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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Steve's Essay on Chemicals and Behavior

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood reflects on the growing body of evidence that numerous endocrine disrupting chemicals are dangerous in many ways.


CURWOOD: From the very first story Living on Earth did on hormone disruptors back in 1993, I have been impressed with how dangerous these substances can be. And at first I thought of the risks in physical ways. Thanks to these chemicals, the researchers tell us, human sperm counts are down by half over the past generation. And apparently just about everyone's immune system has been weakened.

But the risks go beyond reproduction and immunity. It also turns out that these industrial toxins may be having a profound effect on the ways we think, act, and feel. Why? Because they can also mess with the body's own mental messengers, what biologists call neurotransmitters. So, we need to entertain the possibility that these chemicals may play a role in a number of social problems, including crime, violence, and perhaps even divorce and family breakdown. Certain synthetic chemicals in lab rats cause their offspring to grow up more violent and aggressive, abandon their young, and act as poor parents. And in humans, studies show that the children of mothers exposed to PCBs are less intelligent, more aggressive and disruptive, and less emotionally resilient to stress
than other children.

We also know that exposure to lead, which, like synthetic chemicals, disrupts the proper functioning of the mental messaging system, is linked to higher rates of learning disabilities, school dropouts, juvenile delinquency, and crime.

Now, we all agree that human behavior can be affected by chemical substances. After all, drunk drivers kill thousands every year and chemical dependency can destroy marriage and family life. But we don't generally recognize that industrial chemicals can also affect our behavior, and that just about all of us have 500 or more synthetic chemicals in our bodies that our grandparents never grew up with.

Now, how do these chemicals make us feel and behave? A lot more research is needed to say precisely how. Still, the preliminary studies suggest these toxins can make us more distractable and impulsive, less tolerant, and more easily angered. So, maybe the next time we hear about yet another divorce, or a kid walking into a school yard and opening fire with a gun, we will think a little differently. Yes, we will wonder about pressures on the modern family and yes, we will consider our culture of domestic and media violence. But we also need to think about what could be happening when we have our entire population exposed to hormone disrupting and mind-altering industrial chemicals.



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