Reclaiming the future of food and farming

Team atrazine out-phobes the 'chemophobes'

Karl Tupper's picture

The blogosphere and fringe media is full of misinformation and downright lies. If I tried to set the record straight everytime some blogger claimed that DDT is harmless to people, endosulfan is "soft on bees," or that feeding the world requires GMOs then I wouldn't have time to do anything else. And so even though it registered a strong reading on my BS detector, I decided to simply ignore the new article on the American Enterprise Institute's website claiming that triazine herbicides (the class that includes atrazine) are the only thing keeping California almonds free of deadly toxins. But then the Huffington Post reprinted it, and people actually read HuffPo (unlike, so now here I am, setting the record straight.

To quote:

Consider the case of California almonds. A natural chemical, aflatoxin, is found in 15 percent of this crop and on other nuts as well. If the aflatoxin is not eliminated before the nuts are consumed, people could die; and the most effective way to eliminate aflatoxin in nuts is with pesticides -- triazines, such as simazine and atrazine, which have been found safe at levels up to 1,000 times or more what humans might be exposed to. But many environmental campaigners, citing controversial studies on amphibians, lobby for a ban of triazines.

Aflatoxin is a terrifically cancinogenic toxin produced by fungi of various Aspergillus species. And it is certainly true that almonds can harbor aflatoxin. But what set off my BS detector is that idea that atrazine has some role to play in keeping almonds aflatoxin-free. Afterall, one wouldn't expect an herbicide to have much of an effect on fungal growth. Nor does it seem likely that treating aflatoxin-laced almonds with atrazine would do anything to detoxify them. 

And so I looked up pesticide use statistics for California almonds, and guess what? In 2009, California growers produced 1.4 billion lbs of almonds on more than 700,000 acres of almond trees without using a single pound of atazine or simazine or any other triazine. None was used the previous year either. In fact, in the 20 years that the state has been tracking pesticide use, less than 200 lbs of atrazine have been used in almond orchards. What's more, as a first line of defense against aflatoxin, both the Almond Board of California and the University of California recommed cultural practices to control the fungi that produce the toxin and the insect vectors that spread the fungi.

What's particularly ironic about this bit of misinformation is how it's being used. The author, Jon Entine of "Statistical Assessment Service" — a think tank with a history of shilling for corporate polluters that's funded by deeply conservative foundations — is trying to argue that scaremongering by environmentalists is resulting in an irrational fear of chemicals, a "chemophobia." And yet Entine himself is trying instill a fear of environmentalism by inventing a phony toxic threat, namely that a ban on atrazine would somehow lead to sky rocketing aflatoxin contamination of almonds. Ban atrazine, and "people could die."

No, people won't die if atrazine is banned, nor will corn farmers — who use more atrazine than anyone — go out of business. In debates on chemical safety, plenty are guilty of scaremongering. But the biggest offenders are the corporations and their apologists with their doom and gloom predictions about the effects of banning or restricting their products.

Karl Tupper
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entine's picture
entine /


If you would like to have a rational dialogue on the relative risks and rewards of chemical pesticides and herbicides, that would be great. I hope that's the case, but your ad hominem attack and distortion of the facts above raises integrity questions. Stick to the issues please.

As for the use of chemicals on nuts, they are used and they are effective. As I wrote in the piece:

"Consider the case of nuts. Natural fungi known as mycotoxins are know to effect up to 25 percent of the world's nut supply. One strain, aflatoxin, infects up to 15% of California's crop. The most effective and efficient containment strategy is to control insect crop pests with insecticides, which would otherwise injure the nuts, seeds or grains, thus providing points of entry for the fungal pathogens to infect the mature or harvested crop. Yet environmental campaigners adamantly oppose that method of control, in effect ignoring a natural chemical while taken an inflexible stand against a synthetic one. That trade-off means that consumers invariably will be injured and some will die."

You may agree that directly injuring people is a reasonable trade-off for limiting the use of chemicals that scientists and health officials believe are safe--with health and safety buffers of 1000 times or more. I don't. I just people over hysteria.

As for the use of triazines such as atrazine and simazine, which PAN has been attacking relentlessly for years, scientists and regulators who use SCIENCE (rather than purely a fear-driven precautionary standard) are actually RELAXING standards rather than tightening them as evidence continues to accumulate of their comparative safety. The evidence for taking more extreme action is based largely upon one scientist's work, which no international regulatory agency believes is reliable or trustworthy.

