A watched pot takes forever to boil, but changing social attitudes takes a lot longer. Reflecting on the ten years since this column about environmental issues and health risks was first introduced, I observe that some positive changes have taken root in the collective consciousness of the American public. There have also been setbacks as highly profitable industries continue to influence our regulatory agencies compromising public health and environmental protection.
Community Supported Agriculture
The first article written for the April 1999 Townsend Letter (190) introduced readers to the idea of community supported agriculture (CSAs), a new concept of shared responsibility between consumer and grower. Members pay the grower an established fee in spring to help carry small farms through an often perilous and penniless season of planting, weeding, and waiting, while Mother Nature dictates which crops will be plentiful and which will be pitiful based on weather conditions. For example, extremely cool, wet weather in the Northeast this past summer had a devastating effect on tomatoes, peppers, and other heat-loving crops, while green leafy plants (vegetables and weeds) did exceptionally well. Most CSAs follow organic growing methods to benefit people, the soil, and wildlife. Eating organic helps the consumer avoid dyes, shellacs, bioengineered products, dangerous heavy metals, and other contaminants in commercial sewer sludge fertilizers.1
Ten years ago, my community of approximately 13,000 residents supported three CSAs. There are now six CSAs, three farms raising grass-fed beef, one small organic apple farm that leases apple trees for $50, and a few additional farms that grow unsprayed vegetables and berries or raise free-range, antibiotic, and pesticide-free chickens and eggs. There are several larger organic farms in the surrounding area that deliver their produce to CSA members living in the New York City boroughs. People are definitely getting the message that organic is healthier.
Organic versus Conventional
The primary goal of the 1960s organic food movement was to raise food that would nurture people and the environment. Cover crops and crop rotation that rebuild soil and restore mineral content would replace synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that pollute our air, water, and soil. Local distribution of fresh farm produce would save unnecessary costs for transportation and warehousing. Consumers benefit from fresher, more nutritious food. Studies confirm that people eating an organic diet have higher concentrations of flavonoids and antioxidants that play an important role in supporting the immune system.2
A most significant and widely publicized event promoting organic agriculture occurred in March 2009 when Michelle Obama established an organic garden on the grounds of the White House. Her intent was to raise healthful, pesticide-free food to be served in the White House, and to introduce local schoolchildren to the concept of healthy eating. Media everywhere carried photos of Michelle Obama digging up the first shovelful of soil to create a 1,100-square-foot vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House. The garden produce will provide food for family meals, formal dinners, and local DC soup kitchens. The garden will contain 55 different vegetables, plus berries, herbs, and two beehives.3
Environmentalists and organic food proponents hope that this move is more than symbolic, that it will help promote better agriculture and pesticide reform policies, and inspire others to plant their own organic gardens. The media attention focused on the White House organic garden was a tremendous boost to raising even more consumer awareness of the benefits of organic food.3
Atrazine has been one of the most widely used pesticides in the US. The July 2003 Townsend Letter (240) discussed "Atrazine's Assault on Health and the Environment," indicating that we use approximately 80 million pounds of the active ingredient annually in this country for weed control. Atrazine is an ingredient used in many different herbicide products applied to farm crops, particularly corn, sorghum, sugarcane, pineapple, and citrus. It is used to control weeds along roads and on playing fields, golf courses, and lawns.4
Because atrazine moves easily in soil and water, it has become a major environmental pollutant. It has been detected in the ground water of 24 states, some of which do not even use the pesticide. The highest concentrations are found in the Corn Belt states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas). Atrazine has been found in 30 out of 33 samples of treated drinking water, indicating that it is not eliminated by ordinary treatment technology.4
A major concern of atrazine's presence in water is the possible production of N-nitrosoatrazine (NNAT), a class of potent carcinogens. There is an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in Nebraska counties with nitrate-contaminated wells. A Canadian study found atrazine to be the most common contaminant from drift and runoff. A study of 18 lakes in Switzerland found atrazine in all 18, as well as in rainwater. Atrazine particles attach to dust particles and are carried in clouds, fog, and snow to distant areas. The problem with atrazine has proven to be much more extensive and pervasive than previously thought.4
