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On February 10, The New Yorker published an article by Rachel Aviv chronicling Syngenta’s thirteen year crusade to discredit Tyrone Hayes, a research scientist who has studied the effects of the herbicide atrazine on the sexual development of frogs.  That the article appeared in a mainstream magazine impressed me, as I believe that how the world’s agribusinesses conduct their affairs is largely absent from public conversation.  And while Ms. Aviv aptly exposed the bullying tactics used by Syngenta in an attempt to remove a detractor from public view, she shied away from any condemnation of the herbicide atrazine.  If we have begun to recognize potential threats from GMO crops to human and environmental health, one of the biggest concerns should be centered, as it is in Hawaii, on the excessive use of Restricted Use Pesticides and Herbicides.

Atrazine is the most widely used herbicide in the U.S., largely because it’s both cheap and effective.  Rachel Aviv reports that it’s used on half of the corn grown in this country.  As Dr. Hayes pointed out, however, it functions as an endocrine disruptor, one that may alter the natural hormone system in animals.  It’s also the most commonly detected contaminant of drinking water in the U.S.  The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)  analyzed , in 2009, results of surface and drinking water and found that 75% of stream water and roughly 40% of all groundwater samples contained atrazine.  The NRDC contends that in addition to contaminated water, the EPA’s “inadequate and weak regulations have compounded the problem, allowing levels of atrazine in watersheds and drinking water to peak at extremely high concentrations.”

Ms. Aviv discusses the role played by the EPA, and how it has become toothless.  ”Since the mid-seventies, the EPA has issued regulations restricting the use of only five industrial chemicals out of more than eighty thousand in the environment.  Industries have a greater role in the American regulatory process – they may sue regulators if there are errors in the scientific record – and cost-effect-benefit analyzes are integral to decisions:  a monetary value is assigned to disease, impairments and shortened lives and weighs against the benefits of keeping a chemical in use.”

Atrazine is classified as a Restricted Use Pesticide due to its potential for groundwater contamination, and can be absorbed orally, dermally and by inhalation.  As far back as 1996, a Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, the University of California at Davis and the Institute of Environmental Toxicology at Michigan State University concluded that: symptoms of poisoning include abdominal pains, diarrhea, vomiting, eye irritation and skin reactions.  They also concluded that chronic toxicity results in structural and chemical changes in the brain, heart, liver, lungs, kidney, ovaries and endocrine organs.

The NRDC also points out that “the toxicity associated with atrazine has been documented extensively.  The adverse reproductive effects of atrazine have been seen in amphibians, mammals, and humans – even at low levels of exposure.  Concentrations as low as o.1 ppb have been shown to alter the development of sex characteristics in male frogs.  When exposure coincides with the development of the brain and reproductive organs, that timing may be even more critical than the dose.  Also of great concern is the potential for atrazine to act synergestically with other pesticides to increase their toxic effects.”

Syngenta, the world’s largest pesticide company, has, as Ms. Aviv pointed out, worked hard to protect profits reaped from sales of atrazine in the U.S., even though the pesticide has long been banned in their home country of Switzerland.  They’ve intimidated scientists such as Dr. Hayes, pressured regulators and paid an economist to manufacture faulty studies.  It’s been argued that the cessation of atrazine use would drastically reduce corn yields, but yields have risen in Germany and Italy since those countries banned atrazine in 1991.  Given that more than 76 million pounds of atrazine are used in this country every year, and that its stability, once it leaches into groundwater, enables it to be a present pollution problem for decades after its initial application, makes it a huge concern.

The NRDC recommends that anyone concerned about chemical contamination in their water use a simple and economical household water filter; at this point there’s nothing else to be done.  Public awareness is key, however, in keeping these harmful chemicals out of our water.

I struggle every week to come up with recipes that are low in fat, healthy, but still something one looks forward to eating.  I stumbled upon this simple idea and it proved to be quite good and incredibly easy.  I had some left over home cooked black beans, and a few flour tortillas in the freezer.  I wanted to make burritos, and decided on this filling, which was delicious.  You can use canned black beans, but make sure they’re organic and you might want to season them a little as they’re usually bland.  Buy one big fat ripe avocado, mash it up and add one or two tablespoons of non-fat yogurt.  Mix with the beans, roll up in any  kind of tortilla you want, wrap in foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.  That’s all you need (plus a salad).
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