Something in the Air: Toxins Linked to Endo

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by Lone Hummelshoj

There is still no cure for endometriosis, which affects an estimated half-a-million Canadian women. What's more, a recent study of 4,000 North American women suggests an average diagnostic delay of over nine years. At least 5.5 million women in North America suffer from this Disease and that number is rising. Symptoms are starting at an earlier age and the severity is increasing. Could this be because endometriosis may be caused by toxins in our environment? Research suggests it might.

Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to the endometrium, which is the lining of the uterus, is found in the abdomen, on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, the ligaments supporting the uterus, the area between the vagina and the rectum, the outer surface of the uterus and the lining of the pelvic cavity.

The tissue responds to hormones like normal endometrium, so it swells and bleeds each menstrual period. Because the bleeding occurs in an abnormal location, with nowhere to go, it can cause inflammation, formation of scar tissue, and develop into cysts, implants or growths.

The most common symptom of endometriosis is pain before and during menstrual periods and at ovulation. For some women this can escalate into a month-long nightmare, which in turn may prevent them from carrying out normal activities of life. Other symptoms can include pain during or after sexual activity, heavy or irregular bleeding, fatigue, pain with bowel movements at the time of the period, as well as bladder problems. Endometriosis is a leading cause of infertility in women.

"It's impacted my relationships, finances, vacations, lifestyle, and my dreams," said one woman in the Endometriosis Association's Sourcebook.

A recent survey of women affected with endometriosis in North America found that 79% of the women were not able to carry out normal day-to-day activities, and one quarter were incapacitated for between two and six days a month.

"Dealing with the physical pain has been, and continues to be, difficult for me. But even more traumatic has been suffering without understanding the cause," said Beth, from Alberta, in the Sourcebook.

The cause, factors contributing to endometriosis, and the natural history of the disease are not yet scientifically understood. There is no cure for endometriosis, but we know that early diagnosis and treatment may prevent the disease from spreading and causing problems later in life.

The Endometriosis Association, set on finding the cause and cure, maintains the world's only large, ongoing research registry on the disease.

Aware of the many immune system problems of those afflicted with endometriosis and knowing that US Air Force studies have now shown quite convincingly that radiation exposure of certain types and amounts leads to endometriosis in female rhesus monkeys, the Endometriosis Association set out in 1991 and early 1992 to track down a rumour that rhesus monkeys exposed to PCBs in scientific experiments developed severe endometriosis.

The association learned of a rhesus monkey colony studied by the Canadian federal Health Protection Branch. An unusually severe form of endometriosis had been documented in some of the PCB-exposed monkeys: several animals had apparently died from intestinal obstruction caused by extensive disease. Reproductive outcomes from the PCB-exposed animals were poor.

The association then learned there was also another colony of rhesus monkeys in Madison, Wisconsin, in which two monkeys had died of endometriosis. This colony had been part of a toxicology study to evaluate long-term effects of TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin) commonly called dioxin.

Groups of eight animals received either 25 parts per trillion (ppt, high dose) or 5 ppt dioxin (low dose). Control monkeys were not exposed to dioxin.

When the Endometriosis Association discovered that the experiments were over and the colony would be closed, it decided to fund the colony for two months to determine if endometriosis was present in the remaining animals.

The association carried out laparoscopies (minor abdominal surgery) on the entire colony and brought in one of the leading experts in the field on the appearance of endometriosis and a leading authority on the immunology of endometriosis.

At the end of a long day of laparoscopies, the investigators were astounded by the results: 79% of the animals exposed to dioxin developed endometriosis. And the disease increased in severity in direct proportion to the level of dioxin exposure: the more dioxin, the more severe the disease.

They later carried out immunological studies with the colony, and the results suggested that endometriosis in these animals was associated with immune dysfunction similar to that seen in women with endometriosis.

Since the dioxin results were published, more than a dozen related studies have been launched in research institutions worldwide. Most notably, the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Endometriosis Association are carrying out a joint study to determine blood

levels of dioxin, furans and PCBs in women with endometriosis. The US Environmental Protection Agency has carried out studies to determine the effects of dioxin on endometriosis in a rodent model. Several animal studies and human endometrial cell culture lines have also shown dioxin causes development of endometriosis.

More studies are nearing publication, but far from easing fear over endocrine disrupters and endometriosis, the new studies are alarming.

Women must take action now to prevent this disease spreading to our daughters, impairing their lives, jeopardizing their education and careers, and reducing their chances of having children themselves. We must influence governments and health care authorities to take this debilitating disease seriously. We must raise funds for vital research into the causes of the disease. We must take measures to ensure the factors that cause endometriosis are eliminated.

Lone Hummelshoj is the European Representative for the Endometriosis Association.

For more information contact:

Endometriosis Association International Headquarters

8585 N. 76th Place

Milwaukee, WI 53223, USA.

Tel: 1-800-992-3636


The Endometriosis Association, the first organization in the world for those with endometriosis, is an international, non-profit, self-help organization of women with endometriosis, doctors, researchers, and others interested in the disease.

The goal of the Association is to work toward finding a cure for endometriosis as well as providing education, support and research.

Founded in 1980 by Mary Lou Ballweg and Carolyn Keith, it has grown to encompass a network of chapters, support groups, sponsors and women with endometriosis in 66 countries. Canadian women have been part of the Association right from the beginning.

Information is available in 20 languages, as well as two books: Overcoming Endometriosis and The Endometriosis Sourcebook.