Endocrine Disruption in The Age of Water

Diary Water cover finalIn my recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water published by Inanna Publications Lynna, the diarist, talks with colleague Daniel about the increase in human infertility related to endocrine disruption. Daniel starts with a litany of reasons for human infertility:

“Scientists all agree that environmental factors are the main triggers for male and female infertility through epigenetics. The list of exposure triggers is endless. You know the main culprits: heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, PAHs, VOCs, car exhaust, tobacco smoke … mostly chemicals with hormonal properties” Leaning on his microscope, Daniel went on, “Wherever there’s a sewage treatment plant, pulp and paper mill, or herbicides and pesticides in a stream, you get endocrine disruption, which causes more female or intersex fish populations. Then there’s nonylphenols—”

“—Degradation products of surfactants used in commercial and household detergents,” I ended for him and leaned against the doorway.

He nodded. “They inhibit breeding in male fish. And herbicides like atrazine—”

“—Create feminized males with female eggs, along with reduced immunity to disease,” I finished for him.

I knew all this. Hormonal disruption is global. Environmental toxicologists have been finding it in many aquatic animals like fish, turtles, alligators and frogs. And some terrestrial animals…Even humans…Was it also causing the steep rise in ambiguous sex in humans? Apparently 1 in 30 now have bodies that differ notably from standard male or female. Klinefelter, androgen insensitivity syndrome, presence of ovotestes, mixed gonadal dysgenesis, and mosaic genetics are all on the rise.

Daniel added, “The environment is changing us faster than most think and it’s doing it through epigenetics and HGT.”

Their discussion, which leads to something far more disastrous, is based on the reality of today.

endocrine systemThe endocrine system is a set of glands and the hormones they produce that help guide and regulate the development, growth, reproduction and behavior of most living things (yes plants too!). Some hormones are also released from parts of the body that aren’t glands, like the stomach, intestines or nerve cells. These usually act closer to where they are released. The endocrine system is made up of glands, which secrete hormones, and receptor cells which detect and react to the hormones. Hormones travel throughout the body, acting as chemical messengers, and interact with cells that contain matching receptors. The hormone binds with the receptor, like a key into a lock. Some chemicals, both natural and human-made, may interfere with the hormonal system. They’re called endocrine disruptors.

Endocrine (hormone) disruptors are substances that interfere with an organism’s endocrine system and disrupt the physiologic function of hormones. Studies have linked endocrine disruptors to adverse biological effects in animals, giving rise to valid concerns that low-level exposure can cause similar effects in human beings.

common endocrine disruptors

Common endocrine disruptors

 

Disruption of the endocrine system via Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) or Hormone Disrupting Chemicals (HDCs) happens in different ways. Some chemicals mimic a natural hormone, fooling the body into over-responding to the stimulus, or responding at inappropriate times. Other endocrine disruptors curtail the effects of a hormone from certain receptors by blocking the receptor site on a cell. Still others directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system and cause overproduction or underproduction of hormones.

EDC path

The effects of endocrine disruptors in humans include:

  • Reduction of male fertility;
  • Abnormalities in male reproductive organs;
  • Female reproductive diseases;
  • Earlier puberty; and,
  • Declines in the numbers of males born.

Some EDCs can also affect the development of the nervous and immune systems. Some well-known examples of EDCs include the contraceptive pill (17-alpha ethinylestradiol), dioxins, PCBs, PAHs, furans, phenols and several organic pesticides (most prominently DDT and its derivatives).

Pathways of endocrine disruptors

Pathophysiological pathways of EDCs

Sources for common EDCs in our daily lives are provided by Hormone Health Network in the table below:

Common EDCs: Used In:
DDT, Chlorpyrifos, Atrazine, 2, 4-D, Glyphosate Pesticides
Lead, Phthalates, Cadmium Children’s Products
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Dioxins Industrial Solvents or Lubricants and their Byproducts
Bisphenol A (BPA), Phthalates, Phenol Plastics and Food Storage Materials
Brominated Flame Retardants, PCBs Electronics and Building Materials
Phthalates, Parabeans, UV Filters Personal Care Products, Medical Tubing, Suncreen
Triclosan Anti-Bacterial Soaps, Colgate Total
Perfluorochemicals Textiles, Clothing, Non-Stick Food Wrappers, Mircowave Popcorn Bags, Old Teflon Cookware

Several chemicals have been found to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals in laboratory studies, and strong evidence exists that chemical exposure has been associated with adverse developmental and reproductive effects on fish and wildlife. The relationship of human diseases of the endocrine system and exposure to environmental contaminants, however, is still poorly understood (Kavlock et al., 1996, EPA, 1997).

