Overlooking Scientific Roots of Endocrine Disruption by Rainer von Mielecki

Rainer von Mielecki

Rainer von Mielecki

1 February 2017

“The policy has been hijacked by industry,” said Axel Singhofen, environment and health adviser for the Green Party European Free Alliance, in Newsweek. “They seem to have forgotten the scientific roots of the problem and are much more concerned with appeasing business interests, whatever the costs to health and wildlife.”

What Singhofen is concerned about is the forthcoming European regulation of chemicals that may have adverse effects on the hormonal systems of humans and wildlife. But his accusation is simply wrong and unsubstantiated.

Let’s therefore, as Singhofen suggests, look at the scientific roots of the problem. When assessing a potential risk, the first question is always whether a technology or chemical can be dangerous. It is obvious that electricity, pain relievers such as paracetamol or just salt can be dangerous. Singhofen and people with similar convictions would like to ban all chemicals produced by industry that could theoretically be dangerous. However, this would be foolish. We can insulate electric wires and restrict the intake of paracetamol or salt to amounts where there will be very little risk if at all. Thus we can enjoy the benefits of these items without suffering from risk. We do this every day throughout our lives. And where there is no exposure to a hazard, there is no risk. This is one of the major scientific roots of the problem that Singhofen seems to have forgotten.

Secondly, as the medic and philosopher Paracelsus stated 500 years ago, “All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dosage makes a thing not poison.” Would Singhofen want to ban soy-based infant formula or soybeans that are added to many processed foods? Soybeans contain in abundance isoflavones, which are well known endocrine active substances. The isoflavone content of an array of foods is published in an online database by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Infants exclusively fed soy-based formula have isoflavone levels approaching 1,000 ng/ml. In contrast, infants fed cow milk formula or human breast milk have plasma isoflavone levels of 9.4 and 4.7 ng/ml, respectively.[1] Phytoestrogens are intriguing because, although they behave similarly to numerous synthetic compounds in laboratory models of endocrine disruption, Singhofen and others seem to embrace these compounds at the same time they reject with vigor the use of synthetic endocrine active substances. Does “chemophobia” or their personal beliefs make them forget the scientific roots of the problem?

Thirdly – and as just one example of many – endocrine disruptors are associated by some organizations and researchers with increased breast cancer risk as this cancer is hormone- dependent. World Cancer Research Fund International recently concluded that consuming alcoholic drinks, body fat and adult-attained height increase the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer and lactation protects against it. Chemicals from the environment were not mentioned as relevant causes. This is supported by the following observation: Japan uses the most agrochemicals worldwide per hectare of agricultural land, including those with suspected endocrine activity. However, it has four to five times less incidence of breast, prostate and even brain cancer than most countries. There are also big differences in diet and exercise. In addition, until very recently in Japan, women could not even get birth control pills so they were not exposed to estrogen from them. In contrast to Japan, Alaska, a U.S. state with very little to no agrochemical use, has a high breast cancer rate at 120 per 100,000 (age-adjusted).

A conclusion from these observations may very well be that to assess a potential endocrine disruptor risk, relevant exposure to a substance must be established. Secondly, such substances need to be potent enough to evoke endocrine-disrupting effects once relevant exposure takes place. Here are some examples: the micro-dosed contraceptive pill is potent enough otherwise it would not be able to interfere with the female hormonal system in a way that makes conception impossible. Alcohol is potent and relatively high quantities of it are taken up by the body and often over long periods, leading to visible short- and long-term physiological effects. Menopausal hormone treatments interfere with the female body in a way that wanted and unwanted effects of hormonal substances can be observed. It is because of exposure, dosage and potency of these substances that a causal relationship between their intake and breast cancer development is claimed by the World Cancer Research Fund.

These are the scientific roots of endocrine disruption, future regulation and better care for public health. To deny these facts, as Singhofen does, will do a disservice to public health and lead to ineffective regulation that wastes public and private money alike. Scientific over-simplification and selectively blaming the commercial fundamentals of industry will not lead to better regulation. Health and wildlife will not benefit. Only science-based risk assessment can do that.

Rainer von Mielecki is vice president of Global Public & Government Affairs Crop Protection at BASF SE in Ludwigshafen, Germany.


[1] Patisaul HB, Jefferson W. 2010. The pros and cons of phytoestrogens. Front Neuroendocrin. 31(4):400-19.