Getting a Grip on Endocrine Disruption
by Abigail McEwen -- February 3rd, 2014
Have you ever tried to catch a frog? If so, then you will know that they are slippery little creatures.
My sole frog catching experiences comes from inside the laboratory. While studying abroad in the spring of 2012, I interned in an environmental toxicology laboratory at Uppsala University in Sweden. Here, I worked with a species of frog in the Xenopus genus, or as they are commonly called: clawed frogs.
I quickly learned that even in a tiny aquarium, my slow moving hands were no match for a speedy frog. Just as soon as I thought I had finally made progress, the frog would go slipping out of my hand like butter.
Occasionally, I would get overconfident and remove the frog before checking my grip. With one swift move, the frog was out and hopping across the lab bench towards freedom. I’m sure the senior lab members got quite a kick out of watching the intern frantically attempt to corral runaway frogs. Luckily for me, frogs are a bit easier to catch out of water.
So what was I doing with all these frogs? Studying endocrine disruption.
More specifically, studying how exposure to synthetic hormones found in oral contraceptive pills might effect the development and reproduction of adult frogs.
On a basic level, an endocrine disruptor is anything that affects the natural regulation of hormones such as insulin, estrogen, or testosterone. This disruption can have consequences for development and function of reproductive organs. For more information on endocrine disruption, check out this EPA site. For a list of chemicals considered to have endocrine disrupting properties, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List.
Frogs are somewhat of the unofficial mascot for endocrine disruption. They are a common and easy to use laboratory animal and a particularly vulnerable population in the wild. The presence of feminized male frogs is often cited as evidence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in the environment.
And just as with frogs, it is hard to get a grip on the dangers of endocrine disruption. Scientific evidence is often conflicting or difficult to interpret, and when it is not it leaves us with the question: what are we supposed to do about it?
This week, I am heading to the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) focused topic meeting on endocrine disruption. The proposed goal of this conference is to tackle some of the harder issues surrounding endocrine disruption, such as chemical testing procedures and risk assessment approaches and implications.
Rather appropriately, the meeting website and program are adorned with the face of a great, grumpy looking frog.
But unlike that frog, I am very excited. Not only is this my first professional conference, but it is on the topic that basically served as my introduction to ecotoxicology and environmental health.
What am I most excited for? A professional training course, perspectives from the European Union, and a whole lot of frog talk!
Curious to hear more about endocrine disruption and my conference experiences? Stay tuned for updates!
Photographs courtesy of public domain collections from the National Park Service and The University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.