Milk protest reflects a larger concern about additives


February 15, 1994|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Special to The Sun

Women today are more concerned than ever before about additives in their food. With scientists creating new chemicals every week, it is no wonder that people are nervous. This concern for what goes into our food literally spilled over last week when angry consumers dumped milk on the streets of New York to protest the lifting of the ban on the use of an artificial growth hormone in cows to increase milk production.

Their fear stemmed from possible exposure to residual hormones in the milk. Let's try to put this concern into perspective.

Q: Why does the government allow the use of hormones in milk-producing cows?

A: The use of hormones in cows has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration. The fact that it has been approved by the FDA should reassure most consumers that it has been through a rigorous testing process for all possible harmful effects.

This hormone is a controlled substance. The level of exposure and potential harm to humans is thought to be almost nonexistent. The scientists' concerns focus on compounds in the environment that potentially mimic estrogens produced by animals and humans. These compounds may arise from the use of some pesticides and herbicides. Recent scientific meetings have focused on this problem.

Q: Which pesticides are dangerous, and are they commonly used?

A: Pesticides and herbicides are an integral part of farming in the United States. They allow us to produce large quantities of food with highly efficient soil use. However, many of the agents that we commonly use to increase food production are not easily biodegradable and, therefore, will accumulate in the soil and contaminate water.

When people eat these contaminated materials, the agents get into the fat tissue and remain there for a long time. The same is true for animals. DDE is one of the substances of particular concern.

DDE is a breakdown product of the pesticide DDT, which was banned in 1972 but which has continued to leave marks in humans and in the environment.

Q: What has raised scientists' concerns?

A: Scientists have begun to notice reproductive changes in various species.

They have seen alligator eggs that fail to hatch and have noticed the development of feminized males in other species that have reduced the number of offspring.

Q: Is there any evidence of these effects in humans?

A: Scientists have approached the question of whether humans have signs of similar effects by examining possible diseases of reproductive organs and by studying breast cancers. The reproductive changes and data are very limited at present, but ++ some studies have suggested that changes have occurred.

In particular, a recent study indicated that women with high levels of DDE in their blood were more likely to develop breast cancer than women who do not have these high levels.

Breast tissue has estrogen receptors on its cells, and the theory is that increased exposure of this tissue to estrogen may increase the risk of breast cancer. It is important to remember, jTC however, that the natural levels of estrogen in the body are high compared with this small added burden.

Dr. Genevieve Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is a founding director of the school's Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.

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