Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
A Weekly News Update on Pesticides, Health and Alternatives
See PANUPS archive for complete information.
- Dietary pesticide exposure linked to ADHD in kids
- New York to Protect Kids from Pesticides
- Superweeds in U.S. South, Superbugs in China
- Corporate stranglehold on GE research
A new study out of Harvard shows that even tiny, allowable amounts of a common pesticide class can have dramatic effects on brain chemistry, reports the Associated Press. Organophosphates (OP’s) are among the most widely used pesticides in the U.S. They work by interfering with brain signaling in insects. OPs have long been understood to be particularly toxic for children, but this is the first study to examine their effects across a representative population with average levels of exposure. Children are at particular risk for two reasons: they are exposed to higher levels of chemicals, and their bodies are biochemically less adept at detoxification. Dr. Susan Kegley, consulting scientist with Pesticide Action Network, explains: “When it comes to pesticides, children are among the most vulnerable – pound for pound, they drink 2.5 times more water, eat 3-4 times more food, and breathe twice as much air as adults. They also face exposure in the womb and via breast milk. Add to this the fact that children are unable to detoxify some chemicals and you begin to understand just how vulnerable early childhood development is.”
94% of children tested in the study showed detectable levels of OP pesticide metabolites in their urine. Of these, children with the highest levels were nearly twice as likely to have Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The study was designed to get an accurate picture of the average child’s exposure and risk scenario. Where previous studies looked primarily at populations like farmworkers, who face especially high exposure rates, this one is based on a representative sample of the U.S. population taken from the government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. “We’ve known for a long time that OP’s poison farmworkers at higher doses, now we have a window into their lower-dose effects on the broader population,” comments Kegley.
The study garnered national media coverage with most outlets directing audiences to “buy organic.” But according to PAN senior scientist Dr. Margaret Reeves, “We can’t shop our way out of this. Buying organics helps to reduce exposure – especially in critical developmental windows. But this is a public health issue, and a good governance issue – not a consumer choice issue. By saying the solution here is to ‘buy organic’ we are, in effect, saying that people on a tight food budget have no right to feed their children safe food and that farmworkers have no right to a non-toxic workplace. We know how to farm without OPs, but farmers need us as citizens to support policy approaches that will fund the shift to sustainable farming and safe food production. What this study indicates is that our children need a safe and sustainable food system most of all.” Take Action >> Urge EPA to ban the OP pesticide chlorpyrifos.
On Tuesday, New York Governor David Paterson signed the Child Safe Playing Fields Act into law, banning the cosmetic use of pesticides on playgrounds and sports fields at schools and daycare centers. The governor’s signature comes on the heels of the new study linking children’s exposure to insecticides with ADHD and President’s Cancer Panel report released on May 6, which concluded that “[t]he true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.” Patti Wood, Executive Director of Grassroots Environmental Education, praised the law saying, “Our Governor and legislators have used the power of their offices to put New York State firmly out front in the battle to remove toxins from our environment and protect our most vulnerable citizens.” The common sense law will prevent children from being needlessly exposed to toxic pesticides used on turf, while allowing the limited use of insecticide sprays “when used to protect individuals from an imminent threat from stinging and biting insects” and also the use of “non-volatile insect or rodent bait in a tamper resistant container.” The law is similar to legislation that has been on the books in Connecticut since 2005, but goes further in applying also to high schools.
