Camp Lejeune and the U.S. Military’s Polluted Legacy
By Alexander Nazaryan / July 16, 2014 5:36 AM EDT

The old railroad track, now a bike and jogging path, winds through the forest that separates Camp Lejeune from Highway 24, which caters to the thousands of Marines stationed here with cheap barbershops that will trim your high-and-tight for $5, furniture stores for the many young families on base, a couple of gun shops, a few bars and the requisite jiggle joint. None of this familiarly shabby Americana is even remotely visible from the verdant path. Trees crowd the sylvan trail like overeager children at a Fourth of July parade, their branches poking through the base’s barbed wire fence. You hear far more woodpeckers and thrushes than Osprey helicopters. Spend enough time on this lush greenway or on the dunes of nearby Onslow Beach and you might forget that Camp Lejeune may be, as Dan Rather once said, “the worst example of water contamination this country has ever seen.”

Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, is a toxic paradox, a place where young men and women were poisoned while in the service of their nation. They swore to defend this land, and the land made them sick. And there are hundreds of Camp Lejeunes across the country, military sites contaminated with all manner of pollutants, from chemical weapon graveyards to vast groundwater deposits of gasoline. Soldiers know they might be felled by a sniper’s bullet in Baghdad or a roadside bomb in the gullies of Afghanistan. They might even expect it. But waterborne carcinogens are not an enemy whose ambush they prepare for.

That toxic enemy is far more prevalent than most American suspect, not to mention far more intractable. That the Department of Defense is the world’s worst polluter is a refrain one often hears from environmentalists, who have long-standing, unsurprising gripes with the military-industrial complex. But politics aside, the greenies have a convincing point. Dive into the numbers, as I did, and the Pentagon starts to make Koch Industries look like an organic farm.

In size alone, the Department of Defense dwarfs the footprint of any corporation: 4,127 installations spread across 19 million acres of American soil. Maureen Sullivan, who heads the Pentagon’s environmental programs, told me her office must contend with 39,000 contaminated sites (to be fair, a single base can have several, some as small as a single building).

Camp Lejeune is one of the Department of Defense’s 141 Superfund sites; that’s about 10 percent of all Superfund sites, easily topping any other polluter. And if the definition is broadened out beyond proprietary Pentagon installations, then about 900 of the 1,200 or so Superfund sites in the United States are “abandoned military facilities or facilities that produced materials and products for or otherwise supported military needs,” according to a presidential panel on cancer.

“Almost every military site in this country is seriously contaminated,” said John D. Dingell, a soon-to-retire Michigan congressman who served in World War II. “Lejeune is one of many.”

These military sites form a sort of toxic archipelago across the land: Kelly Air Force Base in Texas, where the Air Force allegedly dumped trichloroethylene (TCE) into the soil, part of what some residents call a “toxic triangle” in south-central Texas; McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California, which includes not only fuel plumes and industrial solvents but also radioactive waste; Umatilla Chemical Depot in the plains of northern Oregon, where mustard gas and VX nerve gas were stored; Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a onetime sarin stockpile just north of Denver; the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod, poisoned by explosives and perchlorate, a rocket fuel component that is emerging as a major Pentagon pollutant. But because Camp Lejeune’s abuses and betrayals are more flagrant, it has become a test case for whether the military can defend our soil without ruining it.

To those who suffered at Camp Lejeune, an ugly truth about the American military has revealed itself, a truth no amount of compensation or self-flagellation can vanquish. “I would never recommend to anyone that they go into the Marine Corps,” said former Marine corporal Peter Devereaux, who has good reason to believe that his breast cancer is the result of drinking Camp Lejeune’s tainted water. The Marines, he said, “are like a mafia.”

As I was finishing this article, one of the Camp Lejeune activists I’d been speaking to sent me a short, sad email. “So much for our environment,” the brief note said, linking to a Supreme Court ruling that was published that morning, June 9. The case, CTS Corporation v. Waldburger, called into question how long defendants in North Carolina had to sue industry for sickness or death caused by pollution. By ruling for CTS, the polluter, the Supremes indirectly but incontrovertibly complicated the efforts of those seeking compensation at Camp Lejeune. The fight, always hard, suddenly got harder.

Methyl-Ethyl Death

Among those who could never again be charmed again by Camp Lejeune’s bucolic seaside surroundings is Jerry Ensminger, who today lives in nearby White Lake, North Carolina. Ensminger joined the Marines during the Vietnam War, in which his brother had been wounded. After a stint in Okinawa, he was assigned to Camp Lejeune in 1973. He and his wife lived in a housing complex on the base’s northern edge. Their second daughter, Janey, was born in 1976. Photographs show a pretty girl with bangs and cheeks like apples. In one picture, she clenches her teeth and proudly shows off invisible biceps, in what looks like an imitation of her ball-busting drill sergeant of a father.

But then, no more happy pictures. At the age of 6, Janey was diagnosed with leukemia. In the photographs that follow, her hair is cut short. Deposits of fat, from treatments, pad her body. You can see that she knows things no child should have to know. On September 24, 1985, Janey Ensminger died. She was 9.

There were many Janeys at Lejeune, and some didn’t even make it through their first year of life. As Mike Magner writes in A Trust Betrayed, his masterfully thorough book on Camp Lejeune, the base hosted a grim dance of miscarriages, stillbirths and inexplicable postnatal deaths, especially during the 1960s and ’70s: Christopher Townsend, dead at 3½ months from a legion of ailments; Michelle McLaughlin, dead at birth; Eileen Marie Stasiak, dead in the womb. Ricky Gagnoni, alive but a single month, started to bleed from his mouth as his mother fed him and died the next day. So many infants perished at Camp Lejeune that a nearby cemetery had a section mourning parents named “Baby Heaven[1] [2] .”

Finding no other answers, grieving parents turned the loaded gun of guilt upon themselves. “I blamed myself for years,” a mother named Mary Freshwater would later testify. “I hated myself, I hated my body, ’cause I thought I had failed my children.” Standing at a podium, unable or unwilling to hide her tears, she held up the pajamas her infant son was wearing when he died. She had never washed the vomit he’d left on them. She said that after his death, base officials urged her and her husband to try again. They did. And their next son died, too.

“I have two graves out in Onslow Memorial Park,” Freshwater said.

Those with plots at Baby Heaven now know that, as early as 1981, officials at the base were told that the millions of gallons of drinking water consumed by the base’s 100,000 or so residents each day were full of what toxicologists call “methyl-ethyl death,” informal shorthand for a variety of known and suspected carcinogens. But the first batch of groundwater wells was not shut down until the fall of 1984 and the winter of 1985. The base became a Superfund site in 1989, but even today, the full extent of the camp’s contamination is not known. Blame that on poor record-keeping, stonewalling, arrogance or just plain ignorance. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn’t even sure how many people have been poisoned by Camp Lejeune’s bad water, though estimates suggest that it was consumed by as many as a million people.

How much the likes of Ensminger deserve in financial compensation for their grief is the most complex question of all: Suffering at once yearns for a dollar amount and resists such crass calculation. Ensminger is one of about 3,500 people involved in litigation against the Department of Defense. They thought the Marine Corps, which proudly professes to leave no man behind, would own up to its mistakes. As they pushed the Marines to reveal what they knew about Lejeune’s drinking water, and when, they figured that the motto Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful”) was more than just a sales pitch.

Now, they know better.

Kevin Shipp knows better, too. As an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, he was stationed at Camp Stanley, an Army site right near San Antonio’s heavily polluted Kelly Air Force Base. (During our conversation, Shipp would not reveal exactly where he was stationed or his job there, though other outlets had previously identified both.) Shipp and his family lived at the base, which is believed to be a secret weapons storage facility, for two years starting in June 1999.

Unlike the largely unsuspecting residents of Camp Lejeune, the Shipps realized quickly that something was amiss. One of his sons told The New York Times that “the house that our family was moved into was planted on top of a lot of buried ammunition. One time, me and my little brother dug up a mustard gas shell.” Their house was also teeming with mold, which made them ill. “My children were bleeding from their noses, vomiting, had severe headaches and strange rashes on the exposed areas of their skin,” Shipp later wrote. “My wife became bedridden with headaches so severe, she had to be placed on morphine. … I began to have burning in my lungs…and was losing my short-term memory.”

In 2002, Shipp left the CIA and sued his employer for placing him in a mold-ridden house. The case was eventually dismissed on the basis of the State Secrets Privilege.

When we spoke, Shipp, who now lives in Jacksonville, Florida, described Camp Stanley as a “toxic mess.” Not only is it littered with aging munitions, but its water has been poisoned in a fashion strikingly similar to Camp Lejeune’s.

“Frankly,” Shipp told me, “they don’t care.”

Men With Mastectomy Scars

Camp Lejeune, built in 1941, is 240 square miles in area, making it the largest Marine base east of the Mississippi River, and the second largest in the nation after Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. Situated at the swampy mouth of the New River, it is an ideal training ground for the sorts of amphibious assaults that are the Marines’ favored means of arriving at the war dance. From here, leathernecks shipped out to the Pacific theater of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The Marines killed in the 1983 terrorist bombings of a barracks in Beirut had also come from Lejeune; a memorial to them sits in a wooded glade at the camp’s edge.

