Another study finds link between atrazine and birth defects

Yet another study has found that exposure to the weed-killer atrazine is associated with a higher rate of a birth defect:

Living near farms that use the weed killer atrazine may up the risk of a rare birth defect, according to a study presented this past Friday [February 5] at the annual meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Chicago.

About 1 in 5000 babies born in the U.S. each year suffers from gastroschisis, in which part of the intestines bulges through a separation in the belly, according to the March of Dimes. The rate of gastroschisis has risen 2- to 4-fold over the last three decades, according to Dr. Sarah Waller, of the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues. […]

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.

A separate study published last year in the medical journal Acta Paediatrica compared monthly concentrations of “nitrates, atrazine and other pesticides” in the U.S. water supply with birth defect rates over a seven-year period. The researchers found, “Elevated concentrations of agrichemicals in surface water in April-July coincided with higher risk of birth defects in live births with [last menstrual periods in] April-July.” The association was found for “eleven of 22 birth defect subcategories” as well as for birth defects as a whole.

The European Union banned atrazine in 2003 because of groundwater contamination, but tens of millions of pounds of the chemical are still sprayed on American farms. It has been proven to enter the water supply and is correlated with increased rates of breast and prostate cancers.

During the Bush administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintained that atrazine had no detrimental effects in humans. But in a policy shift last October, the EPA announced that it would 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.” Conventional agriculture groups aren’t waiting for the results of the review; they are already lobbying the EPA not to restrict or ban the use of atrazine.

I’d have more respect for the “pro-life” movement if they supported restrictions on chemicals that threaten babies in the womb. I don’t think I have ever heard an anti-abortion activist railing against atrazine or pesticides that can cause spontaneous abortions, though.

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Chemical ag group upset about White House garden

Jill Richardson reported at La Vida Locavore that a group promoting the use of chemicals in agriculture is lobbying First Lady Michelle Obama not to make the White House garden organic. They want the White House to “consider using crop protection products and to recognize the importance of agriculture to the entire U.S. economy.”

Jill posted the full text of the Mid America CropLife Association’s letter to the first lady.

It’s notable that conventional farming advocates were unconcerned about First Lady Laura Bush’s insistence that White House chefs cook with organic food. Former executive chef Walter Scheib wrote that Mrs. Bush was “adamant that in ALL CASES if an organic product was available it was to be used in place of a non-organic product.” It’s fine for the Bushes to be closet organic eaters, but very different for the Obamas to promote growing food without pesticides or herbicides. I think Americans will be surprised by how much one organic garden can produce.

More important, as Think Progress noted, the Bush administration’s agriculture policies repeatedly sought to water down organic standards. That hurts organic growers, not conventional growers. It remains to be seen how far President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will go in rewriting organic regulations. If I were the Mid America CropLife Association, I would probably also be trying to assure the first lady not to fear chemical-based “crop protection technologies.”

Anyone with an interest in food or agriculture policy should bookmark La Vida Locavore and check it regularly.

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Tyson chicken is not antibiotic-free

Tyson Foods has been claiming to sell “chicken raised without antibiotics” since the summer of 2007, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not consider that label to be “truthful and accurate”:

After Tyson began labeling its chicken antibiotic-free, the USDA warned the company that such labels were not truthful, because Tyson regularly treats its birds’ feed with bacteria-killing ionophores. Tyson argued that ionophores are antimicrobials rather than antibiotics, but the USDA reiterated its policy that “ionophores are antibiotics.”

Because ionophores are not used to treat human disease, however, the poultry company suggested a compromise, accepted by the USDA in December, whereby Tyson would use a label reading “raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans.”

Tyson’s competitors Perdue Farms Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and Foster Farms sued, under the banner of the Truthful Labeling Coalition. In May 2008, a federal judge ruled in their favor and told Tyson to stop using the label.

Not long after, on June 3, USDA inspectors discovered that in addition to using ionophores, Tyson was regularly injecting its chicken eggs with gentamicin, an antibiotic that has been used for more than 30 years in the United States to treat urinary tract and blood infections. The drug is also stockpiled by the federal government as a treatment for biological agents such as plague.

“In contrast to information presented by Tyson Foods Inc., [inspectors] found that they routinely used the antibiotic gentamicin to prevent illness and death in chicks, which raises public health concerns,” said USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond.

The main public health concern is the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, which is thought to be related to the widespread use of antibiotics in conventional agriculture.

Tyson Foods is suing the USDA, “claiming that the agency had improperly changed the definition of ‘raised without antibiotics’ to include the treatment of eggs.”

However the lawsuit is resolved, I consider this controversy another reason to avoid buying Tyson chicken. You might want to bring this issue to your school’s administrators or parent-teacher association if they encourage you to buy Tyson products as part of the Tyson Project A+ label collection program.

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Organic Consumers Association against Vilsack for Ag Secretary

The Organic Consumers Association doesn’t hold back in this piece: Six Reasons Why Obama Appointing Monsanto’s Buddy, Former Iowa Governor Vilsack, for USDA Head is a Terrible Idea.