Health risks associated with atrazine's toxicity include severe eye and mild skin irritation. Chronic exposure effects include diminished weight gain, increased irritability and probable anemia in rats. Studies with dogs showed increased mortality; decreased food consumption; and increased liver, ovary, and heart weights (in females). Both sexes showed electrocardiographic changes in the heart with detectable pathology. Exposure of pregnant and nursing rats to atrazine resulted in delayed maturation of the offspring's sexual organs. Lab subjects exposed to atrazine had an increased incidence of cancers of the lymph system (leukemia, lymphoma), benign mammary tumors in males, and uterine cancers in females.4
Women exposed to atrazine develop ovarian tumors 2.7 times more than nonexposed women. Atrazine has caused enlargement of the prostate (hypertrophy), lowered testosterone levels, and interfered with serotonin synthesis, resulting in depression, according to environmental illness expert Sherry Rogers, MD.5 In the late 1980s, concerns arose about atrazine's potential to cause cancer in humans.4
Syngenta, a major manufacturer of atrazine, is accused by workers of illegally suppressing its own study on atrazine and prostate cancer. The incidence of prostate cancer among employees at Syngenta's plant in Louisiana appears to be nine times that of the general public. In spite of a decade's worth of documentation at Syngenta's primary manufacturing plant showing a strong link to prostate cancer among workers, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reversed its previous stand that designated atrazine as a (class C) probable human carcinogen, and reclassified it in June 2002 as not a likely human carcinogen.4
Amphibian endocrinologist Tyrone Hayes of the University of California, Berkeley, was originally hired by Syngenta to study atrazine's effect on frogs. When his findings produced results unfavorable to the company, he found himself at odds with the Switzerland-based corporation. In a talk at the Mayo Clinic early January 2007, Dr. Hayes shared some insights: "One of the things we discovered is that atrazine chemically castrates the frog, (reducing) the male hormone, testosterone, (resulting) in things like decreased sperm count, a decrease in the voice box, (which) controls the male's ability to attract mates." Hayes explains that the enzyme which atrazine activates in frogs is the same one found in humans that converts testosterone into estrogen. Meanwhile, back at the EPA, Anne Lindsay at the Office of Pesticides persisted in declaring that the use of atrazine was safe.6
Paul Wotzka, a hydrologist who worked for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for 16 years, was fired for becoming a whistle-blower. "Mr. Wotzka was invited to testify before a legislative committee about his research on atrazine. His superiors refused permission, and subsequently fired him, claiming he took office files from his job. He did eventually present his findings, first saying he knew "a lot of employees who are not allowed to talk to legislators (or) to the media.'" He summarized his research about atrazine, stating: "Atrazine is in our rain … in our trout streams, (and) in our urban runoff from our largest metropolitan areas. It is in our cold clear springs and our muddiest rivers … in our drinking water and our lakes used for recreation. It is detected in our streams in the dead of winter, many months after (application). It has been omnipresent in our state's water for many years."7
While our regulatory agencies persist in catering to the wishes of the chemical industry instead of protecting public health, European countries have taken a stand against atrazine. Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and France passed their own bans on atrazine. In 2003 the European Union officially withdrew regulatory approval for the widely used herbicide. In response to this ban, Syngenta quickly announced that it had alternative products being offered to Germany and Italy, and would extend those products to the rest of EU.8
In the US, 71% of groundwater is contaminated with atrazine. Continued pressure from health and environmental activists to make the EPA take action against this controversial chemical is making slow progress. The EPA finally announced its plan for reevaluation in November 2009, with a decision expected by September 2010.8
Atrazine will remain in the environment for a long time, even if the EPA banned it immediately. With enough public pressure over the next several months, it might be possible to force the EPA to do its job of protecting the environment and public health. Legislators want to hear from their constituents. It is up to all of us to make our voices heard. Do not underestimate the value of a single phone call or e-mail. It can make a difference. You can learn more about atrazine, and how to reach your legislators from www.organicconsumers.org.
"The Malaria/DDT Debate Heats Up"appeared in the Townsend Letter May 2007 (286) issue, explaining the controversy regarding the new position of the World Health Organization (WHO) on increasing use of DDT in African countries to control malaria. Many health experts and environmental proponents question the long-term dangers of DDT's toxic effects on the human population, and promote safer methods of malaria control.
DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is a pesticide originally developed in the 1940s to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes in tropical areas where American soldiers were stationed. After the war, DDT gained widespread use as a household and agricultural pesticide to control insects. Due to its impact on wildlife and persistence in the environment, DDT was finally banned for agricultural use in this country, though it can still be used in certain instances for vector control. Other countries that raise food for American consumers continue to use DDT, so we are still ingesting it.9
DDT and its breakdown products, DDE and DDD, are all decomposed by sunlight and soil microorganisms, but persist in the soil, building up in plants and concentrating in the fatty tissue of fish, birds, and other animals. Levels of these chemicals bioaccumulate as one goes up the food chain. Humans, at the top of the food chain, receive the highest concentrations of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Human breast milk contains these toxins, which are then passed on to nursing babies. DDT kills insects by disrupting the nervous system. In animals, DDT also affects the nervous system and reproduction, and can cause liver cancer, depending on the dose and duration. DDT is considered a (class B) likely human carcinogen by the EPA.9
Human blood levels of DDT in the American population have dropped since its use was restricted in 1972, but recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that there are still low levels of DDT and DDE in our food, house dust, and soil.10
In other parts of the world where DDT use and/or residues are still quite high, there is mounting concern about its effects on children and babies. South African scientist Anthony Turton was barred by his former employer from discussing water and health issues in South Africa. He later joined the Center for Environmental Management at the University of Free State, and was awarded the Habitat Council Conservationist's Award, where he freely spoke about his concerns over the use of DDT for malaria control in the Limpopo River basin. "We know from published peer-reviewed research that a high correlation exists between the application of DDT… and the birth of babies with deformed genitalia, either being born with both male and female organs, or with abnormalities associated with what we can broadly call gender defining organs, and we also know this is affecting male fertility," Turton said.11
A two-year study published online in the British Journal of Urology International found that male babies born in villages sprayed with DDT to reduce malaria had a 33% higher incidence of urogenital birth defects.12 Some studies have found a correlation between higher DDT in mothers whose pregnancies failed to reach term. Other studies report a greater incidence of cryptorchidism (undescended testicles) and hypospadias (failure of the urinary outlet to fuse completely) in male offspring of women with levels of DDT above a certain median.10
Additional health risks associated with DDT exposure include:
- poor sperm quality;
- premature delivery and reduced infant birth weight;
- reduced breast milk production;
- neurological effects, including developmental delays among babies and toddlers exposed to DDT in the womb;
- elevated risk of breast cancer (while evidence of a link between DDT exposure and breast cancer is ambiguous, the weight of evidence indicates an increased risk);
- other cancers (the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists DDT as a possible human carcinogen);
- nervous system impacts due to occupational exposure to DDT;
- liver impacts due to occupational exposure to DDT.13
Since 2000, Mexico eliminated the need for DDT and significantly reduced the incidence of malaria. In 1991, Vietnam switched to a DDT-free malaria control program that included use of mosquito nets, drugs, and widespread health education, resulting in a 97% reduction of malaria deaths and 59% reduction of malaria cases.
The World Wildlife Fund reports success in areas of India where nonchemical approaches have been cost effective.13
The chemical industry maintains that DDT is the best means to control malaria, despite the long-range health and environmental hazards associated with it. The Washington, DC-based environmental organization Pesticides and You urges citizens to encourage the new administration to promote safe and sustainable approaches to malaria control that do not rely on spraying DDT on the interior walls of homes, and to coordinate global efforts to control malaria with safe solutions.13
For more information on these topics, or to find out how to reach your legislators to voice your concerns regarding the use of atrazine in the US or DDT in other countries, please refer to www.organicconsumers.org, www.nrdc.org, and www.beyondpesticides.org.
Rose Marie Williams, MA
1. Williams RM. Community supported agriculture. Townsend Lett. 1999;190:124–125.
2. Williams RM. Organic food versus conventional. Townsend Lett. 2006;270:26–28.
3. White House breaks ground on organic kitchen project. Beyond Pesticides[online]. Available at: http://www.beyondpesticides.org/dailynewsblog/?p=1452. Accessed March 23, 2009.
4. Williams RM. Atrazine's assault on health & the environment. Townsend Lett. 2003;240:36–38.
5. Rogers S. Total Health. October 1998. Prestige Publishing; 800-846-6687.
6. Stachura S. Mayo docs hear from researcher on suspected atrazine, cancer links. Minnesota Public Radio. June 4, 2007. Available at: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/01/02/hayesmayo. Accessed October 31, 2007.
7. Hemphill S. Whistleblower highlights concerns about atrazine. Minnesota Public Radio. October 10, 2007. Available at: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/10/10/whistleblower. Accessed October 31, 2007.
8. European Union bans toxic atrazine herbicide still widely used in US Corn Belt. Available at: http://www.organicconsumers.org/foodsafety/atrazine102703.cfm. Accessed February 20, 2004.
9. Williams RM. The malaria/DDT debate heats up. Townsend Lett. 2007; 286:32–34.
10. Eskenazi B et al. The Pine River statement: human health consequences of DDT use. Environ Health Perspect. 2009;117(9):1359–1365. Available at: http://www.ehponline.org/members/2009/11748/11748.html. Accessed November 9, 2009. (Editor note: Aug. 2010: Use this link: http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=
11. Gosling M. DDT may cause androgyny in babies – experts. Independent Online. October 11, 2009. Available at: http://iol.co.za/general/news/newsprint.php?art_id=nw20091011222417700C903105&sf=. Accessed November 5, 2009.
12. What are the dangers of DDT on babies? Independent Online. October 24, 2009. Available at: http://iol.co.za/general/news/newsprint.php?art_id=nw20091024120322522C950831&sf=. Accessed November 5, 2009.
13. FDA USDA. Pesticides and You. 2009;29(1):14–35. Available at: http://www.beyondpesticides.org/infoservices/pesticidesandyou.