In the decade before Camp Lejeune was built, the chemical industry saw the advent of the “safety solvents” TCE and tetrachloroethylene (PCE). These were chemical cleaning agents of the organochlorine group: TCE was a degreaser for machine parts; PCE was used in dry cleaning.

A military base is rife with machines. This sounds obvious, but it’s quite striking when you see all those tanks and airplanes and amphibious vehicles that seem perfectly poised for battle, even on a humid North Carolina afternoon when overseas wars might as well be waged in another galaxy. Part of that readiness is cleanliness, which your average military mechanic would have achieved, until very recently, by washing grease-covered parts in TCE.

In 2004, a former Marine named Joseph Paliotti decided to clear his conscience. He was on the verge of perishing from cancer, and he suspected that Camp Lejeune had something to do with it. He had spent 16 years working on the base. “We’d come down there, we used to dump it: DDT, cleaning fluid, batteries, transformers, vehicles,” he told his local television station. “I knew sooner or later something was gonna happen.” Several days later, Paliotti died.

The cleaning of clothes might seem like a more innocuous matter, but that’s only because most people don’t have much of a notion of how a dry cleaning enterprise works. You surrender your clothes; they return immaculate. Magic! As it happens, the chemicals that cleanse a shirt are about as carcinogenic as those that cleanse an airplane engine.

One of the places at Camp Lejeune that could care for your uniform was ABC One Hour Cleaners, which sits just a few yards from the edge of the base. The dry cleaners, which started operation in 1964 and ended on-site cleaning service in 2005, did nothing different from what thousands of other dry cleaners did around the United States: It used PCE as a cleaning solvent. Some of the PCE sludge was used to fill potholes, while much of the liquid waste ended up in the ground, just like the TCE used to clean machines across the road, behind the barbed wire.

The TCE and PCE percolated through the sandy soil of Camp Lejeune and into the shallow Castle Hayne aquifer, from which the base drew its water. Also flowing into the soil was benzene from the Hadnot Point fuel farm. A component of gasoline, benzene is an aromatic hydrocarbon. Its name does not mean that it is pleasantly pungent. Instead, the deceptively alluring adjective refers to the strong carbon-hydrogen latticework of the compound. Like other aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene is a carcinogen that readily enters the body.

An Associated Press report found that as “late as spring 1988, the underground tanks at Hadnot Point were leaking about 1,500 gallons of fuel a month—a total of more than 1.1 million gallons, by some estimates.” Eventually, the leaked fuel would form an underground layer 15 feet deep, a carcinogenic band essentially covering the aquifer from which the drinking water was drawn.

Among those who drank that water was Mike Partain, who was born on base. His father was a Marine, as was his grandfather. He lived in the same housing complex where the Ensmingers conceived their daughter Janey. He joined the Navy but was discharged because of a debilitating rash that would overtake his body without explanation. Eventually, Partain ended up in Tallahassee, Florida, where he was a teacher and, later, an insurance adjuster.

Then married with four children, Partain was in good health until the age of 39. (He has since divorced; “my marriage didn’t survive Lejeune,” he told me.) Toxins, like terrorist sleeper cells, are patient. As he would later write for the website of Semper Fi, a documentary about Camp Lejeune, in April 2007 “my wife gave me a hug before bed one night. As she did, her hand came across a curious bump situated above my right nipple. There was no pain, but it felt very odd.” Partain went for tests, which revealed an almost incredible diagnosis: breast cancer.

Male breast cancer is rare enough in the general population, especially for someone like Partain who has no history of the disease in his family. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, only about 7 breast cancer victims out of 1,000 are men. Yet it turned out that many other men who’d lived on Camp Lejeune had developed breast cancer: Partain told me that he knows of 85 victims. Several of these aging men, showing mastectomy scars, posed for a 2011 calendar.

Coincidences do happen, even in cancer epidemiology. What looks like obvious causation to some may be just cruel fate, but the overall infrequency of the disease, combined with its relatively high frequency among the men of Camp Lejeune, as well as the other ailments plaguing those who lived on the base, made clear that there was a connection. “This has all the characteristics of a male breast cancer cluster,” the noted epidemiologist Richard Clapp said at the time. Camp Lejeune is, in fact, now widely believed to be the largest known cluster of the male variant of the disease.

“So Much Audacity”

The Superfund law, passed in 1980, did not apply to federal facilities until 1986. Once it was exposed to litigation, the Department of Defense could no longer dismiss the environmental movement as a mere leftist nuisance. The EPA did better under self-described “environmental president” George H.W. Bush than it had under Ronald Reagan. The Clinton presidency appeared to embolden the regulators, even as the centrist Democrat allowed the Superfund tax on industry to expire in 1995. The presidency of George W. Bush, however, proved a long-sought reprieve for polluters, as the wannabe Texan quickly stocked the EPA with friends of industry.

The attacks of 9/11 proved an especially ripe opportunity for the Pentagon to push back against the oversight implemented in 1986. With the EPA already weakened by the White House and the wounded country in a bellicose mood, the Pentagon asked, in 2003, for a pass on pollution. The Department of Defense figured that Americans were far more afraid of terrorists than polluters. “The manner in which certain environmental laws are being applied is seriously hampering our military training opportunities,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote in an April 2003 letter to EPA head Christine Todd Whitman.

Military officials did not anticipate the resistance they would encounter on Capitol Hill. Perhaps the most vociferous critic of the exemptions was Dingell. “Nowhere has a single set of legislative proposals had so much audacity and so little merit,” thundered the aging legislator during one hearing. “I would note that the Defense Department is supposed to defend the nation, not to defile it.”

Despite an industry-friendly White House on its side, the Pentagon failed to earn the exemptions from environmental laws. Just as important, its overreach brought national attention to the then little-known problem of military pollution, with Camp Lejeune coming to serve as an example of what happened when the Department of Defense was left to police itself.

Sullivan, the Pentagon’s chief environmental officer, said that to clean up all of the Pentagon’s pollution would cost American taxpayers $27 billion. Nevertheless, she is upbeat about the challenges before her, noting that the Department of Defense has done all it could to meet new regulations. Its shortcomings, she said, resulted from a widespread ignorance about the danger of certain chemicals, which was hardly restricted to the Pentagon. “We all grew,” she told me, “at the same time.”

Others are skeptical of the Pentagon’s efforts to come clean. One report by the religiously nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office deemed “daunting” the Pentagon’s “task of cleaning up thousands of military bases and other installations across the country.” It concluded that “identifying and investigating these hazards will take decades, and cleanup will cost many billions of dollars.” The GAO has also found that regulators lack the muscle to make the Pentagon clean up its many messes.

“A World Trade Center in Slow Motion”

Today, Camp Lejeune is a tidy base of red-brick buildings and thick groves of pine. Occasionally, one sees vistas of the New River, which opens into a bright blue bowl of a bay. Marines can rent cabins on a beach that recalls untrammeled stretches of Cape Cod. The base is home to a rare variety of woodpecker, as well as the Venus flytrap. The place looks ordinary, even pretty in places, if you can get past the punishing Southern heat. It is like a body whose wounds have healed, though the scars are still visible if you know where to look: the yellow poles of observation wells, empty lots behind barbed wire, groves in which dump sites hide. But most people aren’t looking.

We pass an unexceptional building on the side of the road. Here, the base once stored the toxic pesticide DDT, made infamous by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Later, the same building became a day care center, with kids playing in ground soaked with an incontrovertible poison. I told the environmental officials who led me around the base that I was reminded of something that Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “All things truly wicked start from an innocence.” I don’t think they knew if this was supposed to be condemnation or exculpation. I don’t know, either.

The ignorance argument falls loud and flat when it comes to TCE, which could have been classified as a known carcinogen much earlier than 2011, which was when the EPA finally released its long-awaited determination of the solvent’s manifold dangers. According to a two-part Los Angeles Times series on trichloroethylene, the EPA realized in the 1990s that TCE was “as much as 40 times more likely to cause cancer than [the agency] had previously believed.” Its efforts to classify TCE as a carcinogen were largely hindered by the Pentagon, which produced experts confidently assuring that TCE’s danger was overblown. Those attempts at assuaging concerns failed, but the delay was costly, while the contamination remains vast and the cleanup has been slow. David Ozonoff, an epidemiologist at Boston University, called the nation’s TCE problem “a World Trade Center in slow motion.”

The public affairs and environmental officials who took me around Camp Lejeune were young, informed and sunny in disposition, not quite the clenched-anus Dick Cheney minions one expects of the nefarious military-industrial complex. They told me, proudly, that the water at the base was now probably the cleanest in the nation. One hears a similar refrain about both Woburn, Massachusetts, and Toms River, New Jersey, the infamous cancer clusters where water was also tainted with TCE. What they don’t say is that today’s pristine water has been paid for by past generations, many times over.

Yet several dozen sites remain, each benzene plume, munitions dump and TCE-laden lot its own private battlefield. It will be decades before the base is fully clean, though past neglect appears to have been replaced by penitent diligence. Solar thermal panels have already been installed on 2,000 homes, improbably making Camp Lejeune one of the largest residential communities in the nation to use solar energy. Even more improbable, earlier this year Camp Lejeune won an environmental restoration award from the Pentagon, beating out bases across the various services. Of course, that’s partly because there was so much here to restore.

