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Plain speaking about hormone disruption

November 27, 2000

Heather Heilman

Don't panic. D. Lindsey Berkson finds herself saying that a lot. That's because she is the bearer of some potentially disturbing news. She wants you to know that chemicals we are exposed to every day can get inside our bodies and interfere with our hormone-signaling systems, mimicking the action of our own hormones.

These hormone disruptors may be linked to problems such as uterine fibroids, breast cancer, early puberty, decreased male fertility, behavior and reproductive problems in children and a host of other problems. Chemicals known or suspected to be hormone disruptors are everywhere--in the water you drink, in the dust on the bottom of your shoes, in your newly laid carpeting, in the plastic that lines the can of vegetables you just ate, in your dog's flea collar and in the freshly dry-cleaned clothes in your closet.

There have been over 80,000 chemicals in production since the end of World War II, with 2,000 new chemicals added each year, said Berkson, a visiting scholar. But only a few have ever been tested for their ability to disrupt hormones. The study of environmental hormones is still in its infancy.

John McLachlan, director of the Tulane-Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research and a pioneer in the field, believes the eventual impact of the study of environmental hormones will be as profound as that of germ theory. The CBR recently hosted e.hormone 2000, a conference of scientists involved in cutting-edge research in the field. But the conference included an open-to-the-public Hormone Salon, in which those scientists spoke in non-scientific terms about hormone disruption.

There are plans for additional hormone salons in the future, because McLachlan doesn't think the public should be kept in the dark until every last study is tallied. That could take decades, he said, but people can protect themselves now. One of the difficulties, however, said McLachlan, is finding scientists who can communicate the biological and medical complexities involved in this research. Experts often speak in tongues that don't mean anything to the people who are listening.

That's where Lindsey Berkson comes in. For the past year, Berkson has been a consulting scholar at the Tulane-Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research and a visiting scholar at Newcomb's Center for Research on Women. Berkson's book Hormone Deception was released in September. It is a detailed but accessible explanation of what hormone disruptors are, what are their consequences, and what individuals can do to reduce exposure. Her recently launched website, www.hormonedeception.com, has already won two awards for its content.

"I came to Tulane to help make complex scientific issues accessible to the public," she said. She is uniquely qualified to translate the work being done at the CBR into usable information for the general public.

Professionally, she has a foot in science and a foot in communication. She also has first-hand experience with the ways that hormone disruption can ravage a life. When she was still in the womb, her mother was given a shot of DES (diethylstilbestrol), a synthetic hormone given to pregnant women from 1938 to 1971 because it was incorrectly believed to prevent miscarriages. The result has been a number of health problems for the mothers and their children.

"My whole life has been affected," Berkson said. "My mom happened to be given an injection of DES right at the most vulnerable window of exposure, which is the end of the first trimester."

Berkson began menstruating at age 9 and at 17 had cervical dysplasia, which required the first of eight gynecological surgeries she has undergone. She was never able to have children and suffered from a rare form of breast cancer. She couldn't understand why she was having so many problems when she was practicing a healthy lifestyle.

"Since high school, I've been an athlete, eaten a semi-vegetarian diet, and practiced yoga, de-stressing techniques and meditation," she said. She became a nutritionist and chiropractor, in part because she was looking for solutions to her own problems. In her practice, she began to specialize in women's health problems and wrote five books on health and nutrition. She was able to help other women but not herself.

While she cant know for sure that DES is the cause of her problems, it is the only explanation that ever seemed to make sense. Then, in 1993, she read an article about hormone disruptors. She learned that there were many chemicals in the environment that seemed to be acting like weaker versions of DES. The proverbial light bulb went off in her head. She decided to research and write about the issue. "Little did I know what I was getting into," she said. "This discipline crosses many fields, and I found myself wading through books on reproductive toxicology and evolutionary biology."

She attended many conferences and interviewed more than 60 scientists, her research leading her to John McLachlan and the CBR. At the CBR, she has been working on a PowerPoint presentation about hormone disruption and has given a well-attended talk at the medical school. She is developing an animated video and multi-media play about the issue and is trying to get articles about it into popular magazines.

On Dec. 2, she will conduct a seminar on hormone deception sponsored by the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women. "We want to take the concept of hormone disruption and environmental signaling and bring it to people who don't know about it yet," Berkson said. "And since much of our exposure is in the home, people need to know they can take simple actions to reduce their exposure and protect themselves and their families."

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