Pesticides, and You

I promised to follow up on our recent Which Came First - Pests, or Pesticides? story with some info on how these nasties can affect your environment, and you. We'll do so, specifically, by looking at the meaning of the term bio-magnification.

How many have heard the term? Hmm..., a few raised hands. How many of you can explain its meaning to others in the class? Okay, not so many.

It's actually a pretty simple concept to understand, and it's a little frightening to realise the implications once you have.

Clear Lake, California

A classic story of bio-magnification was observed at Clear Lake in California, and well illustrates the deadly process.

In 1949 they sprayed DDD, a form of DDT, to kill a non-biting gnat. They met with success, initially.... Two years later the gnat was back, so they repeated the treatment (readers of our previous pesticide story will understand the term 'pesticide treadmill' in this context). Sprays continued at more frequent intervals until 1954. Over the course of these seasons, however, the carcasses of increasingly large numbers of grebes began to accumulate in the lake - hundreds of them....

Autopsies of the birds showed incredible concentrations of DDD in their systems, but a check of the lake confirmed the water only contained .02 ppm (not at all a toxic amount). So how on earth could these birds be dying at all - let alone in such large numbers?

Remember, this is back in the 1950s - at a time when, despite early warnings that natural systems won't take kindly to being doused in toxic chemicals, there was as yet no historical record to prove their dangers.

It didn't take long to figure out what happened, however. Examining various creatures in the lake brought the following results:

  • While the water contamination level was a paltry .02 ppm, the plankton population had accumulated levels of 5 ppm
  • Small fish, feeding on the plankton over the course of their lives, had accumulated significantly more at 40-300ppm
  • Predatory fish, which eat many of these smaller fish over the course of their lives, were found to contain 2,500 ppm
Then along come the unsuspecting grebes - gulping down dozens of highly toxic 'treats', each containing approximately 125,000 times more DDD than the water from which they were pulled.

In other words, the higher up the food chain the poison travelled, the more it accumulated, or 'magnified', and this magnification can be exponential.

Now, how does this relate to you, you ask? It's simple - we're at the top of most food chains. Consider that the 'further from the sun' your dietary habits are, the more our current poison-oriented agricultural practises are likely to impact upon your health. I have heard people reject the idea of vegetarianism with the rebuff: "those fruit and vegies are covered in pesticides - give me a steak any day!" Hopefully the above will help these people to see that they're trading the risk of a small amount of chemical contamination with a greatly magnified option. An animal that has spent its life eating fertilised and pesticide-sprayed grass and grains, along with dousings of antibiotics, etc., can make that T-bone positively dangerous.

Pesticides and other chemicals are stored mainly in body fat and tend to concentrate in breast milk fat. They can thus be passed on to children during breast feeding, or to unborn babies through the placenta.

If human breast milk came stamped with an ingredients label, it might read something like this: 4 percent fat, vitamins A, C, E and K, lactose, essential minerals, growth hormones, proteins, enzymes and antibodies. In a healthy woman, it contains 100 percent of virtually everything a baby needs to survive, plus a solid hedge of extras to help ward off a lifetime of diseases like diabetes and cancer. Breast milk helps disarm salmonella and E. coli. Its unique recipe of fatty acids boosts brain growth and results in babies with higher I.Q.'s than their formula-slurping counterparts. Nursing babies suffer from fewer infections, hospitalizations and cases of sudden infant death syndrome. For the mother, too, breast-feeding and its delicate plumbing of hormones afford protection against breast and ovarian cancers and stress. Despite exhaustion, the in-laws and dirty laundry, every time we nurse our babies, the love hormone oxytocin courses out of our pituitaries like a warm bath. Human milk is like ice cream, Valium and Ecstasy all wrapped up in two pretty packages.

But read down the label, and the fine print, at least for some women, sounds considerably less appetizing: DDT (the banned but stubbornly persistent pesticide famous for nearly wiping out the bald eagle), PCB's, dioxin, trichloroethylene, perchlorate, mercury, lead, benzene, arsenic. When we nurse our babies, we feed them not only the fats, sugars and proteins that fire their immune systems, metabolisms and cerebral synapses. We also feed them, albeit in minuscule amounts, paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants.

... Some of the chemicals I'm mainlining to my 1-year-old daughter will stay in her body long enough for her to pass them on to her own offspring. PCB's, for example, can remain in human tissue for decades. On a body-weight basis, the dietary doses my baby gets are much higher than the doses I get. This is not only because she is smaller, but also because her food -- my milk -- contains more concentrated contaminants than my food. It's the law of the food chain, and it's called biomagnification. - Toxic Breast Milk?, Mindfully.org

The problems of pesticide usage do not end with you alone.
Accidents in manufacturing plants are extremely dangerous and can be deadly. In 1984, a malfunction at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people outright and maimed tens of thousands more. While this has been the most serious accident so far, it has not been the only one. The widespread dioxin contamination of the area around Seveso, Italy, and the severe contamination of the Rhine following an accident at the Sandoz plant in Basel, Switzerland, are two other recent examples. Perhaps even more worrisome are the routine releases of toxic wastes from pesticide plants - events that do not make the newspapers. The Sandoz accident was followed by the deliberate release of toxics from other plants along the Rhine, including the BASF plant at Ludwigshafen.

