Last week Congress permanently closed down its scientific research arm,
the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Although we did not agree
with the recommendations of every report that OTA produced during its
23 years of policy analysis, we know that the death of OTA will be an
immeasurably great loss to the nation's ability to get the facts
straight. The so-called conservatives in this Congress claim to favor
public policies based on "good science," yet they are hacking away the
infrastructure of laboratories and institutes that, for decades, has
done the nation's scientific work. Next on the chopping block is the
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, formerly the
National Bureau of Standards), which designs standardized testing and
measurement protocols that are relied upon by scientists and engineers
throughout the world. This Congress is moving us steadily back toward
the dark ages.
On the chopping block as we go to press is the university-based program
of basic research within the National Institute of Environmental Health
Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The
NIEHS Superfund Basic Research Program, now in its ninth year, provides
funding to 17 programs at 60 universities and institutions around the
country, studying the human health effects of hazardous chemicals in
the environment, especially those found at leaking waste dumps.
Congress has already reduced the appropriation for this program, which
makes up barely 1% of the Superfund toxic waste cleanup effort. But now
the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Hazardous Materials,
chaired by Rep. Michael Oxley of Ohio's 4th District, is refusing to
reauthorize the program entirely, thus killing it dead. Mr. Oxley's
position is that Superfund money should only be used for cleanup, not
for any "extraneous" uses like determining how clean our cleanups need
to be, and why. Like other so-called "conservatives" who claim they
want policies based on "good science," Mr. Oxley reveals his true
intentions as he prevents any "good science" from being funded and
Looking at some of last year's research highlights produced by the
Superfund research program, one can appreciate Mr. Oxley's fear of what
good science will reveal:
** Researchers determined the dose-response relationship for benzene
down to doses as low as those received by ordinary people. Millions of
Americans are exposed to small amounts of benzene when, for example,
they pump their own gasoline. These benzene experiments strongly
suggest that a cancer risk from benzene is present even at very low
doses. With millions of people exposed to benzene every day, it seems
important to know that benzene really does cause cancer.
** Other investigations demonstrated for the first time in laboratory
animals that benzene exposure, which has been associated with leukemia
and aplastic anemia in humans and animals, is also mutagenic; that is,
it causes inheritable genetic changes which can affect the next
generation, the next after that, and so on.
** Researchers showed that several biological markers (subtle
observable changes in a person) can be used to detect probable chromium
exposure in humans living near places where chromium wastes have been
dumped. Researchers studied Jersey City, N.J., and surrounding Hudson
County where corporate polluters dumped chromium wastes on the ground
for decades. Such research should make it easier to sue corporate
polluters for exposure to toxics.
** Researchers developed a test to detect a single molecule of a
cancer-associated chromosomal rearrangement in the presence of DNA from
a million normal human cells. This work offers the possibility of very
sensitive detection of the ability of chemicals to cause chromosomal
rearrangements as an indicator of their cancer-causing potential.
** Researchers are studying the neurological and immune-system effects
of drinking water containing mercury compounds. Early results indicate
that even a small dose of methyl-mercury, such as 5 ppm [parts per
million] in drinking water, impairs neurological, endocrine (hormone),
and immune-system functions in animals. This corresponds to a daily
consumption of 0.3 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight which
is smaller than the "safe" dose of 0.48 mg/kg body weight indicated by
the World Health Organization. In other words, mercury is even more
dangerous than formerly believed.
** A large epidemiologic study examined the respiratory disease hazards
of susceptible individuals living near toxic waste sites and industrial
facilities. Analysis of interim data has provided important information
on the association between asthma status (active or inactive) and
exposure to irritants --active asthmatics have been found to suffer an
adverse effect on lung function resulting from irritant chemical
exposure (after adjustment for smoking). Asthma is increasing each year
in the U.S. population, and annual production of toxic chemicals is
increasing as well. Could these two trends be related? It would be
important to know.
** Researchers demonstrated a high degree of correspondence between
laboratory and field-test results of immune-system toxicity in dogs
exposed to industrial PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls]. Not only have
these studies clarified effects of PCBs on the immune system, but they
have sparked a number of spin-off studies involving the thyroid,
lymphocyte (white blood cell) development, and brain function. These
studies help clarify how PCBs affect behavior, physiology, and response
to infectious disease, in addition to environmentally-induced threats
such as cancer. Efforts to date have provided a key step in validating
laboratory immune-system toxicity observations with field studies of
** In a study comparing effects of perinatal (near the time of birth)
vs. adult exposure to PCBs, researchers have found that toxic effects
on the brain occur in completely opposite ways. In adults, ortho-PCBs
reduce brain dopamine levels while dioxin-like coplanar-PCBs have no
such effect. (Dopamine is an important natural chemical in the brain.)