One example of the devastating consequences of the exposure of developing animals, including humans, to endocrine disruptors is the case of the potent drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen. Prior to its ban in the early 1970s, doctors mistakenly prescribed DES to as many as five million pregnant women to block spontaneous abortion and promote fetal growth. It was discovered after the children went through puberty that DES affected the development of the reproductive system and caused vaginal cancer. In addition to disruption of reproductive hormones, modulation of adrenal, thyroid and growth hormone function have also been described for various compounds in both humans and some animals, although the significance of these effects have not yet been fully determined.

Chemicals with affinities for estrogen receptors may cause lowered sperm count and other related reproductive abnormalities. Male fetuses exposed to high doses of estrogens may develop many female characteristics. Lower doses may alter the differentiation and multiplication of the germ cells that eventually give rise to sperm. Dr. John A. McLachlan, director of intramural research at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences noted that “some of the environmental chemicals that have estrogenic activity also seem to have a long half-life and can bioaccumulate” in the body’s fat tissue. Most endocrine disrupting chemicals are fat-soluble. This means that they do not get rapidly flushed out of the body, but are stored in fat. These chemicals bioaccumulate up the food chain. As a result, an individual will accumulate more of these chemicals throughout his/her lifetime. Major routes of removing these chemicals involve transfer from mother to child, through the placenta and in breast milk.

In 1992 researchers at Lake Apopka in Florida associated a declining alligator population with a depressed reproduction rate. Many of the male alligators had tiny penises that prevented successful reproduction. These developmental problems were connected to a large organochlorine pesticide spill several years earlier; although the water tested clean, the alligators and their eggs contained detectable levels of endocrine disrupting pesticides.

Atrazine male female frogs

Fish in the Great Lakes, which are heavily contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other organochlorines, exhibit numerous reproductive function problems and swelling of the thyroid gland. Fish-eating birds, such as eagles, terns, and gulls are also showing similar health effects, as are mink, a mammal that also eats fish from the Great Lakes. These findings are consistent with lab studies that indicate that PCBs interfere with thyroid function and with sex hormones.

The environment is a global entity that recognizes no political boundaries. Issuing a plea for wise action, the National Resources Defense Council state: “Dioxin from a paper mill in the US can accumulate within livestock that is exported to another country; water vapor carrying DDT (now banned in the US) from Mexico can be rained down in Minnesota. Individuals living near the North Pole, where DDT has never been used, have surprisingly high levels of it in their body fat. The laws that ban the production and use of specific chemicals in the United States do little to regulate against exposure via imported products from countries that allow the use of these chemicals.”

Given the common use of sources (in industry, agriculture and residential) that contain and distribute endocrine disruptive chemicals by the human population, and given their bioaccumulation in human tissue, I can practically guarantee that virtually all humans carry some endocrine disruptive chemical in their bodies. How much depends on your life style, where you live and work, your eating habits and your physiology.

freighter-rowers-sailboat-web

Freighter in Toronto Harbour (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Recommended Reading:

Lauretta, Rosa, Andrea Sansone, Missimiliano Sansone, Francesco Romanelli and Marialuisa Appetecchia. 2019. “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals: Effects on Endocrine Glands.” Front. Endocrinol. Online: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fendo.2019.00178/full

Colborn, Theo, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. 1996. “Our stolen future : are we threatening our fertility, intelligence, and survival? : a scientific detective story.” Dutton, New York.  306 pp.

Hormone Health Network. 2020. “Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals EDCs.” Website: https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/endocrine-disrupting-chemicals-edcs

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 2019. “Endocrine Disruptors.” Website: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/index.cfm

NRDC. 2016. “9 Ways to Avoid Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals.” Website: http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/bendrep.asp

 

More on A Diary in the Age of Water:

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

Infertility in the Age of Water

Diary Water cover finalIn a scene of my near-future eco-thriller A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications, 2020) the diarist’s young colleague Daniel rather too enthusiastically proclaims the impending extinction of males.

