On Organochlorines and How They Change Our View on Illness and Modern Life

A European Perspective

By Regina Stolzenberg

R. Stolzenberg is a sociologist and long time healthworker at the Feministisches Frauen Gesundheits Zentrum (Feminist Women's Health Center) in Berlin, Germany, and a spokesperson for Dachrerband der Frauengesundheitszentren in Deutschland (Association of Women's Health Centers in Germany)

This article was originally published in Winter 1996 in WomenWise magazine. WomenWise is the quarterly health-oriented publication of the Concord Feminist Health Center in Concord, New Hampshire. This article is copyrighted and is re-printed here with permission from the publisher. For more information, contact Concord Feminist Health Center at 603-436-7588.





Such and others like them were the headlines in the German media last summer and fall. The aim of these alarming reports was to point to the link between increasing male infertility, testicle anomalies and cancer on the one hand, and organochlorines on the other. It was the first time that these research results came to a broader German public, though they had been known and publicly discussed in the U.S. already for some years. The frightening findings had been the discovery that these chemical substances that are to be found in air, food, water and the ground in millions of ways, are supposed to act in human and animal bodies like hormones, thus disrupting the body's own hormonal system. What the media reporting did not pay attention to was another link that already had activated much concern in the U.S.: the supposed link to the increasing breast cancer rate in women. Though the breast cancer rate in Germany is still not as high as in the U.S., it is continuously increasing as well. Nevertheless, this form of public presentation is no surprise; although the real or assumed "feminization of men" gave reason for much concern for the male editors of these newspapers, the breast cancer epidemic in women and its causes is not yet a public issue in this country.

The awareness of their gender being endangered by industrial development seems to urge at least some male researchers and health care officials to act on these discoveries with a never before experienced emphasis. Several simultaneous national workshops took place on the issue of the hormonally active chemicals, the so-called xenoestrogens, in the U.S. as well as in Germany, Great Britain, and Denmark.

This hurry in the scientific community is overdue, as there has not been much concern about the effects of the more than 100,000 chemicals substances being produced by chemical and other industries on human and animal bodies over the last century. The first and most subsequent discoveries about the hormonal effect of organochlorines and other substances happened by chance. There were several observations made on recurring abnormalities in wildlife, like alligators in Florida whose undeveloped penises coincided with high DDE contamination (DDE is a metabolic product of the insecticide DDT), the incidence of infertility in fish and birds around the Great Lakes which have been polluted by DDT, PCBs and dioxin, or the feminization of fish in a waste water reservoir in Great Britain. Other sources of knowledge have been either catastrophes, like accidents in chemical plants in Seveso, Italy or Hamburg, Germany or simply pure accidents: Anna Soto and her colleagues in Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston wondered about their lab results showing high estrogen contamination. Their investigation concluded that it had been shed by the new plastic tubes they had used. Last but not least the disaster with the synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol (DES) which had been given to pregnant women in the 1950's-1960's (with dramatic consequences for themselves and their children, including vaginal cancer, testicular cancer, breast cancer and infertility) directed the view for the first time on the influence hormones can have on the developing embryo.

While researchers are right now mainly occupied with the nearly hopeless question of detection and proof of these millions of interacting and interfering natural and artificial substances, the woman's health movement should raise the question of what all this means for our individual attitude and strategies towards health and disease, what it means for medical treatment and research, and what political consequences should be drawn out of it.

The Impact On Individuals Dealing With Disease

The matter of cancer, especially in female organs, has been viewed for a long time as a totally private issue imbued with disgrace, shame, secrecy and guilt - at least in Germany. I remember listening to women whispering about a neighbor having breast cancer in a very clandestine and embarrassed way only about two decades ago.

In the meantime, the way of reacting to this so-called woman's disease has changed in a remarkable way. There has developed a very psychological and holistic approach in Germany over the last twenty years. The women's health movement has contributed to this mentality in a not insignificant measure. The focus was directed - similar to the way many breast cancer organizations deal with it in the U.S. - on the factors women were supposed to be able to influence, from diet to reproductive behavior to the wearing of too-tight bras to personal conflict resolution. But there are differences between Germany and the U.S., too, in the way of dealing with breast cancer.

