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Science of Doom

As the millennium approaches, some of the world's leading biologists, geneticists and physicists prophesy earthly ruin

By Christopher Weir

A THOUSAND YEARS AGO, the end was near. Fanatics roamed the slums of Christendom, stoking the coal-fires of millennial mania and provoking mass migration to the Holy Land. The idea of building a bridge to the 11th century would have been ludicrous. Not even the most adept of medieval flacks could have put a good spin on that one.

Today, facing another historic threshold, our millennial worries seem confined to making sure little Johnny and Jenny get cable Internet access at their school desks before the year 2000.

Nevertheless, as we prepare to cross the much-hyped bridge to the 21st century, with visions of George Jetson and his dog Astro dancing in our heads, we may find ourselves confronting a slow-motion man-made apocalypse.

A new breed of millennial scientists fears that humanity might be sabotaging the future in ways our ancestors could never have conceived. And they swear they can back their doomsaying with hard scientific evidence.

Designer Disaster

WHEN DISNEYLAND "imagineers" unveiled their Monsanto House of the Future in 1957, they proudly announced that "hardly a natural material appears anywhere in the house." Resinox, Textolite, Ultron: in the rose-colored space-age crystal ball of the dawning modern era, these variants of plastic were seen as the building blocks of our Utopian future.

Four decades later, some Ph.D-packing prophets warn that mankind's infatuation with synthetics has turned deadly.

These scientists point to research showing that dozens of mass-marketed synthetic chemicals--integrated into the mainstream economy via plastics, herbicides and pesticides--function as a new kind of poison. They call these demonic compounds "endocrine disrupters."

There are many in the scientific community who refuse to buy this new theory--but its proponents feel these disbelievers are being naive.

University of Florida reproductive biologist Louis Guillette says scientists who are holding out for more definite information are falling into a familiar trap.

"A classic tactic in the public health realm, whether it be tobacco or air pollution or whatever, is 'We need more data, we need more studies, ' " Guillette says. "But there's no question that there are laboratory studies right now telling us that many chemicals on the market do in fact cause increased rates of various kinds of birth abnormalities."

Guillette and others in the field have established troubling links between certain synthetic chemicals and various abnormalities in wildlife and humans. The concentrations of these chemicals, according to the studies, intensify as they work their way through the food chain.

"We're being exposed to tens of thousands of novel compounds," Guillette says. "And many of these compounds persist in the body. The problem we foresee is that it's not just what you ate today or ate while you were pregnant. It's what you may have eaten as a child or what your mom ate during pregnancy."

This biological disaster works a bit like a virus. Dispatched by the endocrine system, hormones regulate a host of sexual, reproductive and other biological functions. Endocrine disrupters resemble and mimic our natural hormones, binding with cells and ultimately distorting hormonal communication.

"They jam signals," according to the authors of Our Stolen Future, a recently released exposé on the subject. "They scramble messages. They sow disinformation.

"Because hormone messages orchestrate many critical aspects of development, from sexual differentiation to brain organization, hormone-disrupting chemicals pose a particular hazard before birth and early in life."

Dozens of synthetic chemicals have been found to imitate hormones--including PCBs, some fungicides and herbicides, the long-banned but environmentally persistent DDT and several byproducts of industrial detergents and pesticides. Bisphenol-A, from common plastic water jugs, is an estrogen imitator.

In the face of scientific charges that these synthetics are responsible for corrupting human immune and reproductive systems, they remain on the market. That is partly because the science is still in its formative stages.

"We're not really sure," Guillette says, "exactly what kind of health complications we should expect in human populations."

The sheer number of chemicals that confront people every day makes it difficult to isolate a particular chemical's impact from the biological white noise.

Nevertheless, the endocrine disrupter and potent carcinogen atrazine has been banned in Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden and several other countries. In the United States--where a free-market attitude allows little regulatory oversight--it is applied liberally in cornfields.

In the book Toxic Deception, authors Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle point out that only a fraction of the chemical compounds in the marketplace have been adequately screened for safety.

"Pesticides and industrial chemicals are, for the most part, considered innocent until proven guilty," Guillette says. "That's completely different from pharmaceutical agents, which are considered guilty until proven innocent."

