News Brief

Our Stolen Future

by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. Dutton, 1996. Hardcover, 306 pages, $24.95.

We knew that this was an important book when, not long after we got a copy, a report from the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute attempting to discredit it arrived in the

EBN mailbox. The basic thesis of

Our Stolen Future is that a wide range of pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been released into the environment over the past 50 years are wreaking havoc with the hormone systems of humans and other animals. Called “endocrine disruptors,” these chemicals either mimic natural hormones such as estrogen, or they inhibit the action of those hormones. During embryo development, such interference can have a major impact on reproductive organ development, and the effects can extend for several generations.

Mechanism by which PCBs are magnified in Lake Ontario, from Our Stolen Future, E.P. Dutton, publisher

While there are also endocrine disruptors in nature, these compounds generally break down quickly and thus pose less long-term risk, according to the book’s authors. Far more significant, they say, are long-lasting, synthesized chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, DDT and its breakdown products, kepone, nonylphenols (which are often added to polystyrene and PVC plastics as antioxidants), and bisphenol-A (which is commonly added to polycarbonate). Many of these are chemicals that

bio-accumulate in fatty tissue and whose concentrations can be magnified millions of times as they move up through aquatic food chains.

In polar bears (at the top of the food chain) PCB concentrations can be multiplied as much as 3 billion times! A dead beluga whale was found in Canada with a PCB level of 500 parts per million—ten times the level that qualifies a material as hazardous waste!

The authors of this book suggest that endocrine disruptors could be responsible for a wide range of human health problems, such as an observed 40-50% drop in sperm counts worldwide over the past four decades, rising infertility and genital deformities, hormonally triggered breast and prostate cancers, and neurological problems in school-aged children such as hyperactivity and attention deficit. Among wildlife, problems attributed to these chemicals include: reproductive failures of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River, plummeting fertility and deformities among certain fish-eating birds, massive die-offs of marine mammals in the late 1980s due to weakened immune systems, and the failure of certain fish species to properly differentiate into either males or females.

While presenting a great deal of convincing evidence about endocrine disruptors and their impacts, the authors point out that

proving these chemicals are a factor in human health effects such as dropping sperm counts or behavioral problems is extremely difficult. In the human population there are no “controls” left. In fact, ironically, when researchers looked in the remote Canadian Arctic for a native Inuit population that was still uncontaminated with PCBs, they actually discovered the highest level of human contamination ever found, except for the victims of industrial accidents (their diets include seals, polar bears, and other animals that are high on the food chain). Experiments using laboratory mice and other research animals can be carried out with proper scientific controls, but, as with tobacco, some scientists argue that these results cannot be transferred to humans.

In a poignant foreword to the book, Vice President Al Gore calls

Our Stolen Future as significant as Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking

Silent Spring, which helped usher in the environmental age three decades earlier. The book, and the further research that it will surely inspire, could have a dramatic impact on manufacturing, including the manufacture of building materials, such as PVC. Already these arguments have had an impact: architect Bill McDonough’s effort to avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals in designing the William McDonough line of fabrics at DesignTex (see


Vol. 4, No. 6) is profiled in

Our Stolen Future as an example of how our manufacturing practices can be changed. This may be a beginning in a return to more “natural” building materials. It will be interesting to watch this debate unfold—it is too bad we cannot watch from the sidelines; as the book points out, we are all part of this massive experiment.

Published November 1, 1996

(1996, November 1). Our Stolen Future. Retrieved from

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