The majority of people in the U.S. seem to prefer - as far as I could judge it - the pragmatic approach, like counting one's fat intake or discussing the pros and cons of silicone implants, while the approach of many German women tends to be more fundamental. They question their lifestyle from the point of view of how far they become distant from nature, they question the naturalness of their food and the adequacy of their individual behavior. The latter attitudes often lead to the affected woman's extreme personal retreat as she becomes preoccupied with by the search for natural food and helpful psychotherapies. German feminist organizations often supported and initiated this behavior with the form of support they provided: natural healing methods, whole food nutrition and innumerable sorts of therapy. Women are kept busy with the search for uncontaminated food and psychological defects. It's typical that especially women feel attracted by theories of the "cancer personality" and develop an extremely self-critical manner - men do this far more rarely.

Although it is helpful to stress individual power and the possibility of control and action as well as the need for women to take care of and do something for themselves, there is an innate fault in all these approaches - the German one as well as the U.S. one: They have the indirect effect of viewing disease as an individualized process and finally are based on the methods of blaming the victim. Though there has developed far more openness to deal with the problems of breast cancer and infertility, the mechanisms seem to have remained the same. To view illness as a personality fault which can be avoided by specific lifestyle decisions means relief and comfort for the non-affected ones. For the affected people, it can be a means of hope to believe in the possibility of change and control.

But recent scientific discoveries force us to some degree to change this view.

Knowing that these damaging substances are everywhere - in the air, in the water, in the ground, in animals and in human beings - and knowing that they probably had their impact on us during our time in our mother's bodies, there does not remain much hope to be able to evade them, not to speak of controlling them. Though it seems to be the right track, a form of individual prevention as well as a politically effective action, to prefer, for instance, organically grown food, and to avoid as far as possible industrial products, this is no real possibility and choice in today's world, and besides is impossibly hard to achieve as an individual. What is needed is the concentrated effort of everyone: the individual as well as the politicians, industry managers, scientists and the medical establishment.

For those of us who are ill from one of these diseases as well as for those who are not (yet) ill, this should mean to go on the offensive, instead of blaming ourselves or each other and to attend to our life interests in public, instead of retiring in privacy. This is a call for political action.

The Impact on Medical Treatment

The main question for me in this connection is: What impact does the hormonal influence and effect of organochlorines and other substances especially have on gynecology? Gynecology has managed to govern women's lives with hormonal regimens. Taking into account the recent findings, it seems to be a governing by pure chance. This is in contrast to what the medical system always tries to air about itself: the impression of exactly knowing the (female) hormonal system, its reactions and connections, and the way to influence it. As we do not know anything exact in the moment about how these chemicals really act in the body, to which degree they mimic or interfere, enforce or disrupt the body's own chemistry, and how they interact, for instance, with heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury or other substances, there is no way to predict the effect a prescribed synthetic hormone will have in an individual woman.

This raises the question of what validity all these more or less controlled studies done on the hormonal intake of women really have. Given the fact that the exposure to environmental contaminants is highly individualized, depending on one's place of living, workplace, nutrition, and so on, all these factors again being connected with gender, race and social class, there does not seem much chance of ever being able really to compare and to apply the results of research on one person to anyone else.

At the moment there is not much concern about this in the medical mainstream. On the contrary, the harmonization of women's lives from early youth until the later years has become more and more common over time, beginning with the total range of hormonal contraceptives that most young girls are confronted with, over the numerous hormonal treatments of gynecological diseases and infertility, to hormone replacement therapy at the first signs of menopause. This sort of mass treatment with hormones is still too recent to really know what it will have possible consequences, for example, on the daughters and sons of treated women. DES is an example of this eventual danger.

Considering all this, one feels reminded of Pandora's box: once it has been opened, there is no way to cancel the following developments. In spite of all swanky claims for more research that were made in the different international conferences, there is not much hope that there will be helpful results within the next few years, or ever. Far too complicated and nearly endless is the field that has to be explored. There is agreement in the fact that it is not useful at all only to investigate single isolated hormonally active chemicals, because their additive effect is beyond any doubt. Such research is impossible, anyway, with around one hundred substances proven to be xenoestrogens, not to speak about the one hundred thousand others that have not been definitively proven.

