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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Scientists isolate one cause of "colony collapse disorder"

Scientists in Spain isolated a parasitic fungus as the cause of “colony collapse disorder” in some honeybee hives, and were able to treat the affected colonies successfully with anti-fungals. That’s good news for the human race, since we depend on bees to pollinate a wide variety of food crops.

It’s too early to say “case closed” on the honeybee die-offs. In all likelihood more than one factor has contributed to colony collapse disorder. Devilstower laid out seven possibilities in this diary.

Several European countries have banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in order to protect honeybees. Beyond Pesticides and Pesticide Action Network North America sent an open letter to President Barack Obama earlier this year calling for more regulation of pesticides, putting a high priority on protecting bees and other pollinators.

To my knowledge, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has not taken any steps in this direction–that is, I have been unable to find any reports on new USDA plans to fund research regarding pesticides and pollinators. The Bush USDA refused to halt or even thoroughly study the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

I did find out that the “USDA will be providing two types of parasite-resistant honey bees developed by USDA scientists” to pollinate plants in the organic White House garden.

On a related note, the “people’s garden” that Vilsack ordered to be planted by the USDA headquarters is shaping up nicely. Well done, Mr. Secretary!

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Organic farming is carbon sequestration we can believe in (updated)

The phrase “carbon sequestration” is often used in connection with so-called “clean coal” technology that doesn’t exist. Scientific debate over the best methods of carbon capture and storage tends to weigh the costs and benefits of various high-tech solutions to the problem.

But Tim LaSalle, CEO of the non-profit Rodale Institute, reminds us in a guest column for the Des Moines Register that an effective means of sequestering carbon in our soil already exists:

By using organic agricultural methods and eliminating petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pest-and-weed control, we build – rather than destroy – the biology of our soil. While improving the health of the soil we also enhance its ability to diminish the effects of flooding, as just one example. In some laboratory trials, organically farmed soils have provided 850 percent less runoff than conventional, chemically fertilized soils. This is real flood prevention, not sandbag bandages for life-threatening emergencies.

When the soil is nurtured through organic methods, it allows plants to naturally pull so much carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil that global warming can actually be reversed. Farms using conventional, chemical fertilizer release soil carbon into the atmosphere. Switching to organic methods turns a major global-warming contributor into the single largest remedy of the climate crisis, while eliminating toxic farm chemical drainage into our streams, rivers and aquifers.

Using such methods, we would be sequestering from 25 percent to well over 100 percent of our carbon-dioxide emissions. Microscopic life forms in the soil hold carbon in the soil for up to 100 years. This is much more efficient than inserting foreign genes. Healthy soil already does that at such remarkable levels it usually can eliminate crop disasters, which means greater food security for all nations. And the beauty is, investing in soils is not patentable, enriching just some, but instead is free to all.

Where has this science, this solution, been hiding? It has been intentionally buried under the weight of special interests – that are selling chemicals into our farming system, lobbying Congress, embedding employees in government agencies and heavily funding agricultural university research.

A few years ago, the Rodale Institute published a detailed report on how Organic farming combats global warming. Click that link for more facts and figures.

For more on how groups promoting industrial agriculture lobby Congress, see this Open Secrets report and this piece from the Green Guide on The New Food Pyramid: How Corporations Squash Regulation.

Expanding organic farming and reducing the amount of chemicals used on conventional farms would have other environmental advantages as well, most obviously an improvement in water quality both in farming states and downstream. Last week the National Academcy of Sciences released findings from the latest study proving that chemicals applied to farms are a major contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico:

The study, conducted at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, recommends setting pollution reduction targets for the watersheds, or drainage areas, that are the largest sources of the pollution that flows down the Mississippi River to the gulf.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was urged to help fund a series of pilot projects to test how changes in farming practices and land use can reduce the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. The report, written by a panel of scientists, did not say how much money would be needed. Agricultural experts and congressional aides said it wasn’t clear whether there was enough money in federal conservation programs to fund the necessary projects.

[…]

The government has been debating for years about how to address the oxygen-depleted dead zone, or hypoxia, in the gulf. The dead zone reached 8,000 square miles this year, the second-largest area recorded since mapping began in the 1980s.

[…]

Agricultural groups don’t want mandatory controls put on farms.

However, a scientific advisory board of the EPA has recommended reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the gulf by 45 percent. More than 75 percent of those two pollutants originates in nine states, including Iowa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Here’s a link to more detailed findings about how agricultural states contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Organic farming is also good for rural economic development because it employs more people. I’ll write more soon on the economic benefits of implementing other sustainable agriculture policies.

UPDATE: This post generated a lot of good discussion at Daily Kos. You can view those comments here.

When OrangeClouds115 speaks, I listen:

BTW – can you request in your diary that people who support your ideas here sign the petition at http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/ ? Apparently its 40,000+ signatures have gotten the attention of Obama’s transition team and Michael Pollan himself thinks that they may actually listen to us if we get to 100,000 signatures.

SECOND UPDATE: Thanks to understandinglife for the Digg link.

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