`Environmental hormones' cause for concern

POLLUTION: At a conference held to publicize the buildup of persistent toxins in the environment, specialists highlighted the impact of one group of pollutants, endocrine disrupters, which may be a major cause of infertility among men


Wed, Jan 12, 2000 - Page 2

Scientists and environmentalists raised the alarm yesterday on problems caused by so-called "environmental hormones" -- hormone-like toxins that disrupt the human endocrine system -- and are calling for immediate action by the government to head off what they say is a potentially disastrous situation.

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, environmental experts highlighted the toxic effects on humans resulting from exposure to persistent organic pollutants -- including dioxins, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), the pesticide DDT, and other chemicals containing lead or mercury.

"Certain man-made chemicals can mimic natural hormones and disrupt endocrine [hormone-regulated] bodily processes. People are effectively at risk from `chemical castration,'" said Kuo Yu-liang (郭育良), a medical specialist at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan.

"Many laboratory and wildlife studies in developed countries have shown clear links between environmental hormones and reproductive anomalies in animals," Kuo said.

Kuo said that male reproductive disorders caused by environmental hormones include low sperm counts, higher infertility rates, higher proportions of abnormal sperm, and declining semen volumes.

Other scientists attending the conference suggested that the government should establish a national environmental hormone strategy group to reduce the risk of exposing people to toxic chemicals accumulated in the environment.

"Taiwan's government should convene a group to conduct a comprehensive study on the issue and come up with strategies to deal with the threat," said Ling Yong-chien (凌永健), a National Tsinghua University chemist.

Ling took the import of dioxin-contaminated food from Belgium last year, which caused nationwide panic, as evidence to illustrate his point.

"The government does not respect the people's right to know. The public is unaware of the existence of dioxin in their everyday lives. There is a lack of background data on accumulated dioxins in the environment and in the human body," Ling said.

Scientists said that the people of Taiwan -- lacking information on environmental toxins -- have consumed fish, chicken, and other meat products contaminated by toxic pollutants for years.

Environmentalists said that toxic chemicals have polluted the environment to a degree beyond people's imagination. They cited recent action taken by US sportswear giant Nike Co, which recalled a batch of football jerseys from its outlets worldwide after admitting they contained the potentially harmful chemical tributyltin, as an example of the problem.

"Existing man-made toxic pollutants can be attributed to heavy industry. Chemical companies should produce environmental impact reports containing related inform-ation, and release them to the public," said Wu Tung-chieh (吳東傑), general director of the Green Formosa Front (GFF).

Wu said the government should have considered the effects of chemicals on human reproductive health when drafting federal safety guidelines.

Sociology experts pointed to what they said was a tragic situation in many developing countries -- the importation of industrial technology without the required level of education and technological expertise to ensure its safety. Embracing such an over-simplified process has made people "environmentally myopic (環境文盲)," they said.

"Through adopting facilities as advanced as those in developed countries, we produce higher dioxin concentration emissions from incinerators," said Wang Chun-hsiu (王俊秀), professor at National Tsinghua University.

Wang was referring to what critics say is the current policy of building incinerators without paying attention to carrying out environmental and health risk assessments in advance.