Transcript of Nancy Langston Podcast
Mark Madison: Tell us a little how you got interested in this newest book, Toxic
Nancy Langston: Well Toxic Bodies looks at the history of endocrine disruptors, which
are the synthetic chemicals that disrupt, alter, change, transform hormone systems in both
humans and wildlife. And I got interested actually when I was working on the history of
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, because when I was researching the refuge I learned
that really substantial quantities of 245T and 2,4D (which became famous as Agent
Orange) had been used by managers to manage the refuge. And concerns were beginning
to emerge about what that might mean for the health of the people who sprayed it and for
the health of the fish. And at the same time we started reading more and more reports
about intersexed fish, fish in the Potomac river where males seemed to be developing egg
yolk proteins, fish in the waters of British streams where every single fish seemed to be
female and then when they looked more closely they realized half of them were male but
they were developing egg yolk proteins too. So I turned and I learned that across aquatic
systems around the world, marine snails were developing imposex, which is a very scary
condition where female snails developed a condition that blocked the release of eggs
from their oviduct eventually these blocked eggs explode and then they die. And many
species of marine snails seem to be decreasing, there were problems with Chinook
salmon, sex changing salmon and an endangered run in the Pacific Northwest and it
seemed and sometimes it seemed everywhere you turned you were hearing more and
more problems with reproductive success in aquatic and then terrestrial animals as well.
And then I started learning that there were lots of reproduction problems in people,
infertility, problems with reproductive cancers, increases in testicular cancer, decreases in
sperm count. And scientists across the world began to be concerned about that synthetic
chemicals were affecting reproductive systems in wildlife and in people too.
Mark Madison: What are hormone disrupters and what do they do?
Nancy Langston: Hormone disrupters are synthetic chemicals that have the ability to
change they ways our endocrine systems work in our bodies. And endocrine systems are
made up of the hormones and all the receptors and the proteins that carry these hormones
throughout the blood. And hormones are kind of a signaling system within our body; we
have a number of different signaling systems some of them signal really quickly like our
neurological system, our brain, our nervous system sends almost instantaneous
throughout the body. But then the hormone system is a little slower, the affects last a
little longer and so hormones tell the developing fetus, the developing baby, how exactly
to develop you know a infant starts with two cells and eventually becomes the incredibly
complex ecosystem of the human body or a fish body and hormones direct a lot of those
processes; they direct sexual development, they direct brain development and a
developing fetus is incredibly sensitive to tiny, tiny changes in the level of those
hormones. And so one hypothesis that was developed by wildlife biologists is that tiny
changes in the background levels of hormones and synthetic chemicals that act like
hormones could be affecting reproduction, cancer rates, fertility rates in many, many
wildlife across the world.
Mark Madison: Scary thought.
Nancy Langston: It is a scary thought because what Rachel Carson taught us 40, 50
years ago is that wildlife can’t be separated from people; people tend to think we’re
exceptional, that we’re different from the rest of animals. And what Carson taught us and
I think holds very, very true today is whatever we do to rest of nature, we do to ourselves.
And so when we find reports that some 30% of fish in British waters are now intersexed,
that there radical increases in intersex conditions in many, many wildlife; dramatic
increases in testicular cancer, in uterine cancer that we should be paying close attention
because what we do to rest of the world we do to ourselves.
Mark Madison: One of the concepts you brought up in the book, that I hadn�������t heard
described this way before, was the precautionary principle and it seems like it has many
applications and I wondered if you could tell us what the precautionary principle is?
Nancy Langston: The precautionary principle states that when there is good reason to
suspect a new chemical might cause harm, either to wildlife or to people, that the burden
of proof should be on the industry to show that this chemical safe rather than on the
consumer or the government to prove that it causes individual harm to individual people.
Right now with drugs we had a precautionary principle since 1938 that because of a
terrible tragedy where poison was put inside antibiotics meant for children, hundreds of
children died in the American South because before that the chemical companies didn’t
have to show what was in the drugs that they put on the market, that federal government
had no jurisdiction over drugs essentially. And in 1938, after these horrible deaths of
young children, the federal government finally won the right to force companies to say
what they were putting in their drugs and to show that it was safe for people and there
was a bitter battle for five years but we had that right to know that the drugs that we’re
putting into our body had been shown to be safe. Now the Food and Drug Administration has had a hard time defending this precautionary principle and the case of DES the first synthetic widely marketed estrogen, diethylstilbestrol, also turns out to have been the first endogen distributing chemical that we know and have identified as a powerful toxin to human and natural systems. The FDA three times at first said “No, we
have to be cautious, this chemical causes harm in animals, in the laboratory, in wildlife so
we have to be careful and say no there’s too much risk for people.” But three times under
powerful political and economic pressure the FDA quickly backed down and let this drug
be put on the market and eventually at least ten million people were exposed and of those
people exposed, who had been sampled by scientists, some 95% have some pretty intense
problems. So one-tenth of pregnant women in America, for decades, took this drug;
many, many menopausal women, 95% of feed lot cattle were treated with this drug, got
into broader environments, all aquatic wildlife essentially were exposed and we’re really
dealing with the effects of that decision. So that’s an example from history where
precaution was in place but the regulatory agency, the FDA, was essentially captured by
the industry it was suppose to be regulating and it didn’t manage to protect public health.
And right now we have a system where other drugs that aren’t intended for, I’m sorry,
other chemicals that aren’t drugs or food products can just be released into the
environment with essentially no oversight. So what I’m arguing is that precaution, the
principle that you have to show something’s safe before you expose everybody to it;
that’s a great principle, it’s important to defend and all synthetic chemicals should be
subject to that principle not just to drugs.
Mark Madison: In addition to a medical history and kind of a cautionary tale of over
exuberance about the potential of chemicals and so on, it’s also an environmental history
and you were the president of the American Society for Environmental History from
2007 ‘til 2009 and you’re the most recent editor of the journal Environmental History. I
wonder if you could tell us what environmental history is?
Nancy Langston: Sure, environmental history is the study of the relationships between
humans and the rest of nature. So unlike many other forms of history, say social or
political history, which focus mostly on what humans do and kind of assume that rest of
nature is this static backdrop, this stage upon which the drama of human life are played
out. Environmental history still pays a lot of attention to human story, still asks what did
people do, when, where and why but environmental history takes the rest of nature
seriously. It recognizes what people do has tremendous impacts on the rest of nature but
it also recognizes that people are part of nature; that we are shaped by evolutionary
processes, by environmental processes, that we’re not somehow exempt from the rest of
the laws of nature. Environmental history works from the insights of Rachel Carson, who
taught us that we’re all in this together; what we do to fish, we do to ourselves. And that
we may think we’re controlling nature but nature is often turning around and reshaping
Mark Madison: Perfect. Thank you for your time Nancy and once again today is April
7, 2010 and Nancy Langston is out here speaking at NCTC promoting her new book
Toxic Bodies, Hormone Disrupters and the Legacy of DES.
Nancy Langston: Thanks Mark it���s been a great pleasure and if readers would like to
learn more about the book, they can go to the website for the book which is
www.toxicbodies.org that’s www.toxicbodies.org.
Mark Madison: Perfect, thank you Nancy. Please do go to the website and thank you
for listening to this podcast.
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