WASHINGTON, D.C. --One of the hottest environmental issues around--whether hormonelike pollutants are causing reproductive and other health problems in humans--got some attention today from the White House, which issued a rough sketch for a federal research strategy on the topic.
There have been controversial claims that exposure to a class of compounds called endocrine disruptors--chemicals that can act like hormones--has caused damage to wildlife, including a report that alligators that live in a polluted Florida lake have abnormally small penises. These claims have raised widespread concerns about whether endocrine disruptors pose a threat to human health, and some have suggested that they may be partly responsible for a postulated--and much disputed--decline in sperm counts.
The new report, from a panel of the interagency National Science and Technology Council, says that too little is known about endocrine disruptors to say where they rank compared to other environmental problems such as global warming and loss of species habitat. However, the panel says, it's "very clear" that "a concerted federal research effort" is needed.
Among areas the panel says should be studied further are possible cancer, reproductive, neurological, and immunological effects of endocrine disruptors. The report, which drew heavily on two Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workshops held in 1995, also recommends more research on such topics as DNA biomarkers that can gauge an organism's exposure to endocrine disruptors; models for predicting how endocrine disruptors are metabolized; mechanisms of how endocrine disruptors act at a cellular level; and the effects of mixtures. The panel also unveiled today a Web-based inventory  of research in this area.
The panel now plans to develop an interagency agenda of specific research projects based on the strategy and inventory. "Hopefully we can provide a mechanism for these research plans to converge," says panel chair Larry Reiter of the EPA.