Brief History of the Field of Endocrine Disruption Research

The understanding that certain chemicals can interact with the nervous and endocrine systems of an organism has been known since at least the early 1950s. Pesticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) were and are currently used because of their ability to act as neurotoxins and interfere with membrane ion transport (e.g., calcium), inhibit selective enzyme activities, or alter the release or removal of neurotransmitters at neuronal synapses. In the early 1960s, Rachel Carson wrote about the relationship between DDT, eggshell thinning, and the demise of the bald eagle and other bird populations around the Great Lakes.

During that same period, doctors were prescribing a synthetic estrogen, diethyl-stilbestrol (DES), to pregnant women desiring to reduce spontaneous abortions and other complications associated with high risk pregnancies [6]. Simultaneously, the growth of the petrochemical industry was occurring, promising their customers extended lives full of convenience, health, and plentiful food.

In the 1970s, concern mounted over the widespread use of DES as an anabolic agent in animal husbandry, and its identification as the causative agent in the transgenerational effects observed in the reproductive health of daughters and sons of DES mothers [7]. Due in large part to this concern, a meeting was convened in 1979 by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), called "Estrogens in the Environment" [8]. Discussions from this first meeting, as well as a subsequent NIEHS sponsored meeting in 1985 [9] and a related 1991 meeting organized by the World Wildlife Fund, called "Chemically Induced Alterations in Sexual Development: The Wildlife/Human Connection" [10] were the beginnings of the field of endocrine disruption research (for an in-depth historical discussion, see [11]). It was at these first meetings that researchers from various disciplines including wildlife biology, reproductive physiology, endocrinology, neurology, immunology, molecular biology, and toxicology came together and realized there was a common thread running through all of their research. That common element can be summarized in the consensus statement of the 1991 meeting: "We are certain of the following: A large number of man-made chemicals that have been released into the environment, as well as a few natural ones, have the potential to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals, including human" [10].

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