“They’re Slick”

In 2012, advocates like Jerry Ensminger and Mike Partain won a victory when President Barack Obama signed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which is supposed to ensure that those sickened by Lejeune water get medical treatment from the Department of Veteran Affairs. The law is also known as the Janey Ensminger Act, a nod to the father who turned his howling grief into righteous anger. In the Oval Office, Ensminger stood next to the president and looked over his shoulder, as if to make sure the bill was properly signed.

Ensminger said working on Camp Lejeune has been like “pulling teeth.” He wasn’t exaggerating all that much. Earlier this spring, Obama’s Department of Justice filed an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in CTS Corporation v. Waldburger, in which 25 Asheville, North Carolina, residents were suing an electronic firm for contaminating their well water. The brief was in favor the polluter, not the alleged victims. That seemed to put the administration at odds with its position on the treatment of victims of toxic exposure.

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of CTS in June, it essentially said that North Carolina’s 10-year statute of repose trumps the Superfund law’s statute of limitations. A statute of repose is much friendlier to business, while a statute of limitations favors those, like Ensminger, who might want to sue a potential polluter, since it gives them much more time to discover the result of their illness (which could take far more than a single decade to manifest). Some observers noted that the Supreme Court ruling could make it difficult for the Camp Lejeune lawsuits to proceed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ensminger said a couple of days before the Supreme Court decision. “I’m not quitting.” In the hours after the ruling, he and his lawyers quickly identified a seeming loophole in the majority opinion that they were eager to exploit, while North Carolina legislators rushed to pass legislation that would preserve the legal claims of both CTS and Camp Lejeune victims. (North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill in late June.)

“You gotta watch these people like a hawk, man,” Ensminger told me of the Marines. “They’re slick.” The armed forces took his daughter. They took so many other lives, too, without firing a single shot.

VA Agent Orange Studies Master List
VA Agent Orange studies

Move To Amend Organization


We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other related cases, and move to amend our Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.

We the People, Not We the Corporations

On January 21, 2010, with its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons, entitled by the U.S. Constitution to buy elections and run our government. Human beings are people; corporations are legal fictions.

We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and other related cases, and move to amend our Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.

The Supreme Court is misguided in principle, and wrong on the law. In a democracy, the people rule.

We Move to Amend.

“. . . corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood’ often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”
~Supreme Court Justice Stevens, January 2010


Ultimate Civics Organization

Our mission is to re-establish that only human beings are endowed with inalienable rights, thus creating a democratic republic in America that is genuinely accountable to the People.

Ultimate Civics started in May 2009 as a project of Earth Island Institute. Our mission was to coalesce a popular movement to support passage of a constitutional amendment abolishing the legal doctrine of “Corporate Personhood.” In October 2009, we co-founded Move to Amend, a national grassroots coalition to amend the U.S. Constitution – corporations are not persons, money is not speech – which now has community chapters in many states. Ultimate Civics niche within the larger movement focuses on three programs:

Energy & Democracy
Education & Democracy
Alaska Democracy Initiative

Although our mission sounds rather grandiose – especially for three people! – it has very simple beginnings. In Alaska, we each grew more and more frustrated with big money in politics and laws that failed to hold corporations accountable to the people. In Cordova, Riki was a plaintiff in The Exxon Valdez Case and dealing with real long-term social, economic and environmental impacts that Exxon denied even existed. Lisa Marie was working at the Cordova Legislative Information Office of the Alaska State Legislature and saw how big money influenced state policies. Meanwhile from Haines, Gershon was designing campaigns to stop big cruise ships from dumping raw sewage into coastal waterways.

After hearing Thomas Linzey speak at Bioneers in 2006, Gershon and Riki attended Linzey’s first Democracy School in Wasilla, Alaska then two more schools in other states over the next year. Riki included the story of the evolution of corporate personhood – “corporate persons” entitled to human rights – in the final chapter of Not One Drop, her second book on the oil spill. She launched on book tour with Lisa Marie as an assistant in September 2008 – right into the national economic meltdown.

The timing was perfect. Many Americans were reeling from job, home, and financial losses and could quickly connect the dots between their losses and giant corporations wielding human rights to amass financial capital and political clout – at the expense of the other 99 percent. Across America, Riki and Lisa Marie found that people supported the idea of amending the U.S. Constitution to affirm that corporations are not persons and money is not speech.

In May 2009 after book tour, Gershon, Riki, and Lisa Marie co-founded Ultimate Civics as a project of Earth Island Institute. Our goal was to coalesce a movement to amend the Constitution. In September 2009 in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, Ultimate Civics co-founded Move To Amend, a national grassroots coalition to amend the Constitution. In January 2010, the Supreme Court delivered its most blatant statement that corporations are persons entitled to human rights to justify its decision to allow “corporate persons” to spend unlimited amounts of “speech” (money) to influence elections. With that, “corporate persons” suddenly became a national topic of discussion and MoveToAmend.org launched to build the movement.

There is one last twist to our story: how Ultimate Civics came to define its niche in the larger campaign through our three programs. In response to the April 2010 BP blowout in the Gulf, Riki flew to Louisiana to help fishermen deal with the mental, emotional, and physical health impacts of the disaster – and wound up staying for a year! In the process, she laid the foundation for Ultimate Civics’ Energy & Democracy Program: Riki and Lisa Marie work with “accidental activists”, people whose lives have been uprooted by fossil fuel-related disasters and who, like us, want to do something about it. We teach campaign skills through rights-based community organizing and recruit for the larger movement.

While teaching in schools and communities, especially after the Occupy Movement started, we all saw a need for education in the basic democratic arts of overcoming our differences, finding common ground, and working together to move dialogue into action. There was also an opportunity to introduce such lessons into community forums and school programs on sustainability, as sustainability is not attainable without basic democracy – people having control over their future at the local level. This became the work of our Education and Democracy Program.

Gershon builds the larger campaign through our Alaska Democracy Initiative, teaching in high schools and working with communities to pass local resolutions and support a statewide ballot initiative to affirm that only human beings are entitled to constitutional rights.

The Democracy Crisis


Please check out our programs!


2014 marks the 25th memorial of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, an event that altered lives of everyone it touched––and the Prince William Sound ecosystem, perhaps forever.

I recall with stark clarity the shock of flying over the tanker wreck on March 24, 1989, and seeing the black inky stain of some 11 to 33 million gallons of oil on the water. I made a personal vow that day to work upstream of oil spills to help our nation transition off fossil fuels. With my PhD in marine toxicology, I figured I knew enough to make a difference. More importantly, I cared enough. Certainly, at the time, I didn’t know this would become my life’s work––or where this path would lead.

During the twenty years before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, as I trained to become a marine toxicologist, laws were passed to protect air and water quality, worker safety, and public health and welfare. Back then the science focused only on part of crude oil, the “light ends” that easily dissolved into water or evaporated into air. During the twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, scientists’ understanding of oil impacts in the natural world changed when they focused on another part of crude oil, the heavy black stuff that persists on beaches––the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs.

Ah-hah moments in science, like when Columbus “discovered” that the world was round, are “paradigm shifts.” The world was always round: it was peoples’ understanding of it that changed. Likewise, crude oil was always toxic: scientists’ understanding of it changed when they understood that PAHs were 1,000 times more toxic to wildlife than the light ends. When breathed or absorbed through skin or consumed, PAHs enter cells and jam cell function, causing respiratory problems, central nervous system problems, skin and blood disorders, weakening of the immune system, and chronic problems such as liver and kidney damage and reproductive dysfunction. In short, crude oil is a systemic poison––not just in wildlife, but in people, too. A whole new field of “environmental medicine” emerged as medical researchers and doctors began to understand the symptoms and effects of “chemical illnesses” on the human body from exposure to oil, synthetic oil-based products, chemicals, and other toxins.

Ideally, science drives public policy and education; as science changes, so should the science-based laws and lore. But I had learned, while growing up in Wisconsin and watching my father in his successful battle to ban the systemic poison DDT, that when ordinary people understand the science, the lore changes, then the laws change. So I spent three years writing my first book on the oil spill, Sound Truth and Corporate Myths, to explain how scientists came to “discover” that oil is more toxic than thought in the 1970s and what laws need to be changed to better protect people, wildlife, and our environment. But no laws changed.

Disappointed, but determined, I began to focus more on “the lore” to understand how community experience and teachings change as the collective intelligence adjusts to new information. I learned from experience and writing my second book on the oil spill, Not One Drop, that the Cordova community began to recover from the social, economic and emotional spill trauma when people learned to put aside their differences and work together on strengthening or creating projects that would benefit everyone. My personal ah-hah moment occurred when I realized that shifting this nation off fossil fuels would take a social movement of people who understood the need and were just as determined as me. I left Alaska to help build this movement.

