Boys Will be Girls - Eventually
From: Robina Suwol
Date: 25 Jul 2004
Remote Name: 220.127.116.11
Boys will be girls - eventually
Extinction threat rises as creatures ingest 'gender-bending' chemicals from
plastics and pesticides
Sunday July 18 2004
Mother nature is taking over. An extraordinary feminization process has begun
to affect Britain's wildlife - and scientists warn it could ultimately
dismantle the evolutionary process that has existed for 3.5 billion years.
A trend first noted in whelks is starting to spread rapidly among other
wildlife species in the food chain.
The first national survey of 42 rivers by the Environment Agency has just been
completed and it found that a third of male fish are growing female
reproductive tissues and organs. Effects were most pronounced in younger fish,
raising grave implications for future stocks.
Scientists now fear that seals, dolphins, otters, birds such as peregrine
falcons and even honey bees are heading towards a uni-sex existence that would
lead to extinction. Blame has fallen on the increasing prevalence of a group
of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. These are found in in plastics,
food packaging, shampoos and pesticides and accumulate in the environment.
They can mimic the female hormone estrogen when ingested.
A reduction in the size of male genitals, a lower sex drive and parts of the
testes turning into ovary tissue are among the symptoms. As the effect of the
chemicals starts to creep up the food chain, concern will mount over the
potential effect on human health amid increasing evidence of falling sperm
counts and infertility among men.
Charles Tyler, professor of environmental and molecular fish biology at the
University of Exeter, who is leading an international team studying the impact
of so-called 'gender-bending' chemicals warns that a point where a species can
no longer reproduce is a very real concern.
'We have reached a crucial point. Now we are starting to see the effects while
only just starting to understand what is happening. This poses a serious
threat to species in some areas,' said Tyler.
Others studying the phenomena say the feminization process is a warning from
nature that a nightmare is about to unfold. Pressure will again resume this
week on ministers to curb the use of 'gender-bending' chemicals.
Environmentalists will point to research revealing that honey bees, so vital
for the pollination of plants, were found to display a lower sex drive with
fewer eggs laid by the queen after exposure to endocrine disruptors. They also
point to recent studies involving bottle-nosed dolphins in the North Sea.
Again, the presence of chemicals has been linked to an increase in birth
defects, most notable among male specimens, along with more infant deaths
which has resulted in an ageing of the population.
So far the government has agreed to fund studies into suspicions that the
otter's comeback after decades of decline will be hampered by the feminizing
effects of the chemicals. A separate study has just been funded into the
dipper which feeds on fish taken from the rivers.
Tyler is among those who have complained that the huge gap in scientific
knowledge over gender bending pollutants has so far prevented any action in
the outlawing of chemicals.
Toxicology expert Andreas Kortenkamp of the University of London's school of
pharmacy, believes the government has 'grossly underestimated' the chemicals'
effects. He believes that current safeguards to protect wildlife are grossly
inadequate. In particular, he warns that nothing is being done to calculate
how cocktails of chemicals react in the environment. More than 100,000
synthetic chemicals remain authorized for use, with the European Union holding
a list of 550 potential endocrine disruptors. It is not yet known precisely
which ones have altered the male reproductive organs of bream, carp, roach and
gudgeon or caused hormone disruption among grey seal pups in the North Sea.
Bees were found to be affected by chemicals used commonly on crops in the UK
The findings coincide with renewed concern over fertility levels among men.
Sperm counts have fallen by a third between 1989 and 2002, according to some
studies, while one in six British couples now experiences difficulty in
conceiving. Contaminated drinking water caused by the by-products of the
contraceptive pill flowing back into the system is one of the the explanations
Justin Woolford, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund, said: 'What we do to
wildlife we ultimately do to ourselves.'
Yet almost two years have passed since the World Health Organization urged
governments to investigate the effects of gender-bending chemicals.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited
Last changed: March 14, 2006