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Dangers from Pesticides

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Reprinted from Consortium News

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Industrialized Agriculture is addicted to chemistry in the form of pesticides. The addiction was marketed to the American People, along with other post World War Two miracles such as nylon stockings and the ball point pen. The pen and the nylons, of course, ultimately proved much less dangerous than the chemical fix for company profits.

Between 1947 and 1949, pesticide companies invested nearly $4 billion into expanding their production facilities, and made huge profits. By 1952-53, there were some 10,000 separate new pesticide products registered with the USDA, in what was labeled by journalists and historians as "The Golden Age of Pesticides."

Today, well over 33 million pounds of fumigants are used in California agriculture each year with over 9 million of cancer-causing chloropicrin alone. For strawberries grown in the state, fumigants account for 87 percent of all pesticide use. A 2014 report by the California Department of Public Health (DPH) found that fumigants dominate the top five pesticides of public health concern sprayed and spread in close proximity to schools.

A disturbing new study out of UCLA's Sustainable Technology & Policy Program found, in a case study of three fumigant pesticides commonly applied together in California, that "these pesticides may interact to increase the health risk for California farm workers and residents" and regulators do not exercise their authority to regulate the application of multiple pesticides to prevent or decrease risks to human health.

The UCLA study found that "Each of the pesticides ... causes adverse health effects in humans or animals, including acute, developmental, reproductive, and neuro-toxicity, and carcinogenicity and mutagenicity. There is a reasonable likelihood that the three pesticides can interact to synergistically increase the toxicity to humans."

According to Dr. Ann Lopez, Executive Director for the Center for Farmworker Families, the most at risk are the children in their formative years, who are impacted at local schools, located near the growing fields, and are constantly being exposed to the extensive drift of these dangerous fumigants. Dennis J Bernstein spoke recently to Dr. Lopez and to Mark Weller. Weller is Program Director for Californians for Pesticide Reform.

DB: Let me start with you Dr. Lopez. Give us a little bit of background on the chemicals we are talking about, in terms of the spraying near schools. How dangerous is this chemistry. What we know about the multiple impacts.

AL: Well, the researchers actually worked with three different pesticides, that are frequently used in California. Two in particular are very distressing because they are used in strawberry fields almost everywhere. The first one is chloropicrin which is a carcinogen. ... We inherited it from World War II as so called vomit gas because when you sprayed it on the enemy, in the war, they would have to remove their face mask in order to vomit.

Chloropicrin causes poisoning of the lungs, skin and the digestive tract. And the other one that's of major concern is Telone or 1,3-dichloropropene. This one is another cancer causing chemical. And it's also neurotoxic, and impacts fertility. And I'll come back to the neurotoxic part shortly. But what they did is they studied the impact on the body, of combination of pesticides. In other words, what happens when children are exposed to chloropicrin and Telone, either in succession or as a mixture.

And they found that each pesticide potentiates the impact of the other. So that what happens is you get a combined effect that's much greater than you would get with either one individually. And they work by dismantling the detoxifying mechanisms of the body, the so-called co-factors, like glutathione. And they also impact the DNA. So they alter the DNA in a way that could put the cells on the path to cancer.

So this is basically what they discovered. It's the first study of this kind that I've seen. And the reason that it's so distressing is because these chemicals are not like liquids or solids that you just dump on the ground and that's the end of it. They stay in that location, rather, they're mobile. They are vapors that move over the ground. And so when we have these narrow buffer zones around residences and schools, like we do, right now it's only 1/4 of a mile. This stuff can move over the ground, and just move right into the classroom or the playground, and impact the children. I think this is terrible. This is very, very distressing. So that is the concern and it's just a thumbnail sketch of the study, itself.

DB: And Dr. Lopez, say something about the impacts that we know, in terms of specifically on children, because we're talking about spraying these cancer causing chemicals near schools. These are kids in the formative years. I imagine this has a special impact, the kids are more vulnerable.

AL: Absolutely. Yes, the growing bodies of children are much more vulnerable. They take in a whole lot more liquid than adults. And they take in more air. So they are bound to absorb a lot more of these chemicals. And, it's distressing because the neurotoxins affect the brain and spinal cord. And I have worked in the areas where this study was done, northern Monterey county and Santa Cruz county for about 18 years, with farm workers.

All of them, every family I've ever talked to wants their kids educated and out of farm work. So what we do is we send the most oppressed, the poorest, and the voiceless, essentially, to these elementary schools where we spray right near the school. And these children go to school hoping to become educated and have a better future, and we're subjecting them to chemicals that can potentially alter their brain and spinal development. I just think it's unconscionable.

DB: And this is observed in terms of their actual behavior.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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