Then the BP Deepwater Horizon well blew in the Gulf of Mexico, creating an oil disaster 10 to 20 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. I realized this disaster would have deadly consequences, because the lessons learned since the Exxon Valdez spill had not changed the lore and laws of the land. But I didn’t realize how deadly. The unprecedented use of over 2,000,000 gallons of toxic Corexit dispersants resulted in unprecedented harm to people and wildlife, perhaps forever. The ah-hah moment has dawned on scientists and people sickened by the exposure: the oil industry’s cure for oil spills, dispersants, and oil-dispersant combined are far worse than the harm caused by the oil alone. Yet the EPA and U.S. Coast Guard continue to sanction use of toxic dispersants without consideration of these consequences.

Dispersants are petroleum distillates and industrial solvents. The oil industry mixes large volumes of solvents as dispersants to break up oil slicks, as diluents to thin tar sands oil for transportation, and as fracking fluids to extract oil from oil-bearing shale. The same properties that facilitate the movement of solvents through oil also make it easier for them to move through skin and into the human body. It should not be surprising that people harmed by oil and gas activities, such as the BP DWH disaster (solvent-crude oil combined), tar sands oil spills (solvent-tar sands oil combined), [link] and fracking activities (solvent-light oil combined) are reporting similar sicknesses and symptoms characteristic of exposure to crude oil and oil-based solvents.

It is my hope that, as people’s health, livelihoods, and property are harmed by these extreme oil activities, people will understand the need to shift off oil to safer energy options and take action to achieve true energy independence. This is the movement that I see growing in all regions of our country. This is the movement that I am committed to building.

See you on the Road.



“The transformation starts when we believe that we have the power to act. When enough of us prove another way is possible and demand change, the politicians will have no choice but to follow the people’s lead and make things right in America.

We have the power to stop the oil industry and the federal government from doing more harm. It is time to exercise our power in our communities.” – Riki Ott

For more on Riki Ott please visit her website here http://www.rikiott.dreamhosters.com/

How a Big Agribusiness Firm Infiltrated the EPA and Made a Mockery of Science By Kamil Ahsan for AlterNet

Expensive coverups have kept a dangerous chemical in America’s water supply.

June 5, 2014

Earlier this year, in an exposé in The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv detailed the story of Syngenta, an agribusiness firm that was sued by the community water systems of six states in a class-action lawsuit over the firm’s herbicide atrazine.

Atrazine is the second most commonly used herbicide in the US and is used on more than 50% of all corn crops. It is one of Syngenta’s most profitable chemicals with sales at over $300 million a year. Banned in the EU, atrazine remains on the market in the US despite scores of scientific publications demonstrating its role in abnormal sexual development. Almost insoluble in water, atrazine contaminates drinking water supplies at 30 times the concentration demonstrated to cause severe sexual abnormalities in animal models.

Recently unsealed court documents from the lawsuit have disclosed how Syngenta launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to disrepute and suppress scientific research, and influence the US Environmental Protection Agency to prevent a ban on atrazine.

Tyrone Hayes, a professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley has demonstrated in his research that atrazine leads to health problems, reproductive issues and birth defects. Hayes is a vocal proponent of legislative action to ban the dissemination of atrazine in water supplies. The court documents showed that Syngenta specifically attacked Hayes’ work with its smear campaign.

In addition to smear campaigns, Syngenta hired a private detective agency to look into the personal backgrounds of scientists on an advisory panel at the EPA, the judge presiding over the lawsuit, and Hayes. The documents also reveal a host of third-party organizations and independent “experts” who were on Syngenta’s payroll and supplied with Syngenta’s data in order to make public statements or write op-ed pieces in support of atrazine. Often, these experts were supplied directly with material that company employees edited or wrote.

Syngenta’s Coverup

It all started in 1997 when Hayes was employed by Syngenta to study atrazine, which was under review by the EPA. Hayes’ experimental research on the developmental growth of frogs began to reveal that even at levels of atrazine as low as 0.1 parts per billion (ppb), the chemical was capable of causing males to develop as hermaphrodites. Some males developed female organs and were even capable of mating with normal males and producing eggs. As reported in top peer-reviewed journals such as PNAS and Nature, at exposure to 0.1 ppb atrazine the frogs showed extremely reduced levels of testosterone and feminized voice boxes.

As Hayes amassed data, Syngenta downplayed his results, citing problems with statistics or asking him to repeat studies, often nitpicking or questioning his credibility or scientific skills.

In 2000, Hayes resigned from the panel. He continued to speak at conferences, publicizing his ongoing research in the lab. Meanwhile, Syngenta employees began to show up at conferences to publicly besmirch his data. Sporadically, the campaign turned into threats of violence. In a Democracy Now interview with Amy Goodman, Hayes said:

“Tim Pastoor, for example, before I would give a talk, would literally threaten, whisper in my ear that he could have me lynched, or he said he would send some of his ‘good ol’ boys to show me what it’s like to be gay,’ or at one point he threatened my wife and my daughter with sexual violence.”

Shockingly, even though Syngenta settled the lawsuit for $105 million in late 2012 after eight years of litigation, it still maintains that amount of atrazine present in the water is much lower than would be required to cause damage. In an article in Forbes published a week after the New Yorker story, Jon Entine criticized Hayes and claimed that “after numerous follow up studies by the EPA and a score of scientists… evidence of endocrine related problems Hayes claimed to have identified… are nowhere to be found.”

This is a patently false assertion. A mere scientific literature search shows dozens of peer-reviewed articles showing atrazine-induced defects in animal models. A number of papers on salmon and fish find similar results to those in frog: fish exposed to atrazine showed major reproductive abnormalities in both males and females, low sperm counts and low testosterone levels in males. Similar defects have been observed in reptiles. Research in rats has demonstrated decreased fertility, effects on sperm count, increased prostate disease in males and poor mammary development. A collaborative effort of an international team of scientists confirmed these studies by demonstrating feminization of male gonads across vertebrate species.

All signs point toward the same being true for humans. Said Hayes:

“A number of epidemiological studies in humans have associated atrazine with impaired reproduction and a decline in sperm count and fertility. Another study looking at increased prostrate disease in workers who are exposed to atrazine in the production plant in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. A number of studies now show birth defects in humans exposed to atrazine: gastroschisis where the intestines are on the outside of the baby when it’s born, choanal atresia, an effect where the oral cavity and the nasal cavity close up. Most recently, there’s been work showing atrazine associating with three different types of genital abnormalities in males.”

Corruption Within the EPA

Interestingly, the scientific advisory panel to the EPA recognizes this wealth of scientific data. In a memo from the 2012 review the advisory panel repeatedly calls attention to the biased methodology employed by the EPA. In fact, the advisory panel disagreed with almost every conclusion the EPA made.

Hayes explained: “The panel was only making recommendations, they don’t make decisions and so the EPA doesn’t need to listen to them. This really undermines the role of the scientific advisory panel.”

Syngenta was closely involved with the EPA’s decision. The EPA mainly considered just one study that found inconclusive effects of atrazine. This was the sole premise for the EPA’s decision. It was based on the research of a group led by Kloas Werner. Said Hayes:

“Kloas Werner was originally on the EPA scientific advisory panel that I presented my data to. He at that time was hired by Syngenta and subsequent to being on the panel he conducted a study in collaboration with the EPA and Syngenta and reported back to the panel that he was on. The panel’s conclusion was that more work needed to be done, and then he presented back to that panel. Essentially, his previous decision helped him get the money for his study. Furthermore, they selected a strain of frogs that don’t respond even to estrogen, which was acknowledged by the advisory panel which reviewed their work.”

But Syngenta wasn’t satisfied with bad science and corruption within the EPA. As Syngenta was hiring Werner, a scientific advisory panel member who could sway the EPA review process, it also held scores of closed-door meetings with panel members. As the documents reveal, Syngenta also hired a communications consultancy, the White House Writers’ Group, to set up meetings with members of Congress and Washington bigwigs to discuss upcoming EPA reviews.

The information about Syngenta’s misdeeds has had little to no effect. The fiction that Hayes is a scientific hack continues to pervade the work of pro-Syngenta writers like Entine. These columnists, who write from corporation-apologist perspectives, bolster the fiction by glossing over critiques of the EPA and pretending like its conclusions represent uncontroversial scientific consensus.

Time and time again, these “third-party allies” of Syngenta hyperbolically talk about the “scientific method,” and suggest that science is science, regardless of the angle of the investigator (none have much to say about Werner’s estrogen-insensitive frogs). For them, it seems, there is no conceivable way Syngenta employed techniques that would furnish them with results to protect its multimillion-dollar profits.

In other words, for them, “conflict of interest” means nothing. Scientific publishing is uncompromising about this: journals require the disclosure of conflicts of interest in publications. Obviously, political and financial incentives are sufficient criteria to change scientific results because they deeply influence the way experimenters do science.

Unsurprisingly, the Kloas paper failed to declare any conflict of interest.

“How can you declare no conflict of interest when clearly the manufacturer benefits from the conclusions drawn by that paper as well as benefits from the decisions made by the EPA advisory panel?” Hayes said. “Especially when the member was both on the panel and was paid by Syngenta.”

Corporation v. Science

Syngenta frequently alleges that Hayes never made his data on atrazine publicly available, a damning indictment that makes it seem like his data could have been fabricated. Hayes said this is not the case.

“The work that I did for Syngenta, Syngenta owns all that raw data,” he said. “This includes the generated raw data, the transcribed typed data, and really everything. The EPA actually visited my lab. Members of the EPA actually were in my laboratory, they observed all of our processes and data collection. Mary Frankenberry, a statistician, actually analyzed the data herself.”

