I recently screened part of the film “Bag It“, an entertaining documentary that examines the role of plastics in our lives. There is great information about how human’s use of plastic is impacting our greater environment, but one portion of it is especially interesting from a framing perspective. The film discusses the impact of plastics on human health which brings up some complicated chemistry, but the bottom line is not good for any human, side effects from plastic usage can mean anything from asthma to cancer. One side effect hasn’t got as much play, but it should, it’s a side effect that might unite environmentalists with conservatives. The side effect is endocrine disruption.
Endocrine disruption happens because very small amounts of certain plastic chemicals – like bisphenol A (BPA) and pthalates – can seriously interfere with our hormonal health. They can cause sterility, early puberty, reproductive problems, and small penises. That’s right, higher rates of exposure to endocrine disruptors in the womb correlate to shorter penis size. Endocrine disruptors act as anit-androgens, that is they disrupt the male hormone from doing its thing. Aside from general hormonal problems, the effects especially impact male sex organs by reducing the size of the penis, reducing the gonads, “feminizing” the sex organs (decreasing the anogenital distance, also known as hypospaedias in males), and lowering testosterone. In 1992, Danish doctors reported a 50% drop in sperm counts in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 50 years. They then came up with a list of male reproductive problems that have increased that can be traced back to exposure in the womb. Testosterone in U.S. men has dropped 17% in the last 20 years.
Endocrine disruptors are currently found in all reproductive fiber and fluid – semen, placenta, breast milk, even inside a newborn baby. This exposure to endocrine disruptors before birth should be of particular concern, it’s when we are most vulnerable. Without properly functioning endocrine systems, humans can go extinct in a matter of a few generations, just as other animal species before us. We have polluted enough ecosystems (sometimes on purpose as an “experiment” that we have seen the devastatingly fast effects – especially on males – hormone tampering can have on a population.
One reason these chemicals are still in our lives is that the extremely low release of chemicals to humans is lower than the health screens will test for. However, because many modern lifestyles use plastics constantly throughout the day in every phase of life – home, food, car, workplace – those low doses indeed have a cumulative effect. Another obvious reason why they are still being used is that the plastic industry is so huge, they do not want reports to scare the public into making them change their ways (again). One use of a plastic product can’t be shown to be devastating to health, so the plastic industry can say that they are being safe despite evidence piling up to the contrary.
The effects of this chemical accumulation may not manifest for years after being exposed. The effects of some of these products might not manifest for a generation or two. We are changing our chemical makeup. Toxicology tests do not account for particular stages of human development being more vulnerable than others, and it does not take into account the timing of the doses being stretched out and near constant.
What does this have to do with framing and politics? Well, there are obviously health and environmental issues that normally fall into a progressive camp of concern, but the information about penis size, the de-masculinization of male babies, the drop in testosterone, the malformation of sex organs, the impact on reproduction, the tendency for people to be more gender bendy – those issues fall squarely in the conservative wheelhouse.
Conservatives value authority and tradition; disruption of traditional male and female roles and the nuclear family pose a threat to their way of thinking and way of life. The tradition in this country puts power and authority in the hands of men. If men aren’t “manly”, can’t reproduce, or are not motivated to be the head of a nuclear family, the conservative way of life falls apart. This one of the reasons that so many conservatives do not like homosexuals – they can’t figure out where they belong in society. As hormone levels get changed, the heterosexual drive is also changed. It can be argued that with increased endocrine disruptors comes a greater instance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. From a conservative Christian perspective, the shifting of traditional masculine duties and drives is against God. The conclusion…
Excess plastic use threatens the conservative way of life, the nuclear family, traditional gender roles, and goes against their idea of God.
I say “excess” because certainly plastic does some good in this world, it does save lives, but plastic usage is out of control. I don’t know if a typical American can avoid plastic for five minutes – it is pervasive everywhere. Even in the womb, even in “wilderness”, certainly in the ocean, it’s everywhere. We know we can afford to continue using fossil fuels like they are going out of style (btw – they are going out of style), so we should add to the demand that plastics get removed from products that don’t need them. We should look at our consumer choices and try to avoid buying plastics when possible and let our food producers know that we don’t like having our cans lined with plastic. Most importantly, we should let our lawmakers know that we don’t want plastic in our bodies or our children’s bodies.
If it wasn’t for the massive lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industries, surely this announcement of a small penis epidemic would have made headlines around the world. It is a strange case of framing with unlikely “bedfellows” when you set up environmentalism as a stage for an anti-gay argument. However, these are the links we may have to sometimes find to get an audience interested in a problem that impacts us all. These are the barriers we must learn to overcome, look aside or buckle down to work on if we want messages to cross into new territory. There’s one thing for certain, this issue is a conversation starter.
Information from this piece is provided by “Bag It”, endocrinedisruption.com, and ecologycenter.org.