The Feminization of Nature

Posted: 22 August 2000

Author: Deborah Cadbury
Hamish Hamilton, London, 1997
£17.99

This is science journalism of a high order. It is also a detective story that needs telling. Twenty-five years ago a young Danish scientist, Niels Skakkebaek, came across the first clue that something was going very wrong with male reproductive health. He found strange 'empty cells' in the tissues of the testes of infertile men that had never been seen before.

He proposed and later proved, that these cells were the precursors of testicular cancer; a disease which has, grown by 300 per cent in Denmark over the last half century, and which has been growing elsewhere by 2 to 4 per cent a year over several decades. His discovery was the beginning of a scientific trail which began to link other disturbing evidence of adverse changes in the reproductive health of humans and animals.

First came reports that human sperm counts appeared to have fallen dramatically in many countries. Sex abnormalities in boys, including an increase in the incidence of undescended testicles were becoming more common. Cancers of the breast and prostate were also increasing, especially in Europe and America, causing increased speculation about environmental causes.

The environmental connection was given fresh impetus when it was discovered in the 1970s that an oestrogen mimicking drug, DES, given to millions of women to assist their pregnancies and insure against miscarriage had sometimes resulted in terrible abnormalities in their teenage daughters, including vaginal cancers, and had also affected the sexual health of some boys.

Taken together with extraordinary changes in the reproductive systems of wildlife, from sex changing alligators in Florida to the "feminization" of fish in British rivers, scientists pieced together the evidence pointing to a common link between all these events: the alterations in exposure to chemicals, which contain or copy the female hormone oestrogen. Synthetic chemicals, which imitate human hormones, are now all round us ­ in our water, our food and in a myriad of modern-day products from water-pipe linings to plastic bottles and wrappings.

Deborah Cadbury unravels the scientific story in a gripping fashion, with scrupulous care to quote all the conclusions and keep an open mind about the unfinished ending. But her warning of the "trump card of uncertainty" which provides industry and government with an excuse for inaction is clear enough. Books like this are vital if the informed concern of the people is to make itself felt.

  • Sperm counts in Shanghai have fallen by 12 per cent since 1987, according to a survey by the Shanghai Family Planning Research Institute. Only 20 per cent of the 1,000 donors in the city in 2000 had sperm that was highly fertile, according to the Shanghai Sperm Bank. Public health experts say that a toxin found in pesticides and laundry detergents may be partly responsible.

Reviewer: John Rowley