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Amid Trump’s Deregulatory Bonanza, UN Report Details ‘Catastrophic’ Impact of Pesticides

Amid Trump’s Deregulatory Bonanza, UN Report Details ‘Catastrophic’ Impact of Pesticides

Amid Trump’s Deregulatory Bonanza, UN Report Details ‘Catastrophic’ Impact of Pesticides

 by Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Study accuses agro-chemical industry of ignoring scientific studies on toxic impact while pushing ‘myth’ that pesticides are aiding world hunger

Taking the global pesticide industry to task for its “systematic denial of harms” while, at the same time, perpetuating the “myth” of aiding global hunger, a United Nations food expert has put forth a new report on the “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health, and society as a whole.”

The report (pdf), which will be presented to the UN’s human rights council on Wednesday, comes amid a widescale rollback of regulations in the United States, which could include important constraints on a host of toxic pesticides.

Speaking with the Guardian on Tuesday, UN special rapporteur on the right to food Hilal Elver, who led the study, emphasized the collusion between governments and multinational chemical companies that has led to the lax regulation of pesticides.

“The power of the corporations over governments and over the scientific community is extremely important,” Elver said. “If you want to deal with pesticides, you have to deal with the companies—that is why [we use] these harsh words.”

“Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger.”
—Hilal Elver, United Nations

Indeed, the study, co-authored by Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on toxics, does not hold back. The report accuses major pesticide manufacturers of ignoring scientific studies on the dangerous impacts of the chemicals while also employing “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” to push the idea