Every year, the health of millions of farm workers is directly threatened by pesticides. People working in the fields inhale poisons during and after application and ingest them in their food and water. Again, the situation is particuarly severe in the South, where labels and warnings are often unintelligible, and where relatively few workers are provided with the recommended protective equipment. However, even when manufacturers' instructions are followed precisely, poisoning is still common. In 1983 the United Nations Economic and Social Committee for Asia and the Pacific estimated that between 400,000 and 2,000,000 farmers worldwide are poisoned by pesticides each year, 20,000 to 40,000 of whom die as a result. Another estimate suggests that as many as 300,000 farm workers in the United States alone may be suffering from pesticide-related illnesses.

Direct causal links between pesticide exposure and subsequent long-term illness are extremely difficult to establish. However, the evidence is mounting. Out of 426 chemicals named in 1988 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food as ingredients in pesticides cleared for use in England, 164 had been implicated in causing cancer, genetic mutations, irritant reactions, or reproductive problems ranging from impotency to birth defects. A 1986 National Cancer Institute study reported that farmers exposed to herbicides - espectially 2,4-D - for more than twenty days per year were six times as likely to develop non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. In the prime agricultural region of the San Joaquin Valley of California, where 35% of the wells are contaminated with DPCP, the State Department of Health Services found an increased mortality rate for stomach cancer, the primary site for tumour induction in animals used in testing DPCP. In the small farm community of McFarland, California, thirteen children have developed cancer since 1981, and six have died; miscarriages, fetal deaths and low birth weights are common. A definitive causal link has not been established, but pesticide contamination in the region is a likely factor. Other recent studies link agricultural chemicals to an increase in birth defects.

... Scientists are finding higher and higher levels of pesticides in people throughout the world. The effects are poorly understood, but the increased use of pesticides and other industrial chemicals has been followed by increased cancer rates. Since chronic health problems are usually slow in developing, it may well be that the most serious effects of pesticide contaminaton are yet to come.

Pesticide use in the less industrialised parts of the world is particularly disturbing. Seventy percent of the pesticides used in India are banned or severely restricted in the West. Although regulation on permissible levels in food do exist, they are poorly enforced. A recent survey of vegetables in a Delhi market revealed pesticide residues twenty times above legal limits, while a World Health Organization (WHO) survey in India found 50% of samples contaminated. In a survey in the estate of Punjab, DDT and BHC, both banned in the West, were found in all seventy-five samples of human milk. - From the Ground Up, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture, p. 18-20.

As some of you may have noticed(!), I often come down hard on large corporations that put profits before people. The following passage is an exemplary example of why some are fully deserving of censure:
The United States produces between 100 and 150 million pounds of pesticides which are considered too dangerous for use within the country's borders. These chemicals are exported for use in other nations with less stringent environmental safeguards. - From the Ground Up, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture, p. 23.
Where's the logic? A chemical is outright banned. So what do we do with it? WE SELL IT!!

But, as they say, what goes around, comes around:

Yet these same banned and restricted agricultural chemicals find their way to the dinner table in homes all across the United States, in the form of residues on imported beef, cheese [bio-magnification, remember] and vegetables. While inspectors at US borders check food imports for certain chemicals, they are only able to sample 1-2% of all shipments, and test for less than 40% of the pesticides on the market. In many cases, pesticides which cannot be legally used in the US - but which are manufactured domestically and exported overseas - are among those for which inspectors do not test.

According to the US Department of Agriculture figures for 1990, illegal residues on imported food were four times as common as residues on domestic foods. It is not known how much of this contamination originated from pesticide factories operating within the US. - From the Ground Up, Rethinking Industrial Agriculture, p. 23.

A potentially (even) more troubling worry is our water supply. Because chemicals move very slowly through the soil, even if, today, we were to make a complete shift back to organic systems of agriculture, our water tables, wells and aquifers would continue to be drip-fed ongoing deliveries of chemicals for years to come. There is no way to speed up nature's water purification systems, so these chemicals may remain with us for decades after their use has ceased. This has often been shown to be true when water tests discover wells contain chemicals that have been banned several years prior.

Do you realise that virtually none of the poisons we spray on our fields actually end up on their target - the 'pest'? But, they do end up everywhere else.

Pesticides are designed to kill. They are released deliberately into the environment and onto food. Only about 1% of a pesticide actually reaches its target. The rest is released into the environment, exposing innocent people and wildlife. - WWF
But, as mentioned in our previous pesticide post, the use of chemicals is not slowing up - we're using more and more, and, they're getting stronger:
According to David Pimentel, entomologist at Cornell University, over the past 50 years pesticide use has increased 30 times (and toxicity of pesticides more than a hundredfold)...
And for what?
... many pesticides are losing their effectiveness as the bugs and plants they are designed to eradicate develop resistance. (Already 504 insect and mite species, 150 plant diseases, and 188 weed species have developed resistance.) Farmers still lose about 20 per cent of their crops to weeds and insects, the same proportion as they lost in 1930. - WWF

... twice as much of the harvest is lost to insects today. Chemical warfare is not only destructive to the environment and bad for your health, it’s a losing battle. - Vegsource

The terminology there is more than fitting: "Chemical warfare... it's a losing battle". That's exactly what we're doing - fighting against nature.
The war mentality underlying military-industrial agriculture is evident from the names given to herbicides....