“Scientists all agree that environmental factors are the main triggers for male and female infertility through epigenetics…Epigenetics rules climate change-related adaptations. And everything appears stacked heavily for females and intersex humans. Males might go extinct with climate change!”

–A Diary in the Age of Water

Lynna Dresden, the diarist in A Diary in the Age of Water, thinks Daniel rather buffoonish and a traitor to his male kind. Then again, here is how another Daniel starts his article in a 2018 issue of GQ Magazine entitled “Sperm Count Zero“:

Men are doomed. Everybody knows this. We’re obviously all doomed, the women too, everybody in general, just a waiting game until one or another of the stupid things our stupid species is up to finally gets us. But as it turns out, no surprise: men first. Second instance of no surprise: We’re going to take the women down with us.

There has always been evidence that men, throughout life, are at higher risk of early death—from the beginning, a higher male incidence of Death by Mastodon Stomping, a higher incidence of Spiked Club to the Brainpan, a statistically significant disparity between how many men and how many women die of Accidentally Shooting Themselves in the Face or Getting Really Fat and Having a Heart Attack. The male of the species dies younger than the female—about five years on average. Divide a population into groups by birth year, and by the time each cohort reaches 85, there are two women left for every man alive. In fact, the male wins every age class: Baby boys die more often than baby girls; little boys die more often than little girls; teenage boys; young men; middle-aged men. Death champions across the board.

Now it seems that early death isn’t enough for us—we’re on track instead to void the species entirely.

–Daniel Noah Halpern, GQ Magazine

sperm_decline_chartBoth Daniels are talking about the alarming rate at which sperm counts worldwide are falling. They’ve dropped by half in the last fifty years in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand—according to a 2017 paper by researchers at Hebrew University and Mount Sinai medical school and more recent studies in 2018.

While an unhealthy lifestyle (being overweight or obese, smoking, stress and alcohol or recreational drug use) is most often implicated, more insidious causes exist.

PHTHALATESResearch shows that consumption and/or exposure to many common constituents of urban living can decrease fertility, increase miscarriage, spontaneous abortion, and lower auto-immune systems. Examples include car exhaust, pesticides, common detergents, hair dyes, cleaning solvents, oil based paints, adhesives, gasoline; and consumption of MSG, coffee, alcohol.

A 2019 study by scientists at Nottingham University identified two chemicals common in home environments that damage sperm in men and dogs. GQ Daniel goes on to explain: “Phthalates and BPA [used to make plastic soft and flexible or harder and stronger] for example, mimic estrogen in the bloodstream. If you’re a man with a lot of phthalates in his system, you’ll produce less testosterone and fewer sperm. If exposed to phthalates in utero, a male fetus’s reproductive system itself will be altered: He will develop to be less male.”

sperm count and platics

This leads Age of Water Daniel to bring up the rise in intersex mammals (individuals born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones or genitals that do not fit the “strict definitions for ‘male’ or ‘female’ bodies”). A 2016 article in Environmental Health Insights by Rich et al. attribute an increasing number of human children born with intersex variation to an increase in hormone disrupting chemicals in our environment.

Phthalates bookLeaning on his microscope, Daniel went on, “Wherever there’s a sewage treatment plant, pulp and paper mill, or herbicides and pesticides in a stream, you get endocrine disruption, which causes more female or intersex fish populations…[Degradation products of surfactants used in commercial and household detergents] inhibit breeding in male fish. And herbicides like atrazine—”

“—Create feminized males with female eggs, along with reduced immunity to disease,” I finished for him.

I knew all this. Hormonal disruption is global. Environmental toxicologists have been finding it in many aquatic animals like fish, turtles, alligators and frogs. And some terrestrial animals…Even humans…Was it also causing the steep rise in ambiguous sex in humans? Is Daniel an intersex human? Apparently 1 in 30 now have bodies that differ notably from standard male or female. Klinefelter, androgen insensitivity syndrome, presence of ovotestes, mixed gonadal dysgenesis, and mosaic genetics are all on the rise. Which was he?

