Recently, a study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine showed a link between a particular birth defect and exposure to the herbicide atrazine.
Researchers at the University of Washington found the highest incidence of gastroschisis in the eastern part of the state, where agriculture is the main industry. Gastroschisis is a condition in which part of the intestines bulges through a separation in the abdomen. In the past 30 years, this occurrence of this birth defect has risen by a factor of two- to fourfold. The eastern part of Washington state sees about twice the national average of the defect.
Rates of the birth defect were higher the closer the mother lived to water that was highly contaminated with atrazine:
The researchers looked at more than 4,400 birth certificates from 1987-2006 - including more than 800 cases of gastroschisis -- and U.S. Geological Survey databases of agricultural spraying between 2001 and 2006.
Using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards to define high chemical exposure levels in surface water, they found that the closer a mother lived to a site of high surface water contamination by atrazine, the more likely she was to deliver an infant with gastroschisis.
The birth defect occurred more often among infants who lived less than 25 km (about 15 miles) from one of these sites, and it occurred more often among babies conceived between March and May, when agricultural spraying is common.
Predictably, Syngenta, a manufacturer of atrazine, claims that atrazine has never been shown to have adverse health effects. The spokesman for Snygenta either has a short memory or is outright lying (I know which one I think it is), because
. . . Dr. Waller's group is not the first to report a link between gastroschisis-like birth defects and surface water atrazine levels. In 2007, Indiana researchers reported in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery that in their state, where rates of such birth defects are also very high, atrazine levels were significantly linked with the rate of gastroschisis and other defects. That study was done using data from the Centers for Disease Control and from the Indiana State Department of Health.
Moreover, a study published last year in Acta Paediatrica, which looked for links between atrazine, nitrates, and other agricultural chemicals and birth defects, found an association for 11 of 22 birth defect categories.
According to Bleeding Heartland, atrazine was banned by the European Union in 2003 because it contaminates groundwater. It is still used extensively in the US, mostly on agriculture, but also--especially in the Southern US--on lawns and golf courses.
The EPA under Bush maintained that atrazine posed no health problems. But last October, the EPA's policy shifted, and it has now decided to
ask the independent Scientific Advisory Panel to conduct a thorough scientific review of atrazine's "potential cancer and non-cancer effects on humans," including "its potential association with birth defects, low birth weight, and premature births." The panel will also evaluate research on "atrazine's potential effects on amphibians and aquatic ecosystems."
Big Ag is already lobbying the EPA to find that atrazine is harmless, despite the growing body of evidence that it is not.
For me, the arguments for organic farming methods are many. I do think fruits and vegetables grown this way are more nutritious, and I don't want to eat pesticides along with my apples. But the problems with conventional agriculture go way beyond the individual. Runoff of fertilizers has created dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico; chemicals used to control weeds, fungus, and pests are now discovered to have profoundly negative effects on both human and animal health. Our agricultural soils are being exhausted by modern farming methods, and our water table is shrinking and being polluted.
If your budget allows, please buy organic. You are not just helping yourself and your family--you're also helping to create a market for food that is not harvested at the expense of our soil, water, and health.