As I wrote in my report:

"[Anti-chemical activists} also have launched zealous campaigns against weed killers that allow crops to flourish. The most common herbicides are triazines, such as simazine and atrazine, which have become central targets of anti-chemical campaigners. Yet, as one example, published studies show that legal limit on atrazine exposure has an extraordinary safety cushion -- up to 1,000 times or more what advanced scientific studies has determined is safe for humans. But many environmental campaigners, citing controversial and contested studies on amphibians, lobby for a ban of triazines, atrazine in particular.

Again, our perspectives suggest we have different values. I value food security--feeding the hungry, keeping food prices reasonable, and ensuring that farmers have a reasonable income. I'm sure you're a good person, but you're choosing to lower food output and put thousands, if not millions, if not tens of millions of lives at health risk. Why? Because you choose precaution over science. Again, you're welcome to your perspective. Others may choose. But please be honest in labeling it as a value/religious choice; it's not a scientific one.

IF you genuinely care about science and reasonable discourse, let's debate these issues in an open forum in Washington. I can arrange it. Let me know. Just email me.

Karl Tupper's picture
Karl Tupper /


I'd take your offer seriously and I'd be more inclined to take at face value your alleged concern for food security if you actually just admitted your mistake. I quoted your HuffPo article verbatim -- I simply cut-and-pasted it into my blog post here. It obviously links atrazine use to keeping almonds safe, but as I've shown, atrazine plays no role at all in almond production.

If you're going to try to claim the scientific high ground, you need to get this stuff right. You can't chastise people for scaremongering using more scaremongering.

To address some of your other points:

Europe banned atrazine use several years ago, and it has not bankrupted farmers or caused food prices to go up. In fact, yields have increased in many cases since banning atrazine. A small but growing number of farmers in the US have voluntarily foregone atrazine, and they are doing fine. And while Syngenta sponsored economic analyses have made claims that banning atrazine would cost thousands of jobs and dramatically increase corn prices, other analyses indicate a ban would have a negligible effect.

I'm reminded of the reaction to Silent Spring. Velsicol and other DDT-makers as well as some USDA scientists predicted the fall of agriculture if EPA banned DDT. Did it happen? No.

Or more recently many food manufactures warned that without trans-fats their products wouldn't taste as good or they'd be more expensive, or people just wouldn't want to buy them if they knew they contained trans-fats. And then FDA required that trans-fat content be put on labels. What happened? Food manufactures quietly reformulated their products, no one noticed any difference in the flavor of their HoHos or Twinkies, and everything was fine. Or BPA which is supposedly so essential: retailers, food packagers, and manufactures are starting to remove it from products in response to consumer demand, and have prices gone up or quality gone down for these products? No.

My point? The chemical industry has a long history of crying wolf.

As for the risks of atrazine: it's the most commonly detected pesticide in water in the US. The USDA found it in more than 90% of finished drinking water samples, in sampling focused on the Midwest. Human exposure is huge. Before exposing vast portions of the US population to it, you'd think we want to be absolutely sure that it was harmless and that it was providing a real benefit to society, wouldn't you? That's not the precautionary principle, which you're so averse to, that's simply common sense.

EPA's safe level is 3 ppb, but 2.5 ppb is enough to turn a male frog into a female frog. 0.1 ppb can cause ovaries to grow in a frog's testes. Granted, the evolutionary distance between humans and frogs is enormous, but if atrazine can have this effect on a frog, what might it be doing to a woman's unborn child? Epidemiological studies on people exposed to atrazine in drinking water have found increases in birth defects and other problem in people exposed to levels of atrazine far less than EPA's 3.0 ppb standard.

I agree that we often have to balance risks and benefits. For example, chemotherapy itself is very dangerous and can kill you, but if it's the only thing standing between you and certain death by cancer, then you might decide the risks are far outweighed by the benefits.

But the benefits of atrazine are small-to-nonexistent, and accrue mainly to the chemical companies that profit by selling it. Meanwhile risks, while uncertain, are endured by the millions of Americans whose water is contaminated with atrazine without their knowledge or consent.

entine's picture
entine /


What happened? Too afraid to discuss the SCIENCE of chemicals? It's great to strut before sycophants. How about actually engaging people on this very important issue. The position PANNA takes actually leads to hunger in the world. And you are won't discuss this? Surprise me. Surprise science. Engage the issue and the policy implications of your religious position. That would be honesty.

