I admit it. I love Mad Men, the series Matthew Weiner created and that ran on AMC from 2007 to 2015. Watching Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Joan Harris, Peggy Olsen, and the rest of the characters, whose lives are wrapped up in the mid-1960s ad firm Sterling Cooper, is like riding in a tour vehicle among the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.
Set in another time and place—Manhattan circa 1960-1970—Mad Men might as well have taken place 65-million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous Period, when T-Rex was disappearing from the planet.
Don Draper, the highly sought-after Madison Avenue ad man, is the testosterone-driven alpha predator incarnate and prime example of the powerful influence that the male hormone has on our lives.
However, scientific evidence has been accumulating in the last decade that men’s levels of testosterone are declining as the result of exposure to chemical toxins. Scientists are discovering that our modern lifestyle has massive trade-offs, and they are just beginning to discern the extent of those consequences by comparing our current health to that of past generations.
We will never know with certainty how much testosterone circulated in Don Draper’s bloodstream or the tissues of the other lesser males of the Mad Men characters. But we do know that men like Don tend to have higher amounts than other males, according to a 2010 study in the journal Management Science on the relationship between the hormone’s concentration in the blood and men’s success in business.
The study found that executives with the highest testosterone tend to be short-tempered, lack patience when negotiating, are more likely to fail at takeovers, and subject their own companies to hostile actions. They are workplace disasters when it comes to leadership and professional relationships.
Studies since then continue to uncover evidence of the negative effects of testosterone. A 2019 report from Psychoneuroendocrinology found “causal evidence that testosterone reduces generosity in human economic decision-making.”
Moving to the personal, an article published that year in Biological Psychology, offered its conclusion in its title: “Higher testosterone levels are associated with unfaithful behavior in men.”
ON THE BRINK
The Massachusetts Male Aging Study, one of the largest cohorts of men whose testosterone levels are being measured, put the rate of loss at 1 percent per year or about 15 percent between 1987 and 2004, according to a 2007 article in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. That means a man age fifty-five in 1987 had 15 percent more of the hormone than men of the same age in 2004.
Research from Denmark among 5,000 men found that boomers born in 1960 had 14 percent less testosterone than men from the mid-to-late 1920s, the Silent Generation of Don Draper, the last to be conceived without such exposures.
In 2020, a study in European Urology Focus found declines in serum testosterone levels among American teens and young adult men.
It might seem from some of testosterone’s documented horrors that the less there is of it in men’s bodies the better off we will all be. For example, early on in relationships, men’s levels decline while women’s rise, a sort of yin-yang balancing act. Men who work at desk jobs have less testosterone than soldiers on the battlefield. Weight lifters have more than musicians. Those are good ways that we interact with our environment to produce favorable declines.
But scientists tell us that normal aging processes and lifestyle factors do not account for the declines they have documented. Something from the environment is interfering with how men produce and metabolize testosterone.
Chronic lifetime exposure to a family of durable synthetic compounds called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) interferes with the body’s normal metabolism of estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormone. Inside the human body they interact with our cells as if they were a toxic form of the female sex hormone estrogen. Their impact is all-encompassing and involves every stage of our children’s sexual and neurological development on a massive scale.
EDC use exploded in the 1950s with the post-World War II petrochemical boom in the midst of few, if any, environmental or health restrictions. They are used in thousands of consumer products from Hush Puppies, Gore-Tex, Stain-Master, and Teflon to cosmetics and foods. Public and private testing has begun to detect them in the drinking water of a growing number of Americans, as I reported in writing about Hoosick Falls, New York.
Scientists have discovered EDC-exposed male babies suffer sexual health problems such as damaged sperm, smaller testicles, shorter penises, and misplaced urethral openings that occur along the shaft of the penis instead of the tip (hypospadia).