Click through to read the whole case against Vilsack. Among other things, they don’t like his advocacy of genetically-engineered crops for food or pharmaceuticals, his tendency to travel in Monsanto’s jet, and his support of biofuels.

I can’t recall anything Vilsack did as governor to address pollution from conventional farming or to promote sustainable agriculture. Then again, I was out of the state for most of his first term. If anyone wants to make the case for Vilsack as ag secretary in the comments, have at it.

I would much rather see Vilsack in a different post, such as secretary of education. He is very smart, understands policy and works hard, so he would be an asset to the cabinet–just not as agriculture secretary, in my opinion.

On a related note, if you care about food policy and sustainable agriculture, you should bookmark the community blog La Vida Locavore, featuring Jill Richardson (known to Daily Kos readers as OrangeClouds115) and Asinus Asinum Fricat, among others.

Jill’s recent posts indicate that Obama will likely improve food safety and may move us in the right direction in several other agricultural policy areas.

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End Iowa's "don't ask, don't tell" approach to water quality

High levels of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in the Raccoon River forced the Des Moines Water Works to switch to a secondary source in August.

You would think that a problem affecting the state’s largest water treatment facility would grab the attention of the state Department of Natural Resources. The U.S. Department of Interior’s official definition of “natural resources” mentions “Land, fish, wildlife, biota, air, water, ground water, drinking water supplies and other such resources belonging to, managed by, held in trust by, appertaining to, or otherwise controlled by the U.S., any state or local government […].”

But you would be wrong, because the Iowa DNR didn’t bother to look into what caused the Raccoon River’s elevated levels of cyanobacteria. Instead, Des Moines Water Works staff, aided by the Iowa Soybean Association and Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance, traced the algae bloom to Black Hawk Lake in Sac County:

Experts say the algae can cause rashes, intestinal illnesses, even death.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is charged with monitoring water quality throughout the state.

Agency officials said they believed that the waterworks operation had monitoring under control, and noted that no one asked them to investigate.

Why should the DNR wait for someone to ask them to investigate high bacteria levels affecting the drinking water of Iowa’s largest population center? The article goes on to say:

Susan Heathcote serves on a state commission overseeing the DNR and follows water quality issues for the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council. She said the agency should have shown more interest in a problem that has become more common across Iowa.

“It’s kind of don’t ask, don’t tell,” Heathcote said. “We know there are issues, but we aren’t being proactive to warn the public. You need to investigate why it was occurring. It should have been an urgent issue.”

By the way, Des Moines area residents weren’t the only ones affected by the DNR’s failure to identify algae blooms at Black Hawk Lake:

Levels in the west-central Iowa lake near Lake View, recorded just after the Labor Day weekend, were seven times more than an internationally recognized benchmark for safe swimming.

State law charges the Iowa Department of Natural Resources with monitoring water quality and protecting Iowans from such outbreaks. Yet no one from the agency warned swimmers to stay out of the 925-acre Sac County lake, which has several beaches and campgrounds.

The Iowa News Service had more details in a story picked up by a lot of radio stations last Thursday:

Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, says, although the water in Des Moines is safe to drink when treated, that type of [blue-green] algae can make for smelly and bad-tasting water, even at low levels. Her biggest concern is that, at high levels, the toxins can cause serious health problems. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), she says, currently has no state programs dealing with the sources of pollution in these large watersheds.

“That needs to become more of a priority, because these issues are not going away. They’re getting worse and new problems are surfacing every day. The department needs to partner with drinking water utilities in developing programs that will help address these sources of pollution within their watersheds, that are really outside of the control of the drinking water utilities way downstream.”

Randy Beavers, Des Moines Water Works interim CEO and general manager, says the cyanobacterial organism needs nutrients to survive, and right now the river’s source waters have plenty to feed it.

“In August, we were seeing cell counts of over 30,000 in the river and our experience has been that once cell counts get above 10,000, it becomes problematic for treatment. We always have the potential for taste and odor issues as well. It has just been within the last week that we’ve seen the cell counts fall below 10,000.”

Here’s the deal: those nutrients that Beavers cited as a food source for the bacteria get into the water because of runoff from conventional farms.

When Heathcote mentioned “these sources of pollution within their watersheds, that are really outside of the control of the drinking water utilities way downstream,” she was talking about conventional farms.

We will never significantly improve water quality in Iowa until we start regulating the agricultural methods that send too much pollution into our rivers and lakes.

I wish I could say that I’m optimistic about the DNR ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to water quality. The Iowa Environmental Council wants the legislature to do more on this issue, but our elected officials don’t want to point the finger at the largest source of pollution in our water: the agricultural sector.

I am involved with the Iowa Environmental Council. If you are concerned about our natural resources, support this non-profit by becoming a member or attending the council’s upcoming annual meeting on October 17, which will focus on clean water.

Alternatively, Iowans could just stop whining and learn to love smelly drinking water and unswimmable lakes. After all, Iowa is an agricultural state and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave in any of four directions.

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