Helen G // 8 December 2008
Two related articles in The Independent this weekend making a good point (the effects of chemical pollutants in the environment on sex/gender) in a bad way (sexism, misogyny, you name it). I’m not sure which is the most offensive, but Decline of the real man is no joke may just have the edge with such neo-tabloid journalism – with just a hint of hysteria – as this:
Do we really want a world where everyone is from Venus and no one is from Mars? Where Frenchmen no longer have any différence to vivre? A land where the man of the house is more Mrs Doubtfire than Mr Atlas? Where pubs no longer echo to loud-mouthed arguing over the merits of back fours and deep-lying strikers, but where, instead, hair-netted old men clack their knitting needles over glasses of lukewarm sherry? Boating accidents where the cry goes up: “Hermaphrodites and children first!” Editions of Top Gear fronted by Jemima Clarkson
…So much FAIL in one short paragraph…
And from the other article, It’s official: Men really are the weaker sex, there are gems like The male gender is in danger… and – complete with scare quotes – …”gender-bending”…
It would be so easy to rip to shreds what seems like nothing more than junk journalism, but really, what would be the point? Well, apart from a certain sense of grim satisfaction in demolishing – yet again – a string of wrong-headed gender stereotypes. Although, given my particular interest in the ways that gender is used to oppress those who don’t conform, I really can’t let the use of the term ‘hermaphrodites’ go unchallenged. As a friend of mine says: “Flowers are hermaphrodite, humans are intersex”.
Despite my concerns about the gender bias, both articles are, in fact, pointing out a comprehensive report, Effects of Pollutants on the Reproductive Health of Male Vertebrate Wildlife – Males Under Threat, published by CHEM Trust, which suggests that the huge number of commonly-used chemicals in the environment is feminising males of every class of vertebrates, from fish to mammals, including people.
In this light, both newspaper articles do actually contain some useful facts – which makes their dressing up in heavy-handed and offensive gender stereotypes even more mystifying, as well as plain unnecessary.
The 3-page press release (direct link to PDF file) announcing the report includes the following thought-provoking findings:
In mammals, genital disruption in males has been widely reported, including: intersex features (such as egg tissue in the testes of the male); small phallus; small testes; undescended testes; abnormal testes; or ambiguous genitals.
The males of egg-laying species including fish, amphibians, birds, and reptiles have also been feminised by exposure to sex hormone disrupting chemicals and have been found to be abnormally making egg yolk protein, normally made by females.
There are various ways that man-made hormone disrupting chemicals can undermine the sexual health of male wildlife. For example, chemicals which block the male hormone androgen, the so-called anti-androgenic chemicals, can cause un-descended testes and can feminise males. Similarly, some sex hormone disrupting chemicals can mimic oestrogen, the female hormone, and also feminise males.
Many man-made chemicals can block androgen action, and these include several pesticides and some phthalates, used in consumer products to make plastics flexible. Worryingly, a study of effluents from UK sewage works has found that around three quarters of these discharges have considerable anti-androgenic activity, and investigations are underway to identify the chemicals to blame.
Given that humans are just one part of a huge and complex eco-system, it makes me wonder whether similar adverse effects are to be seen in the human population. I don’t think one needs to be a scientist or an academic to figure out the answer to that one; but I do think there’s another equally important question which hasn’t been asked here, and I can only hope that a sister report will soon be forthcoming, titled Effects of Pollutants on the Reproductive Health of Female Vertebrate Wildlife – Females Under Threat.
The report Effects of Pollutants on the Reproductive Health of Male Vertebrate Wildlife – Males Under Threat is available for download from CHEM Trust (link here) or here:
ETA: Talk about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things – if nothing else, this piece in the Sunday Times should give an insight into the likely extent of the problem. Nothing’s been proven either way, but I do wonder where these PCBs have come from – are they, too, environmental pollutants? If they’ve come from the food chain, how did they get there?
Deadly contaminant found in Irish pork
CONSUMERS were warned last night to check the origin of all pork products after high levels of toxins were found in pigs slaughtered in Ireland.
The Irish authorities found that pork products on several farms had levels of dioxin poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) between 80 and 200 times more than the recognised safe limit.
(Cross-posted from bird of paradox)
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