Jon Entine

Karl Tupper's picture
Karl Tupper /


Sure. Let's debate in a mainstream, public forum. And let's turn down the rhetoric, OK? I'm happy to talk about the science of atrazine and pesticides and the politics of risk assessment, but characterizing precaution as a "religious position" and readers of this blog as "sycophants" doesn't really help foster the "rational dialogue" that you claim to be looking for. Why don't you contact me via email (using the form at and we can work out the logistics.

You've raised several issues in your comments here, but you've still yet to address the matter that started this exchange, namely your invention of a frightening and totally phony consequence of banning atrazine. I look forward to correcting all of your distortions of science and policy (either here or in some sort of debate) but why don't we take things one at a time and start at the top, i.e. with atrazine and almonds. Once we get that sorted out, the we can talk about the relative merits of the European vs American regulatory schemes, the failures of industrial agricultural, the EPA's 3 ppb atrazine standard, and the structural inequities that allow near 1 billion people go malnourished while something on the order of 1/3 of all agricultural production is wasted.

entine's picture
entine /


I guess your reply means that you are refusing to discuss these issues in a public forum with science as the guide?

We can back and forth about who gets what right, but I'm not sure where that would get us.

Atrazine is indeed not used in Europe--for precautionary reasons, not for health or environmental ones. WHO sets the safe level for atrazine at 100 parts per billion. You don't find those concentrations in Europe or the US. The levels you cite breathlessly in the US--3ppb--are AS YOU KNOW, 1000 times lower than have shown the first signs of carcinogenicity in the most sensitive lab animals. As for the frog results, even if they did suggest potential human harm, have been rejected because the experiments were so poorly done--at Dr. Hayes refuses to release his data for EPA or independent review. That's not science Karl.

So...would you like to actually discuss these issues in a public forum. Chemical toxicity should be discussed at the level of science. I have criticized your analysis--you've twice questioned my motives and credibility. That suggests that you are not prepared to discuss the science. How about it? Let's inform, not demagogue.

WAman's picture
WAman /

I have worked in sciences throughout the defense and oil industries. There is nothing more dangerous than pseudo-science with a grudge, self interest, and lots of secret money. It is easy under such scenarios to paint nutty landscapes draped with apparently respectable drivel about 'the science' as though 'the science' is known, holistic, correct, or ignorant of mistakes.

The truth tends to favor the most well funded when 'stories' are confused with 'studies'. It seems obvious that Mr. Jon Entine has expertise in telling stories with his expertise in philosophy rather than 'hard science'. His blathering call out to the Panna writer, Mr. Tupper, is transparently self-serving, making me wonder about the sources of Mr. Entine's income.

I worked for the corporations once too. I know what passes for 'Ethical Corporations'. That dog don't hunt! Everybody knows what motivates corporate spokespeople. The 'truth' is not a concept which is absolute. Shades and shadows of the 'truth' are the smoke and mirrors of these paid corporate sycophants.

If he 'sells' the disjointed, carefully culled snippets of 'the science', read 'his science', of pesticides he gets his comissions, Thirty pieces of silver! His is not 'science' of any sort. Do not engage blathering. The answers to his 'the science' are already figured out to seven hundred decimal places with no science experiments, wow!!! There is no room for uncertainty, no chance of error, no mistakes, trust him. Why would he lie? thirty pieces of silver???

The problems with the study of toxicology is rife with special interest pseudo-science. It is very difficult to cull all the crud out there for real, independent science. Regulators have not helped by allowing so many bad works of pseudo-science to be promoted as 'the science' defining regulatory restraints. We REALLY need third party testing, with oversight.

I promote development of a testing science division of regulatory agents for all future regulatory testing, paid for by industry fees. Perhaps this could be a professional corps of dedicated, career scientists within the EPA, NIH, or other federal agency. Sort of like the FBIT, the Federal Bureau of Investigating Toxicants. Do not allow those scientists to 'revolving door' in and out of regulated industry.

There are lots of dedicated scientists willing to work for a fair wage to do honest science, disavowing the perks of the corporate world of 'the science'. At lease we would know who was doing the data. Do not allow these fellows to join the industry funded trade groups like the Society of Toxicologists either. There is far too much schmoozing going on at those soiree.

Ignore this ignoramus, this Mr. Entine.