Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
A Weekly News Update on Pesticides, Health and Alternatives
See PANUPS archive for complete information.
- New reports on pesticide use & food residues
- DOJ & Supreme Court scrutinize Monsanto
- Oceans releasing DDT from years ago
- Pesticides a leading cause of death in Bangladesh
- Scientists confirm pollutants threaten Arctic polar bears
Earlier this month, California's Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) released the latest in its ongoing series of reports summarizing annual pesticide use. The Pesticide Use Report shows that the state's use decreased slightly from 2007 to 2008, to 161.5 million pounds. DPR attributed the decrease mostly to drier conditions, which translate to less pressure on crops from plant diseases and weeds, and thus fewer applications of fungicides and herbicides. Sulfur, a fungicide used by both conventional and organic growers, continued to be the most applied pesticide in California, and it’s use decreased 12%, accounting for most of the overall decline in pesticide use.
“While it’s great to see pesticide use declining, the drop is entirely circumstantial, representing variations in weather, pest pressure, and cropping patterns, rather than a real shift among growers to more sustainable methods,” said Pesticide Action Network staff scientist Karl Tupper. “For the most part, it’s business as usual." Fumigation—one of the most unsustainable farming practices—continues unabated, with the same amount of fumigants applied to the same number of acres in 2008 as 2007. Methyl bromide use is going down, as one would expect for a chemical being phased out under the Montreal Protocol because it depletes the ozone layer. But other fumigants are being used in its place. And biopesticides, which are generally less toxic than traditional pesticides, are still under-utilized, accounting for less than half a percent of total pesticide use. On the other hand, there does appear to be a gradual but real downward trend in the use of organophosphates and carbamates, and that’s good news for farmworkers who face exposure to these neurotoxins in the fields and for consumers who are exposed to residues of these insecticides in their food.
Speaking of pesticide residues on food, on January 11, USDA released the results (PDF) of tests conducted in 2008 as part of the Pesticide Data Program (PDP). The PDP is among the most important sources of information about pesticides on foods, and is used by EPA and other agencies to inform pesticide policy. Last summer, PAN launched WhatsOnMyFood? — a website compiling PDP results and presenting them in a user-friendly format.
Highlights from the latest (2008) PDP data include:
- Atrazine was found in 5.2% of water samples from private wells, down from 9.2% the previous year. In contrast, the frequency of atrazine detection in samples from municipal water supplies rose from 70.7% in 2007 to 93.9% in 2008.
- Catfish was tested for the first time. DDE, a breakdown product of DDT, was found in 84.6% samples.
- Nearly 500 “presumptive tolerance violations” were detected. These are samples containing residues of one or more pesticides in excess of the legal limit set by EPA, and samples contaminated with pesticides for which EPA has not set a legal limit.
PAN's PesticideInfo.org and WhatsOnMyFood.org remain unique in their aggregation and publically accessible presentation of these and other goverment sources of pesticide data. Both sites will be updated with these and other new data sources in the next few months.
Just days before a ruling in the St. Louis Federal District Court on the case between the world’s biggest seed companies (Monsanto and DuPont), the Department of Justice has opened a formal investigation of Monsanto’s anti-competitive market behavior. The dispute between the two companies centers around DuPont’s new genetically modified seeds, Optimum GAT, which have a DuPont-exclusive gene inserted on top of Monsanto’s older Roundup Ready genes, which were used under license from Monsanto. U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber said on Friday that while DuPont did in fact violate their contract with Monsanto (the licensing agreements prohibit combining – or “stacking” – DuPont-developed genes with Monsanto-developed genes), his ruling is a narrow one that only applies the DuPont’s breach of contract. Monsanto’s violation of anti-trust laws by restricting how competitors can use their genes is still open for challenge.
Last Thursday, Monsanto announced that the Department of Justice had issued a civil investigative demand seeking information about whether farmers and seed companies will have access to Monsanto’s first generation Roundup Ready seeds after the patent expires in 2014. In December 2009 – after an informal investigation of the company’s anti-trust behavior had already begun – Monsanto announced that Roundup Ready soybeans would in fact be available after 2014. This contradicted earlier reports that the company planned to phase all Roundup Ready seeds off the market before their patent expired, forcing farmers to switch to second-generation “Roundup Ready 2 Yield” seeds. In other litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear Monsanto vs. Geertson Seed Farms. The Center for Food Safety filed the lawsuit in 2006 on behalf of a coalition of farmers and organizations objecting to the Department of Agriculture’s illegal approval of genetically modified alfalfa seeds. GM alfalfa is a major concern to organic farmers and dairies. It’s a key source of dairy forage, and because it is open-pollinated by bees it can cross-pollinate with fields several miles away, making the potential for GMO contamination very high. Monsanto has appealed the Federal District Court decision that required USDA to undertake an Environmental Impact Study assessing how the crop might affect the environment and farmers.