Monsanto's herbicides are called "Round up", "Machete", "Lasso". American Home Products which has merged with Monsanto calls its herbicides `Pentagon', `Prowl', `Scepter', `Squadron', `Cadre', `Lightening', `Assert', `Avenge'. This is the language of war, not sustainability. Sustainability is based on peace with the earth. - Virdana Shiva

The same mindset embedded in present politics is found in our industrial systems - violence and heavy-handedness rather than observation and symbiosis.

We are as much a part of this great interconnected web of life as any other organism, so as we destroy and poison our environment, we are of course poisoning ourselves. How long will we continue this warfare? I fear we'll persevere to our dying breath. The corporate thirst to extract is undeniable, and determined, but you can be sure that in a battle with nature, we'll lose. The last several decades has seen increasingly frantic attempts by agribusiness to plug the enormous holes in their ability to maintain order out on the field (battleground?). These failing efforts are resulting in a dangerous and obstinate tinkering with the building blocks of life - desperate and futile attempts to get nature to work the way we want it to.

What's the way forward? A return to pesticide-free agriculture can only come through improved soil fertility. Given that we've been 'soil mining' for decades, taking without giving back, this will not be an overnight move in many places, and it can never happen while we're using the modern day large-scale Cargill/Monsanto monocrop farming model. This corporate system needs to be recognised for what it is - a failed exercise promoted for the profit of a few, and not for the public good. This short-sighted, arbitrary, destructive and reductionist approach has marched across our social, cultural and actual landscape, uprooting traditional sustainable and, might I add, more efficient family farms with every stride.

Why do we subsidise all the wrong things?

 

To change course there is a critical epiphany that needs to take place in the minds of certain people that have the means and opportunity to make a difference. The subsidies that favour corporate agribusiness and long-distance trade and force family farmers into cities to become factory workers and Wal-Mart-type employees must cease. The current conviction that the health of a nation is determined by its bottom line, its fiscal state, and an unending growth in consumerism must give way to the realisation that the true measure of wealth in a society can only be based on the health, wealth and well-being of its individual members. Through changes in agricultural policies we would begin a gradual dismantling that would promote and encourage smaller, bio-diverse family farms - making them once more an attractive and viable prospect. Large-scale monocrop farming must become a dying breed, and give way to the rebuilding of localised farming communities.
"Agripower," it will be noted, is not measured by the fertility or health of the soil, or the health, wisdom, thrift, or stewardship of the farming community. It is measured by its ability to produce a marketable surplus, which "generates agridollars." It is to be measured by "productivity, combined with processing and marketing efficiency." The income from this increased production, we are told, is spent by farmers not for soil maintenance or improvement, water conservation, or erosion control, but for "purchased inputs": "household appliances, farm equipment, building supplies, and other capital and consumer goods." I do not mean that we should necessarily begrudge the farmer these purchases; I am only noticing that, to Mr. Bell [a former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture] the farmer does not prosper to become a better farmer, but to become a bigger spender. The assistant secretary was applying to farming a standard of judgment that is economic, not agricultural. Farming is defined here purely to suit the purposes of a businessman.

It is the nature of the soil to be highly complex and variable, to conform very inexactly to human conclusions and rules. It is itself a pattern of alien patterns. Out of the random grammar and lexion of possibilities - geological, topographical, climateological, biological - the soil of any one place makes its own peculiar and inevitable sense. It makes an order, a pattern of forms, kinds, and processes, that includes any number of offsets and variables. By its permeability and absorbency, for example, the healthy soil corrects the irregularities of rainfall; by the diversity of its vegetation it protects against both disease and erosion. Most farms, even most fields, are made up of different kinds of soil patterns or soil sense. Good farmers have always known this and have used the land accordingly; they have been careful students of the natural vegetation, soil depth and structure, slope and drainage. They are not appliers of generalizations, theoretical or methodological or mechanical. Nor are they the active agents of their own economic will, working their way upon an inert and passive mass. They are responsive partners in an intimate and mutual relationship.

Because the soil is alive, various, intricate, and because its processes yield more readily to imitation than to analysis, more readily to care than to coercion, agriculture can never be an exact science. There is an inescapable kinship between farming and art, for farming depends as much on character, devotion, imagination, and the sense of structure, as on knowledge. It is a practical art. - The Agricultural Crisis: A Crisis of Culture, Wendell Berry

For what has been, in history, a mere fleeting moment, we have managed, at great cost, to feed 95% of the people through the labour of the remaining five. The cost for both groups has been enormous, and unsustainable. We're living in a dream, flogging a dead horse if you will, if we think we can perpetuate it. But then, why would we want to?

Bhopal Disaster

A Prank

Prank Revealed

 

Further Reading:

1 comment

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Kuan Yew (anonymous)

Really great article! Thanks! and keep up the good work!

Written in December 2008

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