The only thing we can expect from doctors and scientists in this case is to be aware of the problems and sincere about their real helplessness, instead of trying to play role of saviors and heroes, probably causing more damage than help. We can expect them to be more modest in their behavior and cautious with prescriptions, instead of being arrogant and self-complacent, as they still commonly behave. This could at least change some of them from mainly enemies to companions in the struggle for survival.

But who knows? Perhaps the ongoing feminization of the male gender and the softening influence of ubiquitous environmental female hormones will play their parts and help in this process.

The Political Consequences: What is to be done?

There are especially two dangers we have to be aware of in the reactions of responsible people in politics and research.

The first worrisome aspect in dealing with the already known facts is the still primarily hesitating attitude demonstrated by researchers and politicians. All the above mentioned workshops confined themselves to ascertaining the need for more research. As the representative of the German Environmental Agency remarked laconically in his review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Endocrine Disrupter Research Needs Workshop" held last April:

"The workshop confined itself to the definition of research needs. A discussion about risk-reducing measures was not held. This led to the distinctly apparent satisfaction of the industrial representatives but not of the environmental associations."

But the result of the German workshop had been quite the same. There is a clear tendency on the part of industry to wait for unambiguous results from the research of single substances (that predictably will never be achieved) before cutting its financial losses.

The second frightening tendency that is becoming apparent is to look for technical solutions to limit the damage instead of removing the causes. And there are clear hints that the main subjects of this kind of treatment -- if it is for breast cancer, testicular cancer or male infertility - will be women again. Given some evidence that all these problems are caused by the harmful influence of the hormonally active chemicals on the fetus, there will undoubtedly be a lot of research on pregnant women to try to counteract the effect of the damaging substances, probably using other damaging substances. Women's bodies are the battlegrounds in the war of one technology against another. We have to be highly alert about these dangers.

To prevent them, it is necessary to combine the powers of the environmental and women's health movements to fight for the following demands:

  • All used chemicals must be tested for their hormonal effects;
  • All chemicals testing positive or being under well-founded suspicion to act like hormones must be phased out;
  • Test procedures must be developed to detect these substances in water, food, and the ground;
  • Research money has to be concentrated on these projects, not on the production of new industrial poisons;
  • The producers of the incriminated substances must be forced to pay for the existing damage;
  • Consumers must be informed about the contents and production procedures in order to be able to make informed decisions.

Consumers do have, in fact, a great responsibility and power to act on this issue and to force politicians and industry to change. But to take the danger seriously and really to act on it by not buying the products concerned any more is no piece of cake. This involves doing without all these millions of plastic products, detergents, cosmetic articles, pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, contraceptive foams and so on. It would finally be an entire change in our lifestyles.

One day the question will perhaps not be, Can we survive without these things, but Can we survive at all?

By Regina Stolzenberg

R. Stolzenberg is a sociologist and long time healthworker at the Feministisches Frauen Gesundheits Zentrum (Feminist Women's Health Center) in Berlin, Germany, and a spokesperson for Dachrerband der Frauengesundheitszentren in Deutschland (Association of Women's Health Centers in Germany)

This article was originally published in Winter 1996 in WomenWise magazine. WomenWise is the quarterly health-oriented publication of the Concord Feminist Health Center in Concord, New Hampshire. This article is copyrighted and is re-printed here with permission from the publisher. For more information, contact Concord Feminist Health Center at 603-436-7588.

About breast health:

breast cancer and environmental toxins

National Breast Cancer Coalition

National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations

Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization

Greenpeace - published "Chlorine, Human Health and the Environment: The Breast Cancer Warning" in 1993.

Ms. Magazine, November-December, 1997

Cancer Prevention Ideas at www.preventcancer.com

page updated October 19, 2007

In 1964, the World Health Organization concluded that 80% of cancers were due to human-produced carcinogens; in 1979, the National Institutes of Health identified environmental factors as the major cause of most cancers. Yet, only a tiny fraction of the National Cancer Institute budget has gone toward research on prevention.

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