“This is truly a ‘David versus Goliath’ struggle, between public interest non-profits and a corporation bent on nothing less than domination of our food system,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “That Monsanto has pushed this case all the way to the Supreme Court, even though USDA’s court-ordered analysis is now complete, and the U.S. government actively opposed further litigation in this matter, underscores the great lengths that Monsanto will go to further its mission of patent control of our food system and selling more pesticides.”
While the DDT emissions from the oceans might not pose an immediate threat to humans, the released DDT is absorbed in the bodies of marine animals and concentrates by factors of millions as it moves up the food chain. The levels of DDT in the bodies of marine mammals higher on the food chain can be very high and potentially toxic for the animals. This is of high concern to people who depend on these marine mammals for their diet. The Indigenous peoples of the circumpolar Arctic rely on traditional diets that include marine mammals such as seals to obtain many nutrients otherwise unavailable to them. In many cases, there is no alternative to the subsistence way of life for Indigenous peoples in the Arctic due to lack of a cash economy. High concentrations of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like DDT in food can cause serious health problems for these populations. Among the many health effects known to be linked to exposure to persistent chemicals, researchers are now adding insulin resistence. A group of European scientists report in a recent Environmental Health Perspectives (PDF) that rats fed fish oil containing POPs had higher levels of cholesterol, fatty acids in their liver, and developed belly fat. None of the rats fed fish oil without the POPs chemicals developed these symptoms. Conditions related to insulin resistence are common in the U.S., affecting more than 25% of U.S. adults. Symptoms can include obesity, fatigue, and problems regulating levels of fat and sugar in the blood.
According to a recent government survey, pesticide-related poisonings account for 8% of deaths in Bangladesh for people aged 15-49, second only to respiratory illness. World Bank figures indicate that 47% of farmers in the country use more pesticides than necessary, and only 4% of farmers are formally trained in pesticide use. Farmers identified pesticide sellers as their main source of information about pesticides, and 87% admitted that they use little or no protection when applying pesticides. Pesticide use has increased 145% from 2001-2007 in Bangladesh. Unscrupulous traders use incentive schemes to convince farmers to purchase pesticides that are frequently unlabeled or sold under false labeling. Compounding the problem, the vast majority of Bangladeshi farmers are illiterate, rendering safety labeling ineffective. Additionally, international pesticide importers ignore Bangladesh’s stringent national pesticide regulations and continue to push substances classified as “highly hazardous” by the World Health Organization, such as aldrin and endrin. According to Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, “Pesticides prevail because a multi-billion dollar industry is behind them, exerting great influence on international standard-setting bodies, national governments, and local communities. The enormous influence that these chemical corporations wield, because of their economic power, is a major factor in why pesticides use persists in our agriculture in spite of the growing evidences of human poisonings and even deaths.”
A new scientific review from Denmark confirms that pollution from human sources reaching the Arctic is endangering the long term survival of polar bears. While chemicals have been found in the tissues of bears for many years, the overall health impact of the pollutants has been difficult to study. Seeing this need, veterinary scientist and polar bear expert Dr. Christian Sonne of the Department of Arctic Environment at Denmark's Aarhus University conducted the first comprehensive review of studies on the health effects of persistent pesticides, heavy metals and industrial chemicals on polar bears. Such chemicals persist in the environment and accumulate in the fat of animals, and are found at particularly high levels in predator species. The researcher found that the combined impact of the contaminants on the bears' bones, organs and reproductive and immune systems can have a dramatic and potentially fatal impact. "After being very sceptical, I now feel that the impact on bears may be true," says Dr. Sonne in an article in the UK's Earth News.
Dr. Sonne reviewed more than a decade's research of the impacts of pollution on bears and found a range of health effects linked to chemical contamination, including smaller and deformed sexual organs, overactive organs (organochlorines such as DDT increase activity of liver enzymes), damage to the nervous system and decreases in bone mass density. The researchers note that effects of individual pollutants may have subtle, non-clinical effects, but when combined the contaminants can reduce a bear's ability to hunt, reproduce and resist disease. "It is really important to understand that all organ systems are tied together," says Dr Sonne. Since direct impacts on polar bear populations are correlations rather than controlled experiments, Dr. Sonne and his team also conducted a two-year study involving Arctic foxes and Greenland sled dogs, in which they fed the animals clean or contaminated whale blubber. Observed health effects in the animals eating contaminated food included liver damage, decreased bone density, renal lesions, and changes in the amount of vitamins circulating in the blood. Similar effects would be expected in polar bears. The study, published in the journal Environment International, also notes that climate change effects will speed the health impacts of chemical pollutants. Not only are pollutants released in melting sea ice, increasing the overall chemical load in the environment, but as polar bears fast longer with decreased sea ice hunting grounds, they burn fat to compensate. This releases toxins stored in fatty tissue into the polar bears' blood, where it can more readily effect organs and damage the immune system.