However, following perinatal exposure, dioxin-like PCBs elevate brain
dopamine concentrations and alter the behavior of exposed female
offspring while ortho-PCBs reduce brain dopamine concentrations. Thus,
PCB exposures have opposite effects, depending on the age at exposure
and the type of PCBs to which the organism is exposed. These results
suggest that PCBs may not only directly affect nerve function, but may
also alter steroid hormone function during a baby's development.
** Some of the most interesting and important Superfund research
involves the role of estrogens and estrogen-like chemicals that seem to
interfere with the reproductive system of fish, birds, and mammals,
probably including humans. Estrogens are female sex hormones.
A study of sea gulls on Santa Barbara Island, not far from Los Angeles,
in 1977 revealed bizarre gull behavior: female gulls were pairing up
and sharing nests. In 1981, bird toxicologist Michael Fry published a
study showing that, by injecting a small amount of DDT into bird eggs,
he could produce hermaphroditic male birds --that is, male birds with
the sex organs of both a male and a female. Fry's work met with
skepticism back in 1981, but in the subsequent decade wildlife experts
worldwide reported declining birth rates, hermaphroditic offspring,
lowered sperm counts, and deformities of the testicles of fish,
panthers, alligators, and other animals in polluted habitats.
Timothy Gross, a wildlife endocrinologist (hormone specialist) at the
University of Florida in Gainesville, says, "If you look at people, the
same pollutants are in our bodies. What is a safe level? We don't know.
But I'd be a pretty naive scientist to conclude there couldn't be the
same effects in humans."
The possible effects of estrogen-like chemicals on humans are now
thought to include prostate cancer and testicular cancer in men, and
perhaps breast cancer in women. Prostate cancer has been steadily
increasing in the U.S. in recent years, especially among older men; it
strikes 244,000 men each year in the U.S., and kills about 40,000.
Breast cancer strikes 183,000 American women each year and kills about
46,240. One out of every 8 women gets breast cancer, and one out of
every 7 men gets prostate cancer. Because men with undeveloped testes,
and castrated men, rarely develop prostate cancer, researchers began to
suspect that sex hormones circulating in the blood might affect
prostate cancer. "The evidence has since been stacking up to form an
alarming picture that paints estrogen [female sex hormone] and
testosterone [male sex hormone] as cancer culprits," says a recent
issue of ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES, published by the
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences [NIEHS], a staid
scientific organization that does not use the word "alarming" lightly.
Estrogens and estrogen-mimicking industrial chemicals in the
environment have now been shown to alter testosterone levels in men.
Thus the wildlife research supported by Superfund money has begun to
pay off with a better understanding of major killer diseases. "We're
relying on Superfund money for research," says wildlife-and-hormone
specialist Timothy Gross at University of Florida. "And who knows what
will happen to that? Congress now has a vendetta against lots of this
environmental research," he says.
Indeed, people calling themselves "conservatives" in Congress are
determined to cut off the funding for this line of research. In their
mind, the only good science is no science. Without federal funding,
this research will cease because the private sector has no interest in
showing how industrial discharges may be contributing to the nation's
steadily-rising burden of cancer, diabetes, birth defects,
endometriosis, and infertility.
Now a Congressman from Ohio is leading the charge to kill this
important health research program. Mr. Oxley might change his mind if
he received letters or phone calls from people in his district, who
hold the power to end his political career. In addition, calls from
outside his district might help, too. Mr. Oxley represents 11 counties
(Allen, Auglaize, Crawford, Hancock, Hardin, Knox, Logan, Marion,
Morrow, Richland and Wyandot), with the district's four most populous
cities being Lima, Mansfield, Marion, and Findlay (Mr. Oxley's home
town). His phone number in D.C. is: (202) 225-2676; fax: (202) 226-
1160. Mail: 2233 Rayburn Building, Washington, D.C. 20515.
 Highlights of Superfund research can be found on the World Wide Web
 Recent work on estrogen-like chemicals and wildlife appears in
"Wildlife Development," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES Vol. 103,
Supplement 4 (May, 1995).
 Gross quoted in Amanda Spake, "Is the modern world giving us
cancer?" HEALTH (October, 1995), pg. 55.
 Renee Twombly, "Assault on the Male," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 103, No. 9 (September, 1995), pgs. 802-805.
 Devra Lee Davis and H. Leon Bradlow, "Can Environmental Estrogens
Cause Breast Cancer?" SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Vol. 273, No. 4 (October,
1995), pgs. 166-172.
Descriptor terms: research funding; superfund; congress; science; ota;
benzene; chromium; michael oxley; cancer; mercury; asthma; hazardous
waste; pcbs; dogs; estrogen; hormones; immune system; nervous system;
endocrine system; endocrine disrupters; wildlife; hermaphroditism;
fish; gulls; birds; panthers; alligators; prostate cancer; testicular
cancer; breast cancer; morbidity statistics; mortality statistics;