In only minuscule amounts, certain complex synthetic chemicals pose threats to the delicate balance of the human reproductive system. Loose in the environment, they threaten to upset the carefully timed processes that allow species to procreate. In Our Stolen Future, (306 pages, Dutton, $24.95) researcher Theo Colborn, Boston Globe reporter Dianne Dumanoski, and zoologist John Peterson Myers remind the world that some plastic containers thought benign leach hormone-imitating chemicals into the products they contain.
Some 51 hormone impostors, including the polycarbonate additive bisphenol-A and nonylphenols, are labeled as producing birth defects, abnormal sexual organs and weakened immune systems in animals. The authors claim the effects do not appear for long periods, sometimes years.
Central to their argument is chlorine, present where so many of these offenders are found. And when chlorine is burned, dioxins, the big-time endocrine impostors, are found, they warn.
``Phasing out hormone-disrupting chemicals should be just the first step, in our view. We must then move to slow down the larger experiment with synthetic chemicals. The means first curtailing the introduction of thousands of new synthetic chemicals each year,'' is a passage in the last chapter proposing solutions.
Intended to be the sequel to Rachel Carson's Kennedy-era eco-opus, Silent Spring, the authors have shifted the accusations away from chemicals that cause cancer to those that imitate the natural growth and development hormones of an animal in utero. Either too much or too little of those real or phony hormones at the wrong time can ruin the chances of a species' normal growth, they contend, noting trace amounts in the food chain may wreak havoc on generations to come.
Trouble is, sometimes these imbalances occur naturally.
Carson's book hit just before the thalidomide scare of the early 1960s, with its ghastly images of children deformed in the womb - the result of their mothers taking a type of medication while pregnant. The book focused attention on the scientific hubris that brought forth improperly understood or tested miracle chemicals. That timing resulted in the bans of DDT and polychlorinated biphenols.
Unfortunately for these writers, the quest for public acceptance of their hypothesis is not accompanied by the same terrifying circumstances painted in screaming headlines or video images.
Highly technical hormonal phenomena whose effects cannot be pinpointed by the size or timing of dosage do not compete well with nightly news stories on corporate downsizing. Or mad English cows.
Not even the foreword by Vice President Al Gore sets much of a compelling tone. He has authored or written forewords for books about reinventing government and the information superhighway, too. What became of them?
On top of that, Colborn, a World Wildlife Fund scientist, does not call for a ban of chlorine to solve the problem. Chlorine has too much value to public health in other ways to indict it wholesale.
``As an ex-pharmacist, I know the need for chlorine, but I'd think we need to be careful about it,'' Colborn told Reuters news service.
This is going to make their work of turning public sentiment against wide use of these synthetic chemicals a tough sell. Unless publicly funded research shops pick up the battle cry, an increas-ed understanding of the mutation the authors claim is going on right now is not likely.
Ironically, the authors ask, ``Are there principals of chemical design and use that would allow us the benefit of innovative materials without undue exposure and risk?'' If you ask the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., the answer is: ``Yes - risk assessment legislation.''
Legislation placing an acceptable risk on society's chemical exposure still lies on the U.S. Senate floor.
The Food and Drug Admini-stration, the Environmenal Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health and public health researchers are hesitant to adopt such practices in the absence of legislation, leaving the relative risks of many of the synthetic chemicals in question.
One of the book's least important, but irritating, faults is its reference to Colborn in the third person.
It is an awkward attempt to distance the writer from the subject, made bogus by the passion for the subject attributed to the researcher - who you know wrote it herself.