A History of Extinction

ON THE DAY THAT THE World Conservation Union released its updated "Red List" report last October, it barely broke the horizon of the mediascape. The report, which U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said was "probably the most thorough scientific assessment of the state of the world's wildlife ever undertaken," found that one-fourth of all mammal species are threatened with extinction. Half of those, it said, could vanish over the next decade.

Meanwhile, imperiled ecosystems across the United States find their last vestiges threatened with eradication. After co-authoring a 1995 National Biological Service study which classified 58 separate ecosystems as endangered, biologist Reed Noss remarked, "We're not just losing single species here and there, we're losing entire assemblages of species and their habitats."

While global decline in biodiversity is a difficult trend to chart, broad estimates suggest a loss rate of 2 to 10 percent per decade--a pace not seen since the mass extinctions 65 million years ago. Even more difficult, however, is to predict if and when this trend will reach the point of no return.

"It's been likened to sitting on the tarmac of an airport and watching people pop rivets out of a jetliner's wings," says David Jablonski, a University of Chicago paleontologist. "You know you can spare some, but eventually you're going to have a serious problem."

Extinction, of course, cannot be viewed as an entirely aberrant or negative phenomenon. In fact, it is an integral process of evolution, and the paleon-tological record suggests that each surviving species represents about 100 that have bitten the proverbial biological dust. But the word in the halls of science is that more and more species are disappearing, and at a clip that exceeds the evolutionary dynamic.

While accelerated mass extinction may be difficult to fathom, it's well within the realm of possibility. In fact, it has already occurred at least five times, and each time the earth took five to 10 million years to re-establish biodiversity.

"The fossil record shows that ecosystems can be pushed to the breaking point," Jablonski says. "They are clearly not infinitely resilient."

The End of Nature

MOUNTING SPECIES LOSSES are staggering enough. But because the world's complex biological interactions are difficult to quantify, assessing the rate and impact of the damage remains, for now, beyond our scientific reach.

"For one, different groups of species are suffering damage at wildly different rates, just as different regions are suffering damage at wildly different rates," Jablonski says.

"We don't even know how many species we share the planet with. So it's very difficult to take a cold, hard look at what's happening until you have [sufficient] numbers. Yet if you don't have the resources to get those numbers, you're in a terrible bind. All you can do is zero in on small areas and try to make reasonable estimates."

One such targeted study, an ongoing project conducted by University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman, has found that biodiversity helps prairie ecosystems cultivate the raw materials necessary to recover from drought and other adverse conditions. Implicit in the study's findings is that as ecosystems become increasingly species-deficient, they become susceptible to destruction.

According to Jablonski, plant diversity helps orchestrate the lifeblood of ecosystems, maintains moisture balance and regulates atmospheric carbon dioxide.

"Eventually, harming these systems could change the chemistry in the carbon cycle of the planet," he says.

Accelerated extinctions also strip-mine untapped reserves of potentially crucial pharmacological agents.

"You can't beat ecological communities and millions of years of evolution for the invention of remarkable bioactive compounds," Jablonski says. There are, he says, important medicines that are likely being extinguished before ever being discovered.

The catalysts for the declining biodiversity are exceedingly complex and often overwhelming. They range from suburban expansion to out-of-control marine harvesting, from toxic detritus to runaway erosion, from clear-cutting to acid rain. Altogether, they are the end result of a world that is being increasingly developed, paved and populated. And while industrialism may take most of the heat, it's not the only culprit.

"It's not just an issue of confronting industry, although there are some corporations whose behavior is rapacious and should be stopped," Jablonski says. "It's a much larger human problem than that, and overpopulation is as much the problem as anything else.

"It's all very well for someone to talk about corporations that have a vested interest in ongoing destruction, but how are you going to tell subsistence farmers in Madagascar or on the southern edge of the Sahara that they can't slash and burn to make new farmland to feed their families? We're talking about some excruciatingly difficult tradeoffs and decisions that have to be made."

Free-Market Apocalypse

DR. JOHN GOFMAN ISN'T ONE to mince words. "We can be certain that we are sabotaging our health to a degree that's serious, and which is going to get more and more serious," Gofman says. "There's no doubt about that."

