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 aei.org), so now here I am, setting the record straight.
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.