Monday, October 8, 2007

Phthalates, Matthew McConaughey, and Fish?

I was reading an interesting book this week – Boys Adrift, by Leonard Sax. It describes what he considers the 5 factors that are contributing to the decline of the productive male in American society. Basically, he sees an epidemic of “slacker dudes” everywhere he looks – young men who have no ambition and no drive to do anything but play video games, live like parasites off their parents and/or girlfriends/wives, and indulge in online porn. He likens them to the Matthew McConaughey character in the movie Failure to Launch.

I read it with a degree of skepticism. I don’t know too many males living this life he describes. Most of the men I know are gainfully employed. Those that aren’t have chosen to be at-home dads, and they’re working hard at that role. They’re definitely not the slackers Dr. Sax is describing. But then again, most of the men I know are already well into their 30s or above. And none of them look like Matthew McConaughey. Maybe my sample is skewed.

However, as I talked to some friends this week, a couple of their younger brother-in-laws cropped up in the conversation, and they sounded suspiciously like the slacker dudes in the book. Hmmm.

While I don’t necessarily agree with everything the doctor was describing in his book, it made me think about some things I hadn’t really considered before. One of the 5 factors he describes is the unfortunate celebration of violence and law-breaking in video games – I agreed 100% with that one. But one factor I hadn’t ever heard of before was “endocrine disruptors.” Basically, he cites a bunch of studies that show that phthalates –chemicals in polycarbonate plastic used in things like bottles, plastic wrap, and baggies – are being blamed for mimicking estrogen, causing a drastic drop in men’s testosterone levels (among other things), and killing the ambition and drive that testosterone controls in men. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but you get the idea. He even cites studies that show one out of every three college-age men have sexual dysfunction now. One in three? Wow. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was in college!

Oddly enough, the estrogen-mimicking chemical seems to have the opposite affect in women – women seem to have more energy and drive to accomplish things than before, and their bodies are maturing at an earlier age.

He also reports that in some areas where phthalates are prominent in the water supply, such as the Potomac River, male fish are growing eggs instead of sperm and male animals are becoming feminized. As my son says, “Ewwey!”

So what has this got to do with food allergies? Maybe nothing. But this alarming decrease in men’s testosterone levels has been happening over the last couple of decades.

That got my attention. Food allergies have drastically increased over the last couple of decades, too.

And, coincidentally, the rate of autism has been increasing over those same couple of decades.

Nothing says these three things are related. But it kind of makes me wonder. Thirty or forty years ago, we didn’t use plastic in nearly as much food packaging. We didn’t have as many synthetic chemicals in foods. We didn’t lug pre-bottled water everywhere we went – we drank it out of glasses or metal thermoses. (On the other hand, we did use a lot more really nasty stuff like DDT and asbestos. So perhaps we’ve just traded poisons.)

Phthalates have made our lives more convenient. But maybe it’s changed our bodies in ways we’re just beginning to suspect.

During the Roman Empire, the Romans made amazing strides in civilization. Their forms of government, their art, their philosophy, and their architecture grew by leaps and bounds beyond anything that had come before. One of their incredible inventions that made city life so much more progressive, hygienic, and convenient was indoor plumbing. They ran water pipes throughout their cities, bringing fresh water to the populace and draining “used” water away. It was a phenomenal accomplishment.

The only problem was that the pipes they laid so precisely were made of lead.

Madness was an unexpected, and to the Romans inexplicable, side effect of convenience.

I can’t help but wonder if, in the name of convenience, we are now changing our environment in ways we don’t yet understand, introducing problems we don’t know how to fix, or affecting our society in ways we can’t recover from.

Great. Like I needed something new to worry about. Of course, I’m just grasping at straws and probably making mountains out of coincidence molehills. We’ve got years of studies ahead of us before we really find out what’s happening to cause all these food allergies. I would welcome some solid science right about now.

Oh well. I gotta run. I’m going shopping for a steel thermos.

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