Commentary

Let Science Judge the Sperm Crisis

By Michael Gough
December 30, 1996

The past is an imperfect guide to the future, but history suggests that Theo Colborn’s book, Our Stolen Future, will spur the public and government down a well-rutted track marked by delusions and waste. The book, co-authored by Diane Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers, and with a forward by Vice President Al Gore, says that common chemicals, widespread in the environment, are threatening the extinction of some bird and other wildlife populations, can disrupt humans’ hormone systems, and are responsible for a 50 percent drop in the average sperm counts of men around the world. Relying on the book’s conclusions, Colborn and others are calling for some sort of government response.

Many other scientists — experts in wildlife populations, hormone systems, and sperm counts — disagree with Colborn’s conclusions and challenge her analysis of the science.

Before government lurches into a new program, let’s let all the scientific arguments be heard, discussed and peer reviewed. Alarm bells about environmental chemicals are not novel. Twenty or so years ago, “The environment causes 90 percent of cancer” rang out across the land and in the halls of Congress. “Environment” was used broadly to include everything eaten, drunk, smoked, taken as medicine, all forms of radiation, and sexual contacts, as well as exposures to substances in air, water and soil. Many in Congress and many in the public may have been ignorant of the broad meaning of “environment,” but environmental organization leaders should not have been. They ignored it, letting the myth grow that substances in air, water and soil were responsible for much of the cancer in the world.

Congress responded, writing laws directing the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate substances that cause cancer in laboratory animals or people. In 1987 the EPA took inventory of the supposed environmental risks it knew about. In 1990, working from the EPA’s numbers, I calculated the maximum impact that the EPA could have if it regulated every cancer risk it had identified and if the regulations worked perfectly. The calculated number is not 90 percent; it’s 1.3 percent.

Now comes Our Stolen Future, or “Silent Sperm” as the New Yorker called it. It falls into the public’s and Congress’s laps as have other claims of environmental causes of human suffering and disease.

All of us have read about infertile couples, and some of us have failed to conceive a child when we wanted. There can be a lot of reasons. Low sperm count is one, and, as even the writers of Seinfeld know, too-tight briefs that increase the temperature of the scrotum can be responsible (an effect that may be reversible by switching to boxers). But, in many cases, the cause is not discernible. Nonetheless, Colborn’s book provides sperm counts (whether there is an ongoing decrease is an open question as is the comparability of measurement methods of 50 years ago with current ones), and the culprit is modern industry.

Surely Congress will hold hearings featuring people unhappy because they cannot have a child or ill with some hormone system disease or dismayed because a favorite birding spot no longer has birds. Don’t be surprised when they say, “My doctor can’t tell me why I can’t have a baby” or “What’s wrong with me?” or “The county extension agent can’t tell me what happened to the birds.” Indeed, they can’t.

But the book will be offered as proof of a connection between some chemicals in the environment and every kind of malady. No matter that the authors of the book have no medical training and no first-hand knowledge of symptoms, family history and personal behavior that a physician would gather on a first visit. No matter that concentrations of DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls, which the book identifies as major contributors to adverse effects on wildlife populations, are steadily decreasing in the environment.

Congress is not and does not claim to be a good judge of science. It should wait and let scientists sift through the evidence. Within a year or two, results from new studies will be available, scientific conferences and meetings will have been held, reviews will have been written and critiqued and Congress will be far better able to make decisions.

The alternative to this “hands off for now, let’s find out before we act” approach is to fund new programs or increase the funding of old ones. Increasing support for research distorts the scientific picture by establishing a cadre of bureaucrats who have a vested interest in the research they administer. They will want the researchers to “find something.” Such programs will provide funds to scientists who know that it’s far easier to reap additional funding by emphasizing the tiniest glimmer of a connection between an exposure and an effect than by stating that there is no convincing or compelling or reproducible evidence of such a link. The consequences of funding new or increasing the funding of existing regulatory programs will include new regulations that, no matter how poorly conceived, can prove impossible to set aside even if scientific evidence accumulates that they are based on nothing of consequence.

The history of environmental scares argues that Congress should go slowly. Perhaps history can prevail in the minds of representatives and senators even when they are told, “You’re only half the man your grandfather was.” It will be a hard sell, but it would demonstrate that Congress does believe in the great scientific base that exists in this country. It would be better than making decisions on the basis of a book that contains assertions and claims that have not been investigated.

Michael Gough is director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute and the author of Dioxin, Agent Orange (Plenum Press, 1986). He formerly served as senior associate at the Office of Technology Assessment.