Syngenta and its supporters also rely heavily on the vitriol that Hayes hardly seems like a disinterested, objective scientist. Rich criticism from a company that hires people to obtain the scientific results it wants.

Hayes has spoken widely, set up a website AtrazineLovers.com and rapped about Syngenta’s powerful lobbying to keep atrazine on the market. There is, however, a fundamental distinction between a company lobbying to get its favored scientific result, and a scientist who vocally defends his scientific results. Hayes’ response isn’t surprising or unusual. Scientists often claim ownership over their results and will doggedly defend them at conferences.

The actions of big corporations like Syngenta, especially when dealing with highly profitable products, reveal a broader truth about the nature of corporate power. There is a dangerous trend in which corporate fiat is used to call scientific research into question and sway governmental policy. This trend puts millions of lives at risk as hazardous products avoid regulation and remain on the market.

One wonders why the burden isn’t on Syngenta for proving without a doubt that atrazine has no effects before plying the entire population with a highly dangerous chemical. Even if it wasn’t a near-certainty that atrazine causes birth defects, why wouldn’t we require regulatory bodies such as the EPA to err on the side of caution?

Today, atrazine remains legal and in the water supplies of millions of Americans, despite evidence from scores of labs outside Tyrone Hayes’ showing it to be hazardous.

“In the 15 plus years that I’ve had experience with the EPA, I don’t really have a lot of faith that we’re going to get an objective review that’s really going to focus on environmental health and public health with regards to atrazine, or any other chemical for that matter,” Hayes said.

Who can blame him?


The Expose


Born this way: Stories of young transgender children

Our Cover Story this morning deals with children grappling with a very grown-up issue: gender identity — boys or girls believing they’re the opposite sex, saying they were born this way. Here’s Rita Braver:

She could be any 12-year-old girl, hanging out with her mom and sister, but Zoey was biologically born a boy.

“So how did you handle it when people related to you as a boy?” asked Braver.

CBS News
“Yeah, I always get upset,” she replied. “I would be like, ‘No, I’m not a boy. I’m a girl. You know, like, I like the color pink, I scream like a girl. I act like a girl. I breathe like a girl. I’m not a boy.””
When asked what she felt when she realized that her child whom she knew as a boy felt she was a girl, Zoey’s mother, Ofelia, said her first reaction was fear: “Not because of who she’s presenting to be, but of those around us. What are other people going to say? How are they going to treat her? You know, those are the scary things: What kind of life is she going to have?”

But Ofelia (at their request, we won’t be using last names of the families in this story) felt she had no choice. A single mom, she accepted Zoey’s decision two years ago to live as an openly-transgender girl.

Zoey’s family and her childhood friends in her town near Los Angeles have been supportive. But a survey of nearly 300 transgender youth found that 89 percent reported being harassed in school.

“Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools” – Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (pdf)
Zoey, too, has endured cruel treatment from her schoolmates:

“Even the kids that do seem like they’re good kids, they even make fun of me,” said Zoey. “They’ll be, like, ‘Yeah, we’re your friends, tell us more about your stuff and how you’re going through life.’ And then they’ll just turn on you and they’ll be talking about what you told them.”

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Olson is a specialist in the care of transgendered youth, at Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles. She says that her patients have a condition known as “Gender Dysphoria.”

Dr. Olson defined it as “persistent unhappiness, discomfort and distress about the incongruence between the gender that you are assigned, based on your anatomy at birth, versus the way you internally experience gender.”

Estimates on the number of Transgender Americans range as high as 0.5 percent of the adult population — about three-quarters of a million people. But more and more young people are emerging as transgender.

“I see between one and five new trans kids a week,” said Dr. Olson. “So the growth is tremendous. We’ve had something like a 330 percent increase over the year of 2013. It’s just phenomenal.”

“What do you think is happening — are there more transgender children?” asked Braver.

“It’s not so much that there are more transgendered kids; it’s that trans people are coming out earlier,” replied Dr. Olson. .

“We also know that among trans people, there are high rates of depression, anxiety, social isolation, [and] suicide attempts. All of these things we see dramatically increased in trans youth. But young people that I’ve seen, who socially transition in childhood and have support of their familes, they have a very different experience.”

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Now there is new medical treatment for young people like Zoey. Doctors have recently started administering drugs that block puberty, and keep them from developing unwanted adult characteristics, like facial hair for transgender girls, or breasts in transgender boys.

The effects of those drugs can be reversed. But the effects of hormones — which transgender youths can take later, to look more male or female — are often not reversible.

Venice says “No one really would want to be trans.”
CBS News
Dr. Olson says, by then, her patients — like Venice — are not going back:
At 13, Venice has started taking the hormone testosterone, as well as puberty blockers. He says he has always felt like a boy, though he was born, biologically, a girl.

Braver asked, “In terms of making these changes so that you can go through life as a boy, what’s the upside of that for you?”

“The upside is that I’ll actually get to have part of the body I do want.”

But he says being trans has not been easy:

“It’s been a difficult process,” said Venice, “because, well, no one really would want to be trans. No one would actually really enjoy it.”

And then there is the prospect of sex change surgery, further down the road.

“Is that something that is a little bit scary to you?” Braver asked.

“Yeah, I’m really afraid for bottom surgery, like, how like much pain it will cause,” Venice said.

There are practical problems as well. California, where Venice lives, was the first state to pass a law specifically allowing transgender schoolchildren to use bathrooms, locker room and even play on sports teams of the gender that they choose.

But opponents — like Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal group — say the law puts an unfair burden on other children:

“You’re saying under this law that a 13-year-old or 14-year-old girl in a locker room has to change and dress and be naked in front of, say, a 16-year-old boy simply because a 16-year-old boy who’s a biological boy, but inside has a mental condition called gender identity dysphoria and thinks that he’s a girl,” said Dacus. “This is ludicrous, and really unreasonable.”

Dacus argues that while transgender kids should be treated with compassion, they should use separate facilities — say, in faculty or nurses’ offices.

And Venice’s response? “You can use a separate bathroom, too,” he laughed.

But Venice has had other issues to worry about. His parents are separated, and while his mother and brother have always been supportive, his father was not.

Finally, Venice’s mom, Trish, sent his father a letter: “It said pretty much, you’re on board with this or you can’t be in our lives, because a child that’s not supported doesn’t flourish. And dad looked at that and decided, ‘Well, I can either have a son or I can have nothing.’”

Today, Venice’s father, Mike, has joined Venice’s mother in a support group for parents of transgendered kids. “I was in a lot of fear and anxiety, especially when my kid came out,” Mike said.

He acknowledges that he hired a series of therapists in an effort to convince Venice to live as a girl — all to no avail.

“So I was totally in the wrong area,” he said. “Spending lots of money trying to fix a kid that, you know, wasn’t really broken.”

And parents are beginning to heed the wishes of their children at ever-younger ages. The 6-year-old happily jumping with her younger brother is Mati — originally named Mattias.

Braver said to Mati, “Your mom told me that when you were born, everybody thought you were a boy except you.”

“Yeah, right,” replied Mati.

“What did you think?”

“I was a girl.”

“You knew?”


“How’d you know?”

Mati said, “I just figured it out.”

Mati, 6.
CBS News
Mati’s parents, Cristy and Enrique, say it started when she was younger than two — going clothes shopping, for example:
“Cristy and I would go to the boys’ section, and Mati would start directly going to the girls’ section, wanting to pick clothes from there,” said Enrique.

Mati’s parents say she was miserable when treated as a boy, and by the time she entered kindergarten in San Diego last year, they felt they had to enroll her as a girl.

“You know that some people are going to see this story on television and say, ‘Oh my gosh, they should have waited. They should have insisted on waiting longer,” said Braver. “Why didn’t you wait longer?”

“She was in pain,” said Cristy. “I don’t see that there was another option. She was uncomfortable, she was unhappy. You can’t see your child suffer like that.

“Nothing’s been done that can’t be undone. So people that would say, ‘Maybe it’s too early, we should have waited’ — what did we have to lose at this point? She’s happier.”

Like all the parents we spoke to for this story, Cristy and Enrique told us they decided to go public because they want to help other families facing the same issues:

And, said Cristy, “I also want for Mati to know that it’s nothing that can’t be talked about. I also want her to know that she shouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to be who she is.”

While doctors say some children who identify themselves as the opposite of their physical gender do change their minds as they get older, there is little data on how often that occurs.

So far, Mati shows no sign of reconsidering:

“Have you ever thought maybe sometimes, ‘Gee, it might be fun to go back and dress like a boy and be more like a boy’?” asked Braver.

“I don’t want to,” Mati said. “Uh uh.”

“You know that what — how do you feel?”

“Like a girl.”

“Is there anything you’d like to say for maybe other children who people say, ‘Oh, you’re a boy,’ but they know that they’re a girl?”

“Maybe let them choose.”


