Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Toxic Bodies

Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES

Nancy Langston
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Toxic Bodies
    Book Description:

    In 1941 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of diethylstilbestrol (DES), the first synthetic chemical to be marketed as an estrogen and one of the first to be identified as a hormone disruptor-a chemical that mimics hormones. Although researchers knew that DES caused cancer and disrupted sexual development, doctors prescribed it for millions of women, initially for menopause and then for miscarriage, while farmers gave cattle the hormone to promote rapid weight gain. Its residues, and those of other chemicals, in the American food supply are changing the internal ecosystems of human, livestock, and wildlife bodies in increasingly troubling ways.

    In this gripping exploration, Nancy Langston shows how these chemicals have penetrated into every aspect of our bodies and ecosystems, yet the U.S. government has largely failed to regulate them and has skillfully manipulated scientific uncertainty to delay regulation. Personally affected by endocrine disruptors, Langston argues that the FDA needs to institute proper regulation of these commonly produced synthetic chemicals.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16299-8
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Disrupting Hormonal Signals
    (pp. 1-16)

    In March 2000, I joined an environmental justice field trip that met with women of Washington State’s Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe. One of the poorest tribes in the West, the Shoalwater were losing their tiny reservation to erosion and legal battles, and they were losing their future to a mysterious run of miscarriages. One woman after another described losing her fetus. They spoke to us of their grief, anger, sense of confusion, and fear that something in the water they drank or the fish they ate was killing their babies.¹

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Before World War II: Chemicals, Risk, and Regulation
    (pp. 17-27)

    Since World War II the production of synthetic chemicals has increased more than thirtyfold. The modern chemical industry, now a global enterprise of $2 trillion annually, is central to the world economy, generating millions of jobs and consuming vast quantities of energy and raw materials. Each year, more than seventy thousand different industrial chemicals are synthesized and sold, with the result that billions of pounds of chemicals annually make their way into our bodies and ecosystems.¹ Americans are saturated with industrial chemicals, the products of a post–World War II boom in synthetic chemical manufacturing.

    Many of the reasons that...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Help for Women over Forty
    (pp. 28-47)

    In 1941 an article by the journalist Helen Haberman in theReader’s Digestadvised women that “help for women over forty” might soon be available. Nine million subscribers to the magazine learned that a wonderful new drug could relieve aging women of “the most distressing of natural body processes,” but only if the FDA were willing to approve the new synthetic estrogen, diethylstilbestrol. As the article explained, “Called by one clinician ‘the most valuable addition to our therapy in recent years,’ the first synthetic estrogen, diethylstilbestrol . . . awaits only the approval of the Federal Food and Drug Administration...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Bigger, Stronger Babies with Diethylstilbestrol
    (pp. 48-60)

    At the end of World War II, drug companies began exploring new uses for diethylstilbestrol. Pregnancy seemed to offer a vast potential market. Many Americans had expressed uneasiness about the wartime blurring of gender roles, and after the soldiers returned home, popular magazines and movies began extolling the virtues of femininity and domesticity. The FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, urged women to leave work, marry early, and have children as a way of fighting “the twin enemies of freedom—crime and Communism”: babies, not factories, were women’s natural calling.¹ Ironically, this natural calling was to be achieved through medical technology,...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Modern Meat: Hormones in Livestock
    (pp. 61-82)

    In 1960 a Food and Drug Administration employee named Charles Durbin told a gathering of angry poultry producers, “Chemicals and drugs have revolutionized agriculture in the past 15 years. In animal husbandry growth-promoting chemicals permit the production of more meat with less feed; drugs . . . eliminate or control serious diseases. . . . Pesticides help the farmer control insects that would otherwise seriously affect his livestock. . . . Over 50% of the drugs used by the veterinarian and the feed mills weren’t available to them in the early 1940’s. Truly, agriculture has entered the chemical age.” Durbin...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Growing Concerns
    (pp. 83-111)

    The 1960s were a turbulent era. In 1962 alone, Rachel Carson’sSilent Springwas published, catalyzing public concern about synthetic chemicals; Congress passed the “DES proviso,” which eviscerated the Delaney Clause; and the thalidomide crisis erupted, further eroding faith in public health regulation. That single chaotic year was the beginning of a decade of controversy about the environment. By 1971, the year that prenatal DES exposure was linked to vaginal cancer, federal agencies were facing intensifying demands for environmental and consumer-health protection. The use of DES in animals intended for human consumption, pesticides in the food supply, and drugs taken...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Assessing New Risks
    (pp. 112-133)

    During the 1970s research into environmental pollutants flourished, and federal agencies made renewed efforts to regulate their risks. “Toxic torts,” a type of personal-injury lawsuit in which a plaintiff claims that exposure to a chemical caused injury or disease, were becoming increasingly common, drawing consumer attention to health problems associated with chemical exposure. Yet for all the successes of the environmental movement, the government largely failed to control the growing risks from many of the new synthetic chemicals. Industrial food production increased its reliance on chemical inputs, and when courts upheld the ban on DES in livestock in 1976, other...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Sexual Development and a New Ecology of Health
    (pp. 134-151)

    In 2006 headlines proclaimed that bisphenol A made female mice act like male mice. Just as diethylstilbestrol had seemed to change gender norms, so did bisphenol A. “Boyish Brains” cried the headline of one popular science article: “Exposure to the main ingredient of polycarbonate plastics can modify brain formation in female mouse fetuses and make the lab animals, later in life, display a typically male behavior pattern.” Could something common in popular brands of baby bottles be modifying sex differences? “Exposure to very low doses of bisphenol-A results in masculinization of the female brain,” the article went on, quoting one...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Precaution and the Lessons of History
    (pp. 152-166)

    Questions about risk, profit, and the burden of proof have troubled U.S. regulatory agencies ever since Harvey Washington Wiley called for a version of the precautionary principle in the early decades of the twentieth century. Since 1998 they have coalesced around the demand for a precautionary approach that would place the burden of proof on those who profit from toxic chemicals. That year, thirty-two scientists and physicians concerned about endocrine disruption published a consensus statement known as the Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle. They wrote: “When an activity raises threats to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 167-194)
    (pp. 195-222)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 223-233)