Intended for healthcare professionals

Book Book

Hormonal Chaos: The Scientific and Social Origin of the Environmental Endocrine Hypothesis

BMJ 2000; 321 doi: (Published 19 August 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:516
  1. Donald Campbell, public health medicine specialist
  1. Auckland, New Zealand

    Sheldon Krimsky

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    Johns Hopkins University Press, £23, pp 256

    ISBN 0 8018 6279 5

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    For at least half of the 20th century, the public perception of chemical hazards has been influenced largely by the fear of cancer. The Western world's obsession with “the dread disease” has been the window through which research into toxic chemicals has been viewed. The finding that chemicals cause genetic mutations in somatic cells, along with the concept that mutations are associated with the development of cancer cells, is the scientific basis for much of the public and legislative response to “carcinogens.”

    The emergence of the “environmental endocrine hypothesis” occurred at a time when public interest in carcinogens, as measured by media stories, seemed to be declining. This proposition postulates that a diverse group of agricultural and industrial chemicals have the potential to mimic or block hormonal function in animals and humans. These compounds have been reported as being associated with a range of disorders, including cognitive and behavioural disturbances, immune dysfunction, developmental and reproductive abnormalities, and cancer. This theory raises the possibility of another cause of environmental disease and shifts the emphasis from acute health effects and cancers to developmental, neurophysiological, and reproductive consequences. The assertion that so called “chemical disruptors” are interfering with the normal functioning of hormones in various species, including humans, has been the subject of increasing media attention. Two examples are the award winning BBC documentary Assault on the Male and the US Public Broadcasting Service's Fooling with Nature.

    In Hormonal Chaos Sheldon Krimsky attempts to explain how this theory was first identified and described. He examines the factors that have influenced its proponents' attempts to gain credibility and legitimacy for this still controversial hypothesis. Although this is a timely study of an important topic, Krimsky's delivery does not complement the content. Styled in the form of a narrative, the book fails to grip the book lover. There are no obvious heroes or villains for the reader to identify with. Rather, it is a detailed description by a scientific and policy insider of an emerging theory and the response of the scientific and legislative communities.

    While it could be useful for examining the topic in detail, this book is not for those meeting the hypothesis for the first time and trying to form a view on it. For environmental education on my next trans-Pacific flight, I would prefer a lighter touch, even watching John Travolta and Robert Duval in A Civil Action.

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