Hormones: Chemical Messengers That Work in Parts per Trillion
From Our Stolen Future Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, John Peterson Myers (Dutton 1996)

Pushing on with her research on hormones, Theo Colborn discovered a central piece of the puzzle in the world of Frederick vom Saal, a biologist at the University of Missouri. Vom Saal’s exploration of how hormones help make us who we are is a fascinating scientific adventure in its own right. In a series of experiments with mice, he showed that small shifts in hormones before birth can matter a great deal and have consequences that last a lifetime. His work helped highlight the hazard posed by synthetic chemicals that can disrupt hormonal systems.

Vom Saal’s investigation of the wondrous world of hormones began in 1976 during his postdoctoral days at the University of Texas in Austin, inspired by the behavior of the lab mice. Like most postdoctoral biology students, vom Saal was spending the better part of his life in the lab, where his regular chores included breeding mice. As he played mouse matchmaker, arranging encounters between eager males and receptive females, he became intrigued by the interplay between the animals as he moved them from cage to cage.

In the beginning, the small, white, pink-eyed creatures had all seemed like cookie-cutter copies of each other. But as he watched the females scurrying about in the breeding cages, individuals quickly emerged from the crowd. Whenever he returned a female to a group cage holding half a dozen females, there always seemed to be one mouse who would attack the intruder. These were mice with an attitude-tough cookies who rattled their tails threateningly and lashed out at their mild-mannered companions.

Such a difference between the behavior of one female and another was striking-and puzzling. The mice were all from a single laboratory strain that had been inbred for generations. When it came to genes, they were virtually identical.

This simple observation set the course for vom Saal’s life’s work in reproductive biology. In the years that followed, he designed dozens of experiments to probe the mystery of how two mice with almost the same genetic blueprint could behave so differently.

The notion persists that genes are tantamount to destiny and that one might explain everything from cancer to homosexuality by locating the responsible genes. But in a series of scientific papers, vom Saal demonstrated that there are other powerful forces shaping individuals-females as well as males-before birth. Genes, it turned out, are not the whole story. Not by a long shot.

What vom Saal saw during those long hours observing mice in the lab contradicted everything he had read. According to the scientific literature of the period (which reflected prevailing human assumptions as much as it described animal behavior), aggression was strictly a male behavior. But if tail-rattling, chasing, and biting among the females weren’t aggression, what would one call it?

Eventually, vom Saal’s colleagues had to concede that the behavior did look like aggression, but they tended to shrug it off as unimportant. Males were the center of the action in animal societies according to the prevailing wisdom in the field of animal behavior, so what females did simply didn’t matter. They were just passive baby makers.

Vom Saal wasn’t so sure. His intuition told him what he was seeing was probably important as well as interesting. His doctoral work had centered on the role played by testosterone in development before birth, and he knew that this hormone-found at much higher levels in males-drives aggression.

From his observations, the tough females weren’t common, but they weren’t rare either. There seemed to be roughly one aggressive female for every six mice in the colony-something he noticed because the mice were housed six to a cage. If the mice were clones, something besides genes had to be shaping the aggressive females. Since birth the sisters had been raised identically, so living conditions could not explain the differences. Could the cause be something in their prenatal environment?

That set him to thinking about how mice are carried before birth. Their mother’s womb isn’t a single compartment like the human womb, but two separate compartments or “horns” that branch off to the left and the right at the top of the vagina or birth canal. The baby mice are tucked in the narrow horns like peas in a pod-as many as six on a side. This arrangement means that some of the females will develop sandwiched between two males.

Vom Saal began calculating probabilities. If there were twelve mice in the typical mouse litter and if the placement of males and females in the womb was random, how many females would end up between two males? Roughly one in six, he figured. That supported the theory taking shape in his head. Some of the females are markedly more aggressive, he suspected, because they had spent their prenatal life wedged between two males. A week before birth, the testicles in a male pup begin to secrete the male hormone testosterone, which drives his own sexual development. The female pups might be bathed in testosterone washing over from their male neighbors.

Maybe, vom Saal thought, the answer to the mystery of how genetically identical females could be so different lay in hormones — chemical messengers that travel in the bloodstream, carrying messages from one part of the body to another.

In the body’s constant conversation with itself, nerves are just one avenue of communication — the one employed for quick, discrete messages that direct a hand to move away from a hot stove. A large part of the body’s internal conversation, however, is carried on through the bloodstream, where hormones and other chemical messengers move about on the biological equivalent of the information superhighway, carrying signals that not only govern sex and reproduction but also coordinate organs and tissues that work in concert to keep the body functioning properly.

Hormones, which get their name from the Greek word meaning “to urge on,” are produced and released into the bloodstream by a variety of organs known as endocrine glands, including the testicles, the ovaries, the pancreas, the adrenal glands, the thyroid, the parathyroid, and the thymus. The thyroid, for example, produces chemical messengers that activate the body’s overall metabolism, stimulating tissues to produce more heat. In addition to eggs, a woman’s ovaries release estrogens-the female hormones that travel in the bloodstream to the uterus, where they trigger growth of the tissue lining the womb in anticipation of a possible pregnancy.

Yet another endocrine gland, the pituitary, which dangles on a stalk from the underside of the brain just behind the nose, acts as a control center, telling the ovaries or the thyroid when to send their chemical messages and how much to send. The pituitary gets its cues from a nearby portion of the brain called the hypothalamus, a teaspoon-size center on the bottom of the brain that constantly monitors the hormone levels in the blood in much the way that a thermostat monitors the air temperature in a house. If levels of a hormone get too high or too low, the hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary, which signals the gland that produces this hormone to gear up, slow down, or shut off.

The messages travel back and forth continuously. Without this cross talk and constant feedback, the human body would be an unruly mob of some 50 trillion cells rather than an integrated organism operating from a single script.

As scientists have delved deeper into the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems-the body’s three great integrating networks they have encountered profound interconnections: between the brain and the immune system, the immune system and the endocrine system, and the endocrine system and the brain. The links sometimes seem utterly mystifying. How, for example, could a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder play with a cat for hours while she was one personality and suffer violent allergic reactions to cats when she took on another?

Nobody knows the answer to this question, but it certainly lies in this internal conversation and the constant babble of chemical messengers. Changes in one part of this complex, interconnected system can have dramatic and unexpected consequences elsewhere, often where one might least expect, because everything is linked to everything else. A brain tumor, for example, might show up as disrupted menstrual cycles and hypersensitivity of the skin rather than as headaches.

If hormones are vital to maintain proper functioning in adults, they are perhaps even more important in the elaborate process of development before birth.

But how could vom Saal test his theory?

Mouse Caesarean sections.

Just before the females were ready to give birth at the end of their nineteen-day pregnancies, vom Saal removed the tiny babies, who were approximately an inch long and about the size of an olive. He marked them based on their position relative to their neighbors in the womb. In this way, he could discover where aggressive females had spent their prenatal lives. Thus began vom Saal’s exploration of what some in the field playfully refer to as the “wombmate” effect, known formally as intrauterine position phenomenon.

Although vom Saal is now forty-nine and a professor at the University of Missouri, he still looks youthful enough to be mistaken for a graduate student. In a scientific world where many seldom venture beyond narrow specialities, vom Saal embraces the big picture, unabashedly declaring that he is interested in “womb-to-tomb biology.” He moves easily between elegant, tightly focused studies and a larger, more encompassing pursuit of fundamental questions: Why does this happen? What is the evolutionary significance?

Those first studies in Austin confirmed his theory. As the mice removed by Caesarean section matured, the aggressive females were, as predicted, the ones who had developed between brothers. Each intriguing finding raised new questions, leading to more studies and, in time, observations on thousands of mice delivered by Caesarean section. Aggression proved just the most obvious sign of profound differences between mouse sisters that could be predicted to a remarkable degree by their position in the womb.

At first blush, vom Saal’s results sound like a tale of the ugly sister and the pretty sister. Not only was the ugly sister-the mouse that had developed between males-more aggressive, but vom Saal discovered she was significantly less attractive to males than the pretty sisters who had spent their womb time between other females. Eight times out of ten, a male given a choice would chose to mate with the pretty sister.

What’s attractive to males isn’t the female’s tiny pink eyes or the curve of her tail. The social life of mice is governed by the nose, and the attractiveness of females depends on the social chemicals they give off, which are called pheromones. The pretty sisters smell “sexier” to males because they produce different chemicals than their less attractive sisters. The prenatal hormone environment leaves a permanent imprint on each sister that is recognized by males for the rest of her life.

Behavioral and reproductive differences in mice can be predicted to a remarkable degree by their position, which is related to hormone exposure, in the womb. (Adapted from vom Saal and Dhar, 1992)
Illustration by K Brown 1995

The sisters also showed dramatic differences in their reproductive cycles. Besides finding mates more readily, the pretty sister also matured faster than her ugly sister and came into heat-a period of sexual receptivity-more often. As a consequence, she had more opportunities to get pregnant and was more likely overall to produce more offspring in her lifetime than her aggressive, unattractive sister, who experienced puberty later and came into heat less frequently.

Even more amazing, studies by other researchers, including Mertice Clark, Peter Karpiuk and Bennett Galef of McMaster University, and the team of John Vandenbergh and Cynthia Huggett of North Carolina State University, have found that the wombmate effect even influences whether a female will give birth to more males or more females when she has pups of her own. This is mysterious indeed, since scientists up to now believed that the mother has no role in determining the sex of her offspring. Based on current understanding, it is the sperm contributed by the father that dictates whether the egg develops into a male or female, so how a mother influences sex ratio is still unknown. However it happens, the pretty sisters tend to have litters made up of sixty percent females, while the ugly sisters generally give birth to litters that are roughly sixty percent male. As Vandenbergh wrote of this transgenerational wombmate influence: “Brothers beget nephews.”

