Modern agricultural practices have led to ever-increasing amounts of chemicals being used on our food, and whether we’re talking about pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, most have deleterious effects on health.
According to the latest report on pesticide residues in food by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a mere 15 percent of all the food samples tested in 2015 were free from pesticide residues. In 2014, over 41 percent of samples had no detectable pesticide residues on them.1
That just goes to show how quickly our food is being poisoned. At that trajectory, we may eventually find out none of the non-organic food sold in 2016 or 2017 was pesticide-free.
Recent news has highlighted a number of problems associated with this out-of-control use of agricultural chemicals, starting with atrazine.
Atrazine, the ‘Forgotten’ Toxin
Atrazine, the second most commonly used herbicide in the U.S. after glyphosate, has been linked to many disturbing health effects. Despite that, it has not received nearly the same public attention glyphosate has. A recent KCET story2 with focus on atrazine notes its effects are in many cases actually worse than glyphosate.
“If it wasn’t for Roundup, atrazine would probably be the most controversial herbicide on the planet,” Chris Clarke writes. “It’s the pesticide most commonly found as a runoff contaminant in rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands.
It can travel hundreds of miles on airborne dust from the farm fields where it’s applied in order to contaminate those wetlands, and can persist for decades once it gets there.
It’s been linked to reproductive abnormalities in frogs, hormonal changes in alligators, and serious harm to other wildlife populations. And it can even promote fungal diseases in the soil by killing off beneficial fungi while leaving the pathogens.”
Atrazine Is a Potent Health Hazard
Atrazine is the most common water contaminant in the U.S., where it was initially approved for use in 1958. It’s been banned in Europe since 2005, and groundwater contamination was in fact one of the determining factors behind this decision.
An estimated 70 million pounds of atrazine are applied to agricultural fields in the U.S. each year, the vast majority of it being used on corn.3
Independent research4 shows atrazine causes hermaphroditism in frogs (turning males into egg-laying females) by inducing an enzyme called aromatase, which causes overproduction of estrogen. For this reason, atrazine is also suspected of contributing to breast cancer. Research has also shown atrazine:
- Blocks testosterone production
- Is a potent endocrine disruptor
- Chemically castrates wildlife and causes sexual reproductive problems in a wide range of animals, including mammals, birds, fish and amphibians
- Induces miscarriage in laboratory rodents
- Reduces immune function in animals
Studies looking at human cells and tissues suggest the chemical likely poses similar threats to human health. For example, one study linked atrazine exposure in utero to impaired sexual development in young boys, causing genital deformations, including microphallus (micropenis).
The evidence5,6 also suggests atrazine exposure may contribute to a number of different cancers, specifically breast cancer, ovarian cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, hairy-cell leukemia and thyroid cancer.
Elevated concentrations of atrazine in drinking water have also been associated with birth defects in the human population, including abdominal defects, gastroschisis (in which the baby’s intestines stick outside of the baby’s body) and others.
Bee Killing Pesticides Contaminate Drinking Water
Neonicotinoids, pesticides linked to bee die-offs around the world, are another water contaminant Americans have to contend with. Water testing by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 2015 showed neonicotinoids are present in more than half of all streams tested.
Similar findings were recently made in Switzerland by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology.7 There, watercourses were found to be contaminated with 128 different agricultural chemicals: 61 herbicides, 45 fungicides and 22 insecticides.
All streams and brooks tested failed to meet Swiss water quality standards. Thresholds for acute toxicity to aquatic life were also exceeded.
Now, a team of investigators at the USGS and the University of Iowa report8 finding three different neonicotinoids — clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam — in all samples of treated drinking water.9,10 Water treatment facilities simply are not equipped to filter out most pesticides.
The water samples were collected from taps in Iowa City and on the University’s campus. Measured in parts per trillion, neonicotinoids were found at concentrations ranging from 0.24 to 57.3 nanograms per liter.
While the concentrations were quite low, there’s really no telling what the health effects might be, especially when you consider all the other chemical contaminants found in most tap water. Research has shown that even non-toxic ingredients can have toxic effects when combined.