As if he knew what I was thinking, Daniel said dramatically, “The environment is changing us faster than most think and it’s doing it through epigenetics and HGT.”

–A Diary in the Age of Water

Phthalates and BPA can be found everywhere. GQ Daniel lists them: “BPA can be found in water bottles and food containers and sales receipts. Phthalates are even more common: They are in the coatings of pills and nutritional supplements; they’re used in gelling agents, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents, and suspending agents. Not to mention medical devices, detergents and packaging, paint and modeling clay, pharmaceuticals and textiles and sex toys and nail polish and liquid soap and hair spray. They are used in tubing that processes food, so you’ll find them in milk, yogurt, sauces, soups, and even, in small amounts, in eggs, fruits, vegetables, pasta, noodles, rice, and water. The CDC determined that just about everyone in the United States has measurable levels of phthalates in his or her body—they’re unavoidable.”

These chemicals affect sperm’s ability to swim, navigate and fertilize an egg. DNA fragmentation in the sperm head also occurs, which is basically equivalent to a sperm having a brain hemorrhage. Recent studies suggest that 20-30% of young men today have sperm counts in a range that is associated with reduced fertility. Sarbjit Kaur at the Punjab Agricultural University found that men who live in industrial cities had six times more abnormal sperm than men living in a relatively clean rural town.

TheHandmaid'sTale-bookDr. Marilyn F. Vine at the University of North Carolina demonstrated that smoking men had lower sperm counts by 13-17%. Smokers also had more abnormal sperm. Likewise, women who smoked experienced more spontaneous abortions, early menopause and abnormal oocytes. Follicular fluid also contained high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal present in cigarettes, and cotininie, a metabolite of nicotine.

A growing concern for infertility has entered our general mindset, reflected in the theme of infertility in literature and motion pictures.

Notable examples include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Raising Arizona (1987), Aeon Flux (2005), The Children of Men (2006), Private Life (2018) and my own A Diary in the Age of Water (2020).

Although we are not close to experiencing the global infertility pandemic portrayed in the barren 2027 world of The Children of Men, this cautionary tale of a world gone mad with grief should linger like the whispered truth of a fairy tale.

children of men scene

scene from “Children of Men” motion picture

 

Suggested Reading:

Carr, Teresa. 2019. “Sperm counts are on the decline—could plastics be to blame?” The Guardian.

Belluz, Julia. 2019. “Sperm counts are falling. This isn’t the reproductive apocalypse—yet” Vox.

Halpern, Daniel Noah. 2018. “Sperm Count Zero.” GQ Magazine.

Fetters, Ashley. 2018. “Sperm Counts Continue to Fall.” The Atlantic.

Stein, Rob. 2017. “Sperm Counts Plummet in Western Men, Study Finds.” NPR.

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Christ-Figure in Movies & Books: Grace or Redemption?

ChildrenOfMenIn an article I’d written some time ago on my blog The Alien Next Door (“Fertility — Infertility & the Environment”, with commentary on the film “Children of Men”) I got into a rather lively discussion with a fellow blogger (Erik) about the tendency in Western Culture mythos (in literature and in movies, particularly) to portray the main character in fiction as Christ figure and the ramifications of this choice. Erik lamented the separation that has occurred between “Jesus the Teacher” and “Christ the Redeemer”. I hadn’t really given this much thought until he brought it up. But his examples (e.g., Matrix and Harry Potter) and his discourse were so compelling, I had to ponder. So, here are my ponderings.

aeon-flux-posterToday’s Christ-like hero suffers for the sins of the world and prepares himself (often struggling with this considerably) to deliver salvation, usually through fighting or violent confrontation and often with an incredible arsenal of weapons. I was swiftly brought to mind of the many action shoot-em up films whose tortured hero redeems him(her)self through some selfless, though violent action (e.g., Omega Man, V for Vendetta, Ultra Violet, Aeon Flux — all sci-fi movies, by the way, and ones I enjoyed immensely. And what about all those superhero movies, like Spiderman, X-Men, Green Lantern, etc. These films represent one version of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, where the original hero leaves his ‘ordinary world’ wherein he/she has some major flaw to overcome (like apathy, greed, distrust, anger, fear of strawberries…etc.) to answer ‘the call’ to be the hero he/she was destined to become. This is a very familiar trope. Erik suggested that Western culture’s “concept of Redemption has invariably separated from the Grace that created it.” Jesus the Teacher had somehow fallen to the wayside to make room for Christ the Redeemer. According to Erik: “Jesus the Teacher said to ‘turn the other cheek’, but today’s Redeemers kick ass. Jesus the Teacher told us that what is done in love is blessed, but today’s Redeemers have more personal and interior motivations.” The two have simply become two different people, says Erik and “the latter is a superstar” compared to the former.” He ends his post with these compelling thoughts:

