilution and in various ‘safe’ compounds be a boon, but is also amongst the most dangerous.

Over the last several decades more and more has been learnt about the effects of a number of chemicals that have chlorine in them. Some are to be found in compounds we use regularly for pest control or antibiotic action, amongst other uses; some are by-products of these chemicals.

In the 1990s the literature on negative health effects of chemicals in the organochlorine family grew and grew. At the same time, industry went into overdrive funding literature denying these effects. For industry it is about profit, the bottom line, and about sufficient deniability to avert massive lawsuits. Many companies sought to remove the offending chemicals, some even boasting on their packaging that their products were, for example, ‘non-chlorine-bleached’ (including women’s sanitary towels, nappies, toilet roll and teabags). None said why. This is because they would, if found guilty, be bankrupted overnight, and virulently attacked for causing enormous harm whilst hiding data.

So, let’s look at the problems with organochlorines (dioxins and furans), and a few other similar chemicals, via some of the popular press books on the subject. Deborah Cadbury’s The Feminization of Nature: Our Future at Risk (Penguin); Theo Colborn, John Peterson Myers & Dianne Dumanoski’s Our Stolen Future: How Man-made Chemicals are Threatening our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival (Little, Brown & Co / Penguin); and Robert Allen’s The Dioxin War: Truth and Lies About a Perfect Poison (Pluto), and Waste Not Want Not: The Production and Dumping of Toxic Waste (Earthscan) are amongst the best (Allen’s are rather pricey, as set books on a number of courses).

Agent Orange, used by the US as a defoliate during the Vietnam War, contains dioxins, as well as pesticides, plastics, solvents, detergents and cosmetics. Multinationals, such as Dow and Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) both manufactured Agent Orange. Allen shows chemical industry has acted in collusion with regulatory and health authorities to cover up the impact of dioxins on our health – dioxins are a potent carcinogen, and have been linked to heart disease, liver damage, hormonal disruption, reproductive disorders, developmental destruction and neurological impairment.  In the news recently, we’ve heard a lot about glyphosates: as with much discussed here, it was ‘news’ thirty years ago – and the processes used in creating this herbicide involve chlorine, too. Cadbury and Colburn cover these issues, but with special emphasis on the reproductive/hormone question.

The ‘feminization of nature’ refers to the effects of these chemicals in the body. The molecules are similar to hormones involved in sex-differentiation in the womb, and, once in a woman’s body, can interrupt the process. The effects range from reducing the likelihood of giving birth to boys, through a possible role in gender fluidity, impairment in development during adolescence – there are ‘interesting’ analyses of a reduction in penis-size amongst Floridian alligators! – to cancers, cleft palates, soft-bone syndrome and chloracne (all exacerbated by further exposure post birth). A mother suckling her child at the breast can give a significant proportion of her lifetime accumulation of dioxins via her milk to her baby in just weeks, as these chemicals bio-accumulate in fatty tissues.

And, of course, this is where the issues Rachel Carson described in Silent Spring come in. The research over the course of the decades since her book on DDT came out has revealed some of the mechanisms behind this. The consequences are a deepening of the ‘silence’ – in every season. It is becoming clear that the chemical revolution of the 1950s is another major contributor in the ‘sixth great extinction’, as reproductive failure due to ‘hormone imitators’ is found in avian, piscine, and amphibian lifeforms as well as mammals. No-one is safe. Only phasing out these chemicals completely can begin to slow the process.

In both Allen’s books (and a third, No Global, which focusses on Ireland) the role of incineration of plastics is covered, and it is plastics we will look at next in a future issue of HIP.

Read part one here

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