By acting on various pathways, organ systems, cells and tissues, the cumulative effects of non-carcinogenic chemicals can act in concert to synergistically produce carcinogenic activity. As noted by lead author Dr. William Goodson:11
“[W]hat we’re realizing … [is] that there’s reason to think that it doesn’t take one chemical to take it all the way from normal to cancer. One chemical can take it part way, another chemical will take it another portion of the way, and maybe a second, third or fourth chemical will take it all the way.”
Carbon Filters Can Significantly Reduce Pesticide Contaminants
In theory, water treatment will render your tap water safe to drink. But there are several limitations to the process that leave most tap water questionable at best.
Many chemicals simply cannot be filtered out. Pesticides, drugs, radioactive particles and fluoride are all common water contaminants that are very difficult to effectively remove.
As a general rule, activated carbon filters are the best, although they cannot remove fluoride. For that you need either a reverse osmosis system, a deionizer or an activated alumina filter, each of which can remove about 90 percent of the fluoride.12
The USGS/University of Iowa team investigated the effectiveness of different filtration systems in eliminating neonicotinoid pesticides, and activated carbon filtration was a clear winner, removing 100 percent of clothianidin, 94 percent of imidacloprid and 85 percent of thiamethoxam.
EPA Chief Rejects Science and Chooses Not to Ban Chlorpyrifos
Chlorpyrifos is the most commonly used organophosphate insecticide. Household use was banned in 2000, and even scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have pushed for a complete ban, as the dangers posed by this insecticide are well-documented.
For example, living within 1 mile of chlorpyrifos-treated fields increases a woman’s risk of having an autistic child by 300 percent.13,14 A petition to ban chlorpyrifos was filed over a decade ago. Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, recently issued an order denying the petition.15 As noted by NPR:16
“That’s despite the agency’s earlier conclusion, reached during the Obama administration, that this pesticide could pose risks to consumers.
It’s a signal that toxic chemicals will face less restrictive regulation by the Trump administration. In its decision, the EPA didn’t exactly repudiate its earlier scientific findings.
But the agency did say that there’s still a lot of scientific uncertainty about the risks of chlorpyrifos, and it said that because of that uncertainty, the court had no right to set a firm deadline for a decision.
A federal court had ordered the EPA to decide by midnight on Friday [March 24] whether to ban chlorpyrifos … Patti Goldman, from the environmental group Earth[j]ustice, calls the decision “unconscionable,” and says that her group will fight it in court.”
Will EPA Do the Right Thing and Ban Atrazine?
Considering the evidence showing other EPA officials have taken an active role in protecting chemical giants like Monsanto against rulings that would impact their bottom line, Pruitt’s actions does raise suspicions. The EPA is also in the process of reassessing atrazine, and it remains to be seen whether the agency will finally take a firm stand against this pernicious toxin, or let it slide like chlorpyrifos and glyphosate.
On June 6, 2016, the EPA released its most recent risk assessment for atrazine,17 which concluded the chemical may cause reproductive harm to mammals, fish and birds, with the level of concern surpassed nearly 200-fold using real-world scenarios for mammals. For fish and birds, atrazine exceeded the level of concern by 62- and 22-fold, respectively. The risk assessment is expected to be finalized sometime this year.
Not surprisingly, the pesticide and agriculture industries are up in arms over it. According to the Iowa Corn Growers Association, should the EPA’s report be finalized as written, it would lead to such severe label restrictions that it would “effectively ban the product from most uses”18 — which is exactly what the public health needs. The question is whether the EPA will again fold to industry pressure to keep a toxic profit-maker on the market.
EPA Official Prevented Glyphosate Safety Review and USDA Drops Glyphosate Testing of Food
One EPA official accused of colluding with Monsanto to prevent the truth about Roundup from seeing the light of day is Jess Rowland, former associate director of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, Health Effects Division. Email correspondence shows Rowland even stopped a glyphosate investigation by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on Monsanto’s behalf.