As farmers across the South find themselves in an agricultural arms race with pesticide-resistant superweeds. Observers like Anna Lappé are pointing out that it’s farmers and consumers who are paying the price of “agribusiness’ power to silence those pointing out the more basic fact of evolutionary genetics, that plants evolve resistance.” The advent of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds, genetically engineered to tolerate large doses of Monsanto’s ubiquitous Roundup, has encouraged farmers to use ever-increasing amounts of the herbicide, which has in turn created an epidemic of Roundup-resistant weeds. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is the most common agricultural pesticide and the second most common residential pesticide. The superweed problem is bad and getting worse: according the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds, there are now 348 different herbicide-resistant weed biotypes, 19 of which are specifically impervious to glyphosate. Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts President Andrew Wargo, III told the New York Times that superweeds are the “single largest threat to production agriculture we’ve ever seen.” Monsanto, who is currently the subject of an anti-trust investigation by the Department of Justice, initially denied that superweeds would ever become an issue but now calls them a serious problem and has offered to subsidize the purchase of competing chemical formulations by cotton farmers. The patented RoundupReady gene -– which, ironically, was discovered by Monsanto’s scientists in a pool of waste sludge outside a Roundup production facility –- is present in approximately 90% of the soy and 70% of the corn and cotton grown in the U.S. Meanwhile, Roundup-resistant weeds have claimed over 100,000 acres, according to a recent report on superweeds by the Rodale Institute. “The consequence of contemporary herbicide use,” says the report, “is the engineering of fields to grow stronger, more robust weeds. It is more effective in the long run to engineer the field system to grow healthy crops.” Anna Lappé and others have called for better support for farmers who want off the pesticide treadmill, saying “Farmers pay the price in lower yields; consumers pay the price in the checkout line; all of us pay the price as genetically engineered monocrops replace biodiversity. As climate instability worsens, biodiversity is exactly what our farms will need to respond to changing conditions.”
According to the UK Guardian, genetically engineered Bt cotton has transformed a formerly benign type of insect known as mirid bugs into a major pest for Chinese farmers. The Bt trait, introduced by Monsanto in 1996, causes plants to produce their own insecticide so that in theory, farmers can reduce the amount of pesticides used. The trait is present in nearly half the cotton cultivated worldwide. A ten-year study recently completed by two major Chinese research institutions showed that levels mirid bug infestations (and levels of pesticides used to kill them) have risen as Bt cotton has been increasingly adopted. Researchers predict that the situation will only get worse because mirid bugs will develop insecticide resistance, pesticide levels will soon be back where they were before, and farmers won’t be receiving any added benefit from the extra expense of Bt seeds. Supporting this prediction is a 2004 Cornell study showing that Bt cotton farmers use more pesticides than their conventional counterparts.
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The battle for the freedom to investigate the impacts of patented gene technologies continues unabated, reports Yale e360. In spring 2009, two dozen scientists anonymously submitted comments to the EPA on an obscure docket for an industry proposal to approve genetically engineered (GE) seeds, warning that corporate influence made independent analysis of GE seeds and their effects on the environment impossible. They told the EPA they couldn’t comment on the proposal (or others) because the actions of biotech seed corporations “inhibit public scientists from pursing their mandated role on behalf of the public good.” According to Charles Benbrook, former executive director of the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Agriculture, dozens of scientists have faced public and personal threats, and now “the companies, in their paranoia, have created a vacuum of expertise and it’s the farmers who will ultimately be the victims.”
Anyone who buys patented GE seeds is bound by the terms of a “Technology Stewardship Agreement” that dictates where the seeds can be sold or planted, which herbicides can be used on them, where the resulting crop can be sold, and prohibits their being used for research purposes. This means that a scientist who wants to compare, for instance, the yields of GE crops versus non-GE crops has to get special permission from the gene patent holders (i.e. the seed companies) to carry out the research — permission the companies are disinclined to give when the results may not bode well for their product. The GE seed industry, which was unprepared for the scientists’ public critique and the press that followed it, agreed to meet with the scientists in June 2009. Several months later, representatives from the major seed companies consented to a new type of blanket research agreement between companies and public research institutions that would allow independent scientists more freedom to investigate the effects of GE crops on soil, pests, and pesticide use. Research on actual plants containing patented genes, however, is still barred. Experts, including Center for Food Safety’s Senior Policy Analyst Bill Freese, are still skeptical that the new agreements signify any real change. Freese pointed out to e360 that even if they are implemented, the new “Academic Research Licenses” only govern research on seeds that have already been approved for commercial use; since it’s nearly impossible to get a product removed from the market once approved, it is important to be able to investigate GE varieties prior to their approval.
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