Toxicity Translations

Highlights from the SETAC focused topic meeting on endocrine disruption, days 1 & 2
by Abigail McEwen -- March 4th, 2014

Three days, thirty-one presentations, five coffee breaks, and one professional training course later, and my first conference was over.

A month has passed since I first wrote about heading off to the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) focused topic meeting on endocrine disruption. Even as I write this, I am still attempting to make sense of all the information I learned during those few days (not to mention the 24 pages of notes I took).

While I continue to sort through this information, which will surely make its way into future blog posts, here are some highlights from the conference.

Day 1: the professional training course 

Day 1 began late in the afternoon at the conference hotel in Raleigh, NC. A small number of us attendees were there a day early to take an optional training course titled “The Endocrine System: Global Perspectives on Testing Methods and Evaluation of Endocrine Activity”. In three short hours, we covered basic endocrine system physiology, laboratory testing measures, risk assessment approaches, and global regulatory issues. It was a crash course in endocrine disruption!

The final hour was dedicated to an interactive group exercise. We were divided into small groups and asked to determine whether or not a hypothetical chemical might be an endocrine disruptor. In our course packet was a list of the 19 screening tests currently used by the EPA Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program. Every time we ordered a test, we received a results card and had to evaluate the data. Sounds easy, right?

The catch was that we had a strict budget and time limit. Each time we ordered a test we had to cash up some (fake) money and move forward in time. It was our job to come up with the best strategy to get the required information, while minimizing our costs and meeting our deadlines. 

This was not the simplest of tasks. Many times we thought we were on the right track, only to receive a results card that gave us little to no information. But of course, this is exactly what happens in the real world. From my experiences working in labs, data is inconclusive and difficult to interpret more often then not!

While frustrating at times, this exercise was a great opportunity to practice thinking like a managing scientist and I learned a lot just by listening to the experienced professionals within my group.

Day 2: speaker sessions and a poster social 

Day 2 began early at the US EPA headquarters in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The first official day of the conference was organized around three lecture based sessions.

Session 1 began with an introduction to the themes of the conference. I particularly enjoyed hearing perspectives from the European Union (EU). While many chemical companies are global, the US, EU, and other countries take very different approaches to chemical regulation. The regulatory authorities do not even recognize the same definition of an “endocrine disruptor”.

The EU was scheduled to provide its own definition last December, but could not make that deadline. It is unclear when exactly they will issue this definition. At first, this puzzled me. How hard can it be to generate a definition? But in reality, this “simple” definition will have huge regulatory implications for what is considered hazardous or not. 

The second session was focused on the Tier 1 screening procedures. Chemicals required to complete the US EPA endocrine disruptor screening program are first required to go through the more “simple” Tier 1 screening procedures. The goal of this program is just to determine if a chemical may interact with the endocrine system, not to understand any possible effects.

Chemicals that do not pass this screen are then required to undergo Tier 2 testing, which was the focus of the third and final session. As of now, Tier 2 testing has not yet begun for most of the initial priority chemicals.

Unlike the Tier 1 screen, Tier 2 focuses on understanding the effects chemicals have on the development of an organism. The proposed tests include a one generation reproduction test in fish (medeka), a larval amphibian growth and development assay, a two generation aquatic shrimp (mysid) toxicity test, and an avian toxicity test in the Japanese Quail. Researchers are currently working on perfecting these tests so that they are properly standardized and run smoothly in the lab.

Based on this, it is clear that the chemicals on the endocrine disruptor screening list are going to be run through a very large number of tests. It is tempting to think that this may provide a final, definitive answer on whether or not a chemical is actually an endocrine disruptor. But, as I mentioned above, it is seems very unlikely that this large amount of data will be easy to interpret. This has been the case for the well studied pesticide Atrazine, for which there is a large amount of data and no conclusive answer.

After a day jam packed with speakers, Day 2 ended with a poster social. The short coffee breaks did not leave much time for face-to-face interaction, so it was nice to be able to network a little. But soon, my exhaustion took over and I headed home to rest up for Day 3.

Coming up next… my recap of the third and final day and some overall thoughts on my first conference experience. In the meantime, check on the official SETAC blog for more information on endocrine disruption, risk assessment, and some of the discussions that happened at this conference. 

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