Rowland was part of the EPA team that declared glyphosate is unlikely to be a human carcinogen, a finding that runs contrary to the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s determination.
Curiously (if you believe in coincidences), the USDA has suddenly dropped its plan to test food for residues of glyphosate, after spending most of 2016 coordinating with the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration(FDA) to start testing corn syrup on April 1. As noted by The Huffington Post:19
“Documents show that at least since January 2016 into January of this year, the glyphosate testing plan was moving forward. But when asked about the plan this week, a USDA spokesman said no glyphosate residue testing would be done at all by USDA this year …”
Glyphosate Linked to Pregnancy Problems
Now, researchers looking at glyphosate’s impact on pregnant women add more fuel to the fire, concluding glyphosate levels in women’s bodies correlate with poor birth outcomes.20 It seems quite clear that avoiding testing food for glyphosate is putting human health at grave risk.
The team presented its preliminary findings at the Children’s Environmental Health Network Conference in Washington D.C. on April 6. In all, 91 percent of the 69 pregnant women tested had glyphosate in their urine, and higher levels were associated with significantly shorter pregnancies and lower birth weights — risk factors that set children up for health and neurodevelopmental problems.
Dr. Paul Winchester, medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at the Franciscan St. Francis Health system and lead author of the study said:
“This is a huge issue. This is the first U.S. study to demonstrate glyphosate is present in pregnant women. Everyone should be concerned about this … Is this level of exposure safe or not? We’ve been told it is, but exposures haven’t been measured. It’s mind-boggling.”
Female Farmers Use Fewer Pesticides
Speaking of women, in related news, researchers have found that when female farmers are in charge of pesticide application, fewer pesticides are used.21 An estimated 38 percent of farm managers in Cambodia and Laos are women, and under their watch, 42 percent fewer pesticides are used. Other statistics revealed in the study included a 251 percent jump in pesticide use when farmers sought advice from pesticide sellers, and a 45 percent drop when advice was sought from friends and neighbors.
Meanwhile, education about pesticide hazards was not associated with a decrease in use. In fact, while 82 percent of Cambodian farmers admitted being worried about cancer risks, they continued using the chemicals anyway. On the other hand, knowledge about the use of beneficial insects did result in the use of fewer pesticides.
How to Protect Yourself From Toxic Pesticides
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75 percent of the U.S. population has detectable levels of pesticides in their urine, and unless you’re a farmer, your diet is one of the most significant routes of exposure, along with your drinking water.22
Eating organic is one of the best ways to lower your overall pesticide burden. The largest study23 of its kind found that people who “often or always” ate organic food had 65 percent lower levels of pesticide residues compared to those who ate the least amount of organic produce. Organic produce also had, on average, 180 times lower pesticide content than conventional produce.24
Keep in mind it’s possible to find produce that is not certified organic that may still have a lower pesticide burden than typical conventional produce. If you can’t find organic produce, look for a local farmer who has eliminated pesticide use (or uses a minimal amount of such chemicals).
Filtering your drinking water is also important. As mentioned, atrazine is the most commonly detected pesticide in U.S. water supplies, and certain areas may also have neonicotinoid contamination. To remove pesticides, look for a filter certified by NSF International to meet American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Standard 53 for volatile organic compounds reduction.
This will ensure the filter is capable of significantly reducing atrazine and other pesticides.25 Most activated carbon filters will meet this requirement and get the job done. Unfortunately, if your water is fluoridated, you’ll need yet another type of filtration to get the fluoride out. For that you need either a reverse osmosis system, a deionizer or activated alumina filter.
Lastly, if you know you have been exposed to pesticides, eating fermented foods and/or using a low-EMF infrared sauna can be helpful, especially if combined with an optimal supplemental detox regimen including binders to catch the toxins that are mobilized from the fats.
The lactic acid bacteria formed during the fermentation of kimchi has been shown to help your body break down pesticides. In addition, there is some evidence that the antioxidant lycopene, found in watermelon, tomatoes, red bell peppers and more, may protect against some of atrazine’s toxic effects.26