“The Beatitudes have become rather old fashioned, it seems, as has the idea of Grace. That is what seems to be the problem with today’s Redeemers: theirs is a personal battle with evil, and not a social one. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ is an alien concept in a world that is perfectly self centered. All that’s left to do is kick ass on those who disagr — er, behave in an evil way, yeah, that’s it! If popular fiction really is a mirror being held up against us, the image we see is not a pretty one. The heritage of Western Culture has turned into a strange kind of cartoon — exaggerated, repetitious, vain, slapstick, and ultimately too silly to watch. For some reason, very few people seem to understand this. They are too busy fixing their own hair in the mirror.”

pay it forwardIf you still don’t get what Erik and I are talking about, go watch the poignant film Pay It Forward and then contrast its main character with the one in Ultra Violet or The Matrix.

The definition for grace occupies almost half a page in the dictionary. When I think of grace I think of selfless compassion, humility, gentleness, kindness, mercy and forgiveness and both inner and outer beauty. So, why does grace languish in the shadows of redemption? Why do we watch — and more importantly, totally enjoy — these latter movies at the expense of the former? Why do we long for a strong but flawed hero with personal issues as our icon? One who is often tough, independent, and ‘kicks ass’ at the expense of gentleness, humility, cooperation and selflessness? If, as Erik suggests, we are seeking heroes who reflect our own self-image or at least the traits we strive to have, then what does popular fiction say about our choices in life? Is Erik right about this dichotomy? I’d say definitely yes…but also no…

MATRIXWhile I agree with Erik on the apparent separation of Christ figure in today’s popular fiction, perhaps there is another way to look at these tales that resolves this apparent dichotomy to some degree. My suggestion is to view them more as allegories with traits and values represented in several characters woven together in a complete and whole tapestry. To do so is to include the secondary character as being equally important. Let’s take Matrix, for instance. In fact, Neo isn’t the only Jesus-figure. His two female opposites (Trinity/Oracle) demonstrate Christ-like traits that embody grace, mercy, love (the holy spirit) and wisdom. Okay, so Trinity kicks major ass too; but her character also provides the chief motivation for our main ‘kick-ass’ hero through her selfless love and humility.

I assert that these two aspects of Christ (merciful teacher and redeemer) are indeed both represented (albeit in separate individuals) in films today: two individuals, one Christ the redeemer and the other Jesus the savior, often joined through a bond of selfless love; two halves of a whole.

The Gnostics have a word for this divine male/female pair: they call them syzygies, aeons (beings of light and emanations of God) that exist as complimentary pairs or twins. The aeon pair of Caen (which represents power, the redeemer) and Akhana (truth, love and grace, the teacher) are complimentary and inseparable. The yin/yang of a whole. The paradoxical oxymoron of order in chaos.

In Gnostic belief, aeons are emanations of God. According to one version, an aeon named Sophia (wisdom) emanated without her partner aeon, creating a Demiurge (responsible for the creation of the physical universe; Ialdaboth in Gnostic texts). Ialdaboth was not part of the Pleroma (fullness and the region of light) and apart from the divine totality [a metaphor possibly for humanity]). God then emanated two savior aeons, Christ and the Holy Spirit to save humanity from the Demiurge. Christ then took the form of the human, Jesus, to teach humanity how to achieve Gnosis (and know God).

So, for every Neo there is a Trinity/Oracle; for Violet there is Six; for Aeon Flux there is Trevor Goodchild; for Harry there is Dumbledore, and so on. In this way, the two complimentary aspects of Christ are reconciled. And in cases where such complimentary pairing is achieved (e.g., Neo would not have succeeded without both Trinity and the Oracle) we are taught that selfless cooperation is the highest form of heroism.

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.