As the co-discoverer of uranium-233 and a scientist with the Manhattan Project, Gofman was once an intimate of the nuclear establishment. For the past 30 years, however, the former director of Livermore National Laboratory's Biomedical Research Division and professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at UC-Berkeley has been sounding a warning siren about the immediate and long-term implications of the world's radiation economy.

"At this rate, we're simply going to continue to contaminate the planet," he says. "It will kill a lot of people prematurely, and in time it will start showing up in hereditary effects."

Gofman is in the vanguard of those who maintain that there is no such thing as a safe cancer threshold for radiation. "There will be cancer right down to the lowest dose," he says. And he is not alone in the scientific community.

Dr. Karl Morgan, former director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Health Physics Division, also asserts that "an overwhelming amount of data show there is no safe level of exposure and there is no dose of radiation so low that the risk of a malignancy is zero."

Such conclusions do not imply that any exposure to radiation automatically results in a cancer, but rather that even the lowest doses will result in some cancers within the population. Gofman says officials with the United Nations and in England have confirmed his calculations supporting the "no safe dose" position.

Of course, those calculations clash with common perceptions of radioactivity--including those found in the world of medicine.

Gofman attributes a majority of breast cancers to ionizing radiation, primarily from medical X-rays.

He also doesn't buy the conservative estimates--5,000 to 40,000--of expected Chernobyl-induced cancer deaths. "I have estimated that 475,000 people will die as a result of the Chernobyl accident, over time, and over all geography," Gofman says. "There is no evidence that many of the cancers will show up before 20 years.

"What in the hell are they talking about, 'Chernobyl wasn't so bad'?"

If Gofman is right about Chernobyl and radioactivity in general, then we're in for one nasty, long and irradiated ride.

Plutonium-239, perhaps the most problematic of high-level nuclear waste isotopes, decays to one-thousandth of its radioactivity only after 240,000 years have passed. The average reactor employed in electricity generation produces anywhere from 400 to 600 pounds of plutonium per year of normal operation. A single ingested or inhaled particle of plutonium is enough to induce lethal lung cancer.

The United States alone, by 2035, will have produced about 110,000 heavy- metal metric tons of high-level radioactive waste, which the government mandates must be shielded from the environment for at least 10,000 years. The government will spend between $230 billion and $350 billion decontaminating the radioactive legacy forged by 50 years' worth of atomic weapons production.

The nuclear establishment maintains that there have been no documented cases of plutonium-induced lung cancer. Gofman, however, points out that such claims result not from a comprehensive search for such possible cases, but merely an absence of documentation.

"Once a cancer is produced," he writes in Radiation and Human Health, "it does not carry any flag which tells us the specific agent which caused it."

In fact, it's absolutely impossible to trace a cancer to a particular radiation exposure--especially in an uncontrolled environment.

"There's already a lot of plutonium spread over the globe, fairly uniformly, from atmospheric fallout from nuclear weapons testing," says Thomas Cochran, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The risk from that to any single individual is extremely small. But you've got to integrate it over four billion people. So you could have a large number of cancers occurring from weapons fallout, but you'll never pull them out of the background in any kind of study."

Whether it's long-term threats posed by accumulated radioactive waste or short-term problems associated with the containment and dispersion of nuclear materials, Gofman suggests that as our chances of exposure increase, so do our cancers and, ultimately, our hereditary corruptions.

"You gradually get new mutations with each generation, and the full effect is felt in anywhere from 10 to 100 generations," he says. "There's nothing as efficient as radiation in breaking chromosomes and thereby injuring genes."

Meltdown Is Near

GOFMAN'S OPINION ABOUT the threats posed by radiation faces scientific opposition. To be sure, few feel strongly about the above-cited concerns. Warnings about synthetic chemicals have been called "innuendo on top of hypothesis on top of theory," while many scientists remain skeptical about the seriousness of threats posed by man-made endocrine disrupters.

Just because the messengers bearing these dire warnings are credentialed scientists doesn't mean they're not paranoid. But that's not the reason why their concerns will be ignored in the making of public policy--or even in public debate. Both of these areas are notoriously intolerant of complex environmental issues.

Humanity has come a long way since the Dark Ages, and our prophets of doom speak in scientific rather than religious terms. It remains to be seen whether they're more or less accurate than their forebears from the last turn-of-the-millennium.

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of Metro

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