OUR STOLEN FUTURE Theo Colborn, John Peterson Myers, and Dianne Dumansoki, Little Brown $175 Like a Greek tragedy, Our Stolen Future is about hubris, ignorance and the sickness with which an unwitting but nevertheless culpable cast of characters are infected. But the victims are not fictitious characters. They are the human race, who have been both agent and object of scientific folly. Though this book is a factual account of the creation and disastrous impact of synthetic chemicals, the analogy to ancient theatre is apt in more ways than one. The story of man's dalliance with chemicals begins with a proud hero challenging nature. At first, he seems invincible. Unwittingly, however, he creates forces that will be his undoing. In order to make their subject accessible, the authors - a zoologist, a director of a private environmental organisation and a reporter - present their material in a form which aims to assemble a detective or mystery story rather than a scientific treatise. To predict our future with synthetic chemicals, the authors delve into man's past experience of them. Chapter after chapter, instances are recounted of scientific 'breakthroughs' which later lead to terrible consequences. Their main theme is that chemicals may impact on hormonal balances, altering fertility and causing sexual deformities and aberrant behaviour. The most startling evidence recounted in the book deals with the hormonal effects on animals. The full effects on humans are, in most cases, still under research. Paul Muller was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1948 for developing DDT, a chemical 'spread as liberally as talcum powder' because of its ability to control crop-eating pests. Later, DDT was found to disrupt sexual development of male birds by feminising them. The chemical did this by acting like the female hormone estrogen. In 1941, Thomas Midgley Jr received the coveted Priestly Prize for chemistry in recognition of his development of an alternative to toxic chemicals used as refrigerator coolants. After more than 40 years on the market, CFCs were discovered to be attacking the ozone layer of our atmosphere. Du Pont, once the leading manufacturer of CFCs, finally phased them out. In the early 1980s, Times Beach, Missouri, had to evacuate all its 2,240 residents after a company sprayed dirt roads with a dioxin-tainted oil. Studies also showed dioxin reduced sperm levels in men. Recent research on animals indicates that dioxins disrupt natural hormones. There is some evidence that they do long-term damage to the reproductive system of males exposed in the womb and affect the sexual behaviour of male pups. However, the question is still open to debate. Whether human beings respond in the same way is also unclear. The effect of synthetic chemicals has been so pervasive that the authors contend no human has escaped contamination from chemicals capable of disrupting their hormonal balances. The authors' attempt to make the book read like a novel doesn't always quite work. The 'plot' soon gets lost and chapters become didactic. But even when describing the composition of hormones and chemicals such as DDT, the authors take care to keep the text accessible to the lay reader. Their conclusions often seem startling, and point to a range of frightening possibilities. Our Stolen Future is a political book and makes no attempt to disguise this. The foreword is written by US Vice-President Al Gore, who has his own environmentalist agenda. To their credit, the authors are restrained in drawing conclusions, never going beyond the evidence accumulated by research. The details of past disasters with chemicals demonstrate how man has leapt ahead of himself in applying science without knowing what the consequences might be. As the authors note: 'In the end, what we did not know proved to be more important than what we did know. In the end, what we thought were the safe chemicals proved to be among the most dangerous.' The lesson to be drawn is that we must beware and be aware that we often don't know the right questions to ask, let alone the answers. The authors are unable to offer grand, sweeping solutions to the dilemma. After all, they note, chlorinated synthetic chemicals and their products make up a startling 45 per cent of world GNP. They call for a phase-out of hormone-disrupting chemicals and a significant slowdown of experiments with synthetic chemicals. But, the authors lament, having become so dependent on chemicals over the past 50 years, we are likely to take more than five decades to work our way out of the dilemma.