EDCS, CHILDREN’S BRAINS, AND SOCIETY
The sex hormones have profound influences throughout the body and how our brains develop, and even small changes due to chemical exposures (measured in parts per billion, the equivalent of a drop of water in a shiny oil-tanker truck) can impact how a fetus develops, and how a child thinks, adapts to challenges, accepts change, internalizes or externalizes emotions and thoughts, and, therefore, interacts in society. The sex hormones direct the shape and activity of every region in the brain in both sexes. But EDCs are toxic. They play tricks on the cartography of the brain and the expression of the genes.
To give you an idea of the serious threat our children face, almost all canned food linings are made from plastic containing bisphenol-A (BPA) and bisphenol-S (BPS). Both have been shown to act primarily as a weak estrogen in the brain. They activate receptors on the surfaces of the cells that transmit information to the RNA within the cells and transcribe it for the DNA. The blueprint that the DNA receives determines genetic influences. That is how the brain develops.
Research on mothers exposed to BPA in pregnancy have found that newborns suffer alterations in emotional behavior and the ability to socially interact, cognitive impairment, reduced IQ, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, notes Dr. Joseph Braun of the Department of Epidemiology at Brown University in a 2016 article in Nature Reviews. Endocrinology. Finally, both BPA and BPS are linked in human studies with childhood obesity.
The boomers born after World War II were the first to feel the widespread impact of EDCs. But research is uncovering a tsunami of changes washing over their children and grandchildren—millennials and Gen Z—according to a 2021 article in the American Journal of Epidemiology that has documented increases in anxiety and depression, along with obesity, throughout the last fifty years. Lead author Dr. Hui Zheng, professor of sociology at Ohio State University, didn’t speculate on causes but noted smoking couldn’t explain the rise in poor physical health.
SEEING THE UNSEEN
As we learned from COVID-19, science often presents complex factual realities whose effects are happening although they’re difficult to comprehend, much less combat with public health policies. We are a society that has terrible divisions, and EDCs are perpetuating our tribalism.
While American IQs have largely been increasing over the last century, this is the result of improved education and affording people the chance to constantly renew themselves and their skills, according to IQ researcher James Flynn in a 2013 article from the American Psychological Association. The people whose IQs are increasing are going to college, increasing their skills, and adapting to an ever-changing society. But scientists such as Flynn also speculate this progress may not continue.
EDCs are accelerating the numbers of lower-IQ kids who are more likely to grow up confused, helpless, anxious, and antisocial. The high stress of chemical assaults via the drinking water of millions of Americans is its own source of trauma and disease for adults, and this may impact us all. But their actual toxic effects are hurting our kids’ ability to think and their future prospects. That should be frightening.
To start protecting ourselves and our children, we can become informed consumers. Certainly, cutting down on canned foods is an obvious change. Purchasing more organics will also help to cut down on EDC exposures.
But where will women find EDC-free lipstick? And how many persons know that some almond butters are contaminated with very high levels of an industrial EDC called acrylamide? Information on these products is available from the Environmental Working Group and my nonprofit organization HealthyLivinG Foundation but scarcely elsewhere.
Part of the problem is that many of the worst offending ingredients or contaminants in our foods and products are never disclosed to consumers. That’s one reason the problems are so systemic and demand we re-envision antitoxic legislation, as I’ve detailed in “How to Be Smarter in the Fight Against Chemical Toxins.” We need more, not less, transparency.
President Joseph Biden has begun addressing these issues in his infrastructure plan, which includes reducing EDCs in drinking water in communities throughout the nation. Meanwhile, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) introduced legislation in April to address industrial-scale contamination of communities nationwide by adding several of the most notorious EDCs under Superfund law, helping reduce pollution in drinking water sources.
But we need much more on both the state and federal levels. To learn more about antitoxic legislation in your state or region, visit Safer States.
We can create a healthier, more humane society with stronger antitoxic laws. On the other hand, what if we don’t act now when we have the political opportunity?
Then we must ask: What happens to a society that is progressively creating an underclass of humans with lost potential? To humans robbed of the extra edge they need to succeed in a complex, challenging world? To a community when another one in ten kids cannot functionally cope in society due to neurological fetal developmental damage and becomes antisocial? We should be asking these questions and acting on what we know if we want a chance for a better future.
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