Atrazine: DDT All Over Again

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

by Randall Amster, HUFFINGTON POST, March 21, 2010

dreamstime_10285636 Seasons change, yet some things remain the same. Nearly half a century ago, Rachel Carson debuted the first serial installment of what would eventually become one of the landmark works of the 20th century, Silent Spring. In that book, Carson famously argued that the pesticide DDT was responsible for negative impacts on the environment, animals, and humans alike, despite disinformation spread by industry and government officials about its purported safety and utility in agribusiness. Silent Spring is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement, yet today we are facing equivalent challenges and similar campaigns to conceal the potential dangers of toxic chemicals in our midst.

In particular, the pervasive use of the herbicide atrazine raises a host of ecological and political questions that are strikingly reminiscent of those confronted by Carson. Perhaps coincidentally, the widespread use of atrazine in American agriculture dates to almost precisely the time that Silent Spring was beginning to take shape as a withering indictment of the chemical industry’s blatant disregard for emerging health warnings and its concomitant influence over politicians and regulators. While DDT was eventually banned for use as a pesticide in 1972, atrazine has enjoyed decades of unfettered use as (according to its maker, Syngenta) “one of the most effective, affordable and trusted products in agriculture.” This promotional website includes personal testimonials from farmers as well as press releases intended to debunk “baseless activist claims” about atrazine’s safety.

Interestingly, a similar pattern was evident in the early days of Carson’s work to expose the dangers of DDT, in which her perspective was considered so “heretical and controversial” that she couldn’t readily find a willing publisher to bring the story to light. When Silent Spring was finally published in 1962, there was an immediate backlash from the chemical industry and its proponents in the Department of Agriculture, equal parts of which were aimed at debunking Carson’s science and attacking her personally in an attempt to discredit her views. In a thinly-veiled invocation of the Enlightenment gendered view of nature, one prominent industry spokesman remarked as part of a concerted public relations effort: “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”

Despite such dire predictions and ad hominem recriminations, Carson never wavered in her views. One of the most powerful aspects of her analysis was the recognition that environmental issues are necessarily socio-political ones as well. Most of us (myself included) are not able to follow the purely scientific components of any debate about the safety and efficacy of a given industrial chemical. Indeed, it is likely that competing research claims will be made, with industry oftentimes directly employing “think tanks” to generate or recast findings to undermine the force of contrary claims about its products. To sort these contests out and protect the population’s interests, we generally must rely on regulatory bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which actually traces part of its roots back to Carson and even has been referred to as “the extended shadow of Silent Spring.”

Unfortunately, the EPA frequently aligns itself with commercial interests in the face of studies suggesting problematic effects of highly profitable and widespread agricultural chemicals such as atrazine. In 2003, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported that the EPA had decided not to regulate or otherwise limit the use of atrazine despite growing concerns about its potential effects on humans and the environment, including its impact on water systems from agricultural runoff. The NRDC, in a manner that will figure into the current debate, described these concerns as follows:

“Several recent studies show that atrazine causes sexual abnormalities in frogs, and another revealed elevated levels of prostate cancer in workers at an atrazine manufacturing plant. Some of the findings resulted from research funded by the manufacturer itself…. One of the first of several studies to turn up evidence of sexual deformities in frogs exposed to atrazine was conducted by Dr. Tyrone Hayes [who] conducted initial research with funding from Syngenta, and the deformities he found in the frogs included hermaphroditism. Syngenta responded by repeatedly sending him back to re-run his research, and apparently did not submit the findings about hermaphroditism to the EPA. Frustrated by the delays, Dr. Hayes eventually gave up his Syngenta funding, ran the experiments again independently, and found the same results. Since then, Syngenta-funded researcher Tim Gross has reported similarly damaging effects to a different species of frogs exposed to atrazine….” [Read rest of story]

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