After hearing the tale of the two sisters, one might easily conclude that it would be wise to be a pretty sister if one had to be a mouse. They have lots of mates and babies and, judged by the evolutionary imperative of producing offspring, seem more successful than their ugly sisters.

Not so fast, vom Saal cautions. When one considers how these sisters live their lives within a mouse population that goes through boom and bust cycles, the pretty sister begins to lose her obvious edge. Typically, a mouse population builds to a very high peak and then it crashes. In ordinary times when the population isn’t too dense, the pretty sisters definitely have the advantage, but as conditions become overcrowded the pretty sisters’ ability to produce babies diminishes because the females respond to scent cues in urine that inhibit reproduction.

But these overcrowded times are precisely when the ugly sisters come into their own. Because they are relatively immune to the inhibiting cues, they are likely to be the only ones to produce offspring, and the ugly sisters are the only ones tough enough to protect their babies from attack and infanticide.

Interestingly, some studies have shown that the mother’s physical condition can also alter hormone levels in the womb and influence the offspring. Mouse mothers that experience continuous stress through the latter part of their pregnancies give birth to females who have all the physical and behavioral characteristics of females who develop between males. Maternal stress seems to override the ordinary wombmate variations and produce a litter composed solely of tough cookies.

So what’s the evolutionary lesson in this tale?

In vom Saal’s view, the real lesson is the value of variability.

The acute sensitivity of developing mammals such as mice to slight shifts in hormone levels in the womb has been shaped by evolution. This characteristic helped insure wide variation in the offspring, even wider variation than that produced by genetic shuffling alone. Variation is the way mammals have hedged their bets in the face of a rapidly shifting environment. If you don’t know what the conditions will be for your offspring, the best thing to do is produce many different kinds in the hope that at least one of them will be suited to the emerging moment.

Vom Saal’s early. investigations into the wombmate effect focused solely on females. The decision to look at males to see if female wombmates had any influence on them was almost an afterthought. Though the results would round out this line of research, vom Saal admits he frankly did not expect to find anything remarkable. It was widely assumed that male development was driven exclusively by testosterone, so being next to females should make little difference.

In fact, the results of his experiments astonished him. The wombmate effect shaped the destinies of males as well as females and in ways that no one would have ever predicted. In a major paper in the prestigious journal Science in June 1980, vom Saal and his associates laid out the case that it was exposure to the female hormone estrogen before birth that increased a male’s sexual activity in adult life.

Inside and outside the world of science, many have regarded the level of male sexual activity as an index of masculinity and a product of the male hormone testosterone. Indeed, the findings were so counterintuitive and so contrary to assumptions about the “male” hormone testosterone and the “female” hormone estrogen that one of his collaborators protested that they must have somehow mixed up the samples. Vom Saal found, however, that estrogen and testosterone each influence males-and in ways that run counter to our conventional notions of “maleness” and “femaleness.” The effect of wombmates on males proved an even more provocative vein of research than his earlier work on females.

If the females seem a story of the pretty and ugly sisters, then vom Saal’s findings on the males sound like a tale of the playboy and the good father.

As adults, the playboy males, exposed to higher levels of estrogen by their female wombmates, showed another surprising characteristic besides their higher rates of sexual activity. It would seem logical to assume that exposure to estrogen might make males more solicitous toward the young, but in fact, the opposite proved true. When placed with young mice, these males were more likely to attack and kill babies. The high-testosterone males who had had brothers for wombmates turned out to be the good daddies, who surprisingly showed almost as great an inclination to take care of pups as mouse mothers.

The playboy males were standouts in one other respect as well — the size of their prostate, the small gland that wraps around the urethra, through which urine is eliminated. The males exposed to higher levels of estrogen had prostates that were fifty percent larger than those seen in brothers who had had male wombmates. In addition, these larger prostates are more sensitive to male hormones in adulthood because they contain three times the number of testosterone receptors found in the prostates of brothers with male wombmates. More receptors generally means that the gland will grow more quickly in response to male hormones circulating in the bloodstream in adulthood.

Although human babies don’t usually have to share the womb with siblings, their development can nevertheless be affected by varying hormone levels, which occur in the womb for reasons scientists don’t completely understand. Medical problems such as high blood pressure can drive up estrogen levels, for example. Or perhaps eating tofu, alfalfa sprouts, or other foods that are high in plant estrogens during pregnancy could boost estrogen exposure. There is also the possibility that the mother’s body fat contains synthetic chemicals that disrupt hormones.

Whatever the source, a recent study on opposite-sex human twins showed that wombmate effects can be detected in people as well. The study, which focused on an obscure difference in the auditory systems of males and females that exists from birth, found that girls who had developed with a boy twin showed a male pattern, suggesting that they, like vom Saal’s female mice, had been somewhat masculinized by the hormones spilling over from a male wombmate.

In the midst of all these surprises, the male wombmate studies in mice yielded only one expected result-on male aggression. Males with male wombmates and the highest testosterone exposure before birth were indeed the most aggressive toward other adult males, and males with female wombmates were the least aggressive.

Scientists working in this field are still debating how estrogen shapes the development of males and females, particularly the development of the brain and behavior, but vom Saal believes that estrogen is helping to masculinize males by acting to enhance some effects of the male hormone testosterone. Together the two hormones influence the organization ;of the developing brain to increase the level of sexual activity the male mouse will exhibit as an adult. Vom Saal had demonstrated that, this is a prenatal effect rather than a consequence of adult hormone levels by castrating the mice shortly after birth and then in adulthood administering an identical amount of male hormone to brothers with male and female wombmates. Even with identical hormone exposure these male mice showed different levels of sexual activity-evidence that adult hormone levels are not the cause of these behavioral differences.

Those who hear about vom Saal’s work typically ask him, Which is the “normal” mouse: the-pretty sister or the ugly sister? The playboy or the good father?

“They’re all normal,” vom Saal says emphatically.

The question itself seems to stem from our dualistic notion of maleness and femaleness, which sees the two sexes as mutually exclusive categories. In fact, there are many shades of gray and overlap between behaviors thought of as typically male or female. Seen in this light, there is nothing abnormal about an aggressive female or a nurturing male. In this strain of mice, whose genetic variability has been reduced by generations of inbreeding, these individuals reflect the variability created by the natural influence of hormones before birth. What is “normal,” vom Saal says, returning to an evolutionary theme, is not one type of individual or another but the variability itself.

But variability is just one of the larger lessons emerging from vom Saal’s work. It has also opened a window on the powerful role of hormones in the development of both sexes and the extreme sensitivity of developing mammals to slight shifts in hormone levels in the womb. The wombmate studies have also underscored that hormones permanently “organize” or program cells, organs, the brain, and behavior before birth, in many ways setting the individual’s course for an entire lifetime.

It is important to remember that hormones do this without altering genes or causing mutations. They control the “expression” of genes in the genetic blueprint an individual inherits from its parents. This relationship is similar to that between the keys on a player piano and the prepunched music roll that runs through and determines the tune. Though the piano can theoretically play many tunes, it will only play the one dictated by the pattern of holes in the music roll. During development, hormones present in the womb determine which genes will be expressed, or played, for a lifetime as well as the frequency of their expression. Nothing has been changed in the individual’s genes, but if a particular note hasn’t been punched into the music roll during development, it will remain forever mute. Genes may be the keyboard, but hormones present during development compose the tune.

What is astonishing about vom Saal’s wombmate studies is how little it takes to dramatically change the tune. Hormones are exceptionally potent chemicals that operate at concentrations so low that they can be measured only by the most sensitive analytical methods. When considering hormones such as estradiol, the most potent estrogen, forget parts per million or parts per billion. The concentrations are typically parts per trillion, one thousand times lower than parts per billion. One can begin to imagine a quantity so infinitesimally small by thinking of a drop of gin in a train of tank cars full of tonic. One drop in 660 tank cars would be one part in a trillion; such a train would be six miles long.

The striking lifelong differences between a pretty sister and ugly sister stem from no more than a thirty-five parts per trillion difference in their exposure to estradiol and a one part per billion difference in testosterone. Using the gin and tonic analogy, the pretty sister’s cocktail had 135 drops of gin in one thousand tank cars of tonic and the ugly sister’s 100 drops-a difference that might not be detectable in a glass much less in a tank car flotilla.

This is a degree of sensitivity that approaches the unfathomable, a sensitivity, vom Saal says, “beyond people’s wildest imagination.” If such exquisite sensitivity provides rich opportunities for varied offspring from the same genetic stock, this same characteristic also makes the system vulnerable to serious disruption if something interferes with normal hormone levels-a frightening possibility that first dawned on vom Saal when Theo Colborn called him to talk about synthetic chemicals that could act like hormones.

To appreciate vom Saal’s concern, one must understand more about the intricate choreography of events before birth known as sexual differentiation and the key role played by hormones in this developmental ballet. In mice, elephants, whales, humans, and all other mammals as well as in birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, the process that creates two sexes from initially unisex embryos is guided by these chemical messengers. They are the conductors that give the cues at the right moment as tissues and organs make now-or-never choices about the direction of development. In this central drama in which boys become boys and girls become girls, hormones have the starring role.

Our understanding of what determines whether a fertilized egg becomes a male or female is very recent. Before the twentieth century, it was widely assumed that the sex of the baby was determined by environmental factors such as temperature.

It was only in 1906 that two scientists-Nettie Marie Stevens and Edmund Beecher Wilson-independently noted that each cell in women had two X chromosomes while men always had an X and a Y, an observation that led to the theory that the number of X chromosomes determined sex. In the past decade, researchers have finally established that it is a gene on the Y chromosome rather than the number of X chromosomes that determines sex.

As most of us learned in high school biology, the eggs produced by the mother all carry one X chromosome, and the sperm from the father carry either an X or a Y chromosome. The sex of the baby hangs in the balance as the sperm burst out of the starting gate and race against each other in the reproductive marathon. If this most primordial of athletic events were broadcast like the Boston Marathon, we might hear that three Ys are neck-and-neck at the entrance to the cervix, but an X is making a move on the outside in the push into the uterus. A field of 75 million sperm have been pushing hard, sweeping their tails back and forth in steady swimming motions, but in the biological equivalent of Heartbreak Hill, many are beginning to flag as they enter the fallopian tube leading from the top of the uterus. It’s a tight race right to the finish line as the competitors crowd toward the goal. At the finish line of this race, an egg awaits the victor, rather than a crown of laurel, as it crashes through. If the Y-carrying sperm gets to the egg first, the baby, who has XY chromosomes, will be a boy. If the first sperm to the egg carries an X, the XX chromosome will produce a girl.

Such stories about the race between the Xs and the Ys for the egg left many of us with the impression that the outcome was all in the genetic instructions carried by the sperm. If the sperm delivered a Y, bingo, it was a boy-what unfolded between conception and birth was all more or less automatic and dictated by that genetic blueprint. In fact, the process is much more complex. The sex-determining gene in that Y chromosome has only a quick walk-on part in the elegant and wondrous process through which boys become boys.

In animals such as birds and humans, one sex is the basic model and the other is what might be described as a custom job, since the latter requires a sequence of additional changes directed by hormones to develop properly into the opposite sex. In birds, this basic model happens to be male. In mammals, including humans, the opposite is the case, and an embryo will develop into a female unless male hormones override the program and set it off on the alternative course.

Although the sperm delivers the genetic trigger for a male when it penetrates the egg, the developing baby does not commit itself to one course or another for some time. Instead, it retains the potential to be either male or female for more than six weeks, developing a pair of unisex gonads that can become either testicles or ovaries and two separate sets of primitive plumbing-one the precursor to the male reproductive tract and the other the making of the fallopian tubes and uterus. These two duct systems, known as the Wolffian and Müllerian ducts, are the only part of the male and female reproductive systems that originate from different tissues. All the other essential equipment — which might seem dramatically different between the two sexes — develop from common tissue found in both boy and girl fetuses. Whether this tissue becomes the penis or the clitoris, the scrotal sack that carried the testicles or the folds of labial flesh around a woman’s vagina, or something in between depends on the hormonal cues received during a baby’s development.

The big moment for the Y chromosome comes around the seventh week of life, when a single gene on the chromosome directs the unisex sex glands to develop into male testicles. In doing this, the Y chromosome throws the switch initiating the very first step in male development, the development of the testes, and that is the beginning and end of its role in shaping a male. From this point on, the remainder of the process of masculinization is driven by hormone signals originating from the baby’s brand-new testicles. In adult life, the testicles produce sperm to fertilize a woman’s eggs, the male’s contribution to reproduction and posterity. But the testicles play an even more important role in a male’s life before birth. Without the right hormone cues at the right time-cues emanating from the testicles-the baby will not develop the male body and brain that go along with the testicles. It might not even develop the penis required to deliver the sperm the testicles produce.

In girls, the changes that turn the unisex glands into ovaries, the part of the female anatomy that produces eggs, begin somewhat later, in the third to fourth month of fetal life. During this same period, one set of ducts-the Wolffian ducts that provide the option for a male reproductive tract-wither and disappear without any special hormone instructions. While the development of the female body isn’t as dependent on hormone cues as the development of males, animal research suggests estrogen is essential for proper development and normal functioning of the ovaries.

The process of laying the groundwork for the reproductive tract is more complicated in males and is marked by critical stages where hormones direct now-or-never decisions. Shortly after they are formed, the testicles produce a special hormone whose function is to trigger the disappearance of the female option — the Müllerian ducts. To accomplish this milestone, the hormone message must arrive at the right time, because there is only a short period when the female ducts respond to the signal to disappear. Then the testicles have to send another message to the Wolffian ducts, because they are programmed to disappear automatically by the fourteenth week unless they receive orders to the contrary.

The messenger is the predominantly male hormone testosterone, which insures the preservation and growth of the male Wolffian ducts. Under the influence of testosterone, these ducts form the epididymis, vas deferens, and seminal vesicles-the sperm delivery system that leads from the testicles to the penis.

A potent form of testosterone guides the development of the prostate gland and external genitals, directing the genital skin to form a penis and a scrotum that holds the testicles when they finally descend from the abdomen late in a baby’s development. A naturally occurring defect dramatically illustrates what can happen if these messages do not get through.

From time to time, a young patient will show up in a gynecologist’s office because the teenager still hasn’t had her first period although all the other girls in her class have passed this milestone. Usually nothing serious is wrong.

But once in a rare while, the physician will deliver an utterly shocking diagnosis. The patient isn’t menstruating because despite all appearances, she is not female. Although such individuals have grown up as normal-looking girls, they have the XY chromosomes of males and testicles in their abdomen instead of ovaries. But because a defect makes them insensitive to testosterone, they never responded to the hormone cues that trigger masculinization. They never developed the body and brain of a male.

The pictures in medical textbooks of these unrealized males are fascinating, for there is nothing about their unclothed bodies that looks the least bit odd or unusual. As hard as one searches for a hint that a genetic male lurks inside these bodies, there is no sign of development derailed. These genetic males look like perfectly ordinary women with normally developed breasts, narrow shoulders, and broader hips.

These completely feminized males are the most extreme example of what happens when something blocks the chemical messages that guide development. If -anything interferes with the testosterone or the enzyme that amplifies its effect, the common tissue found in boy and girl fetuses will develop instead into a clitoris and other external female genitals. In less extreme cases of disruption, males may have ambiguous genitals or abnormally small penises and undescended testicles.

But sex is more than a purely physical matter. According to physicians who treat them, these feminized males not only look like women, they act and think of themselves as women. There is nothing the least bit telling in their behavior to suggest that they are really male. In most animals, the development of a properly functioning male or female involves the brain as much as the genitals, and research such as vom Saal’s shows that hormones permanently shape some aspects of behavior before birth as much as they sculpt the penis. If an individual is going to act like a male as well as look like one, the brain must receive testosterone messages from the testicles during a critical period when brain cells are making some of their now-or-never decisions.

An individual who gets the wrong hormone messages during this critical period of brain development may show abnormal behavior and fail to mate even though it has the right physical equipment. In an influential 1959 study, Charles Phoenix of the University of Kansas found that female guinea pigs exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb acted like males. They would not show the classic female mating posture, a raised posterior, known as “lordosis,” as adults or respond normally to the female hormones that stimulate sexual behavior and reproduction.

No one debates that hormones act to give males and females different bodies and that their role in the development of animals and humans is pretty much the same. But how hormones influence the development of the human brain is hotly debated. Do they shape the brain and behavior in humans as dramatically as they do in mice or rats or guinea pigs? Are there structural differences between the brains of men and women, and is there any evidence that the differences stem from hormone influences before birth?

These questions are difficult to answer. Not only is human behavior more complex than that of vom Saal’s mice, but we aren’t free to give pregnant women various doses of hormones to see the effect on the brain development of their babies.

Those who have probed the question of whether the behavioral differences between men and women have a biological basis or are purely cultural have found evidence of some structural differences linked to hormones, but so far these sex-linked areas are fewer and less pronounced than those seen in rats. Psychologists have also reported certain general differences in the way men and women think, reporting that women have greater verbal skills as a rule and men tend to be better at solving spatial problems. Many also believe that the rough-and-tumble play and fighting seen to a much greater degree in young boys than in girls stems from biology rather than from culture or child-rearing methods.

At the same time that hormones are guiding at least some aspects of sexual development of the unborn child, these chemical messengers are also orchestrating the growth of the baby’s nervous and immune systems, and programming organs and tissues such as the liver, blood, kidneys, and muscles, which function differently in men and women. Normal brain development, for example, depends on thyroid hormones that cue and guide the development of nerves and their migration to the right area in this immensely complex organ.

For all these systems, normal development depends on getting the right hormone messages in the right amount to the right place at the right time. As this elaborate chemical ballet rushes forward at a dizzying pace, everything hinges on timing and proper cues. If something disrupts the cues during a critical period of development, it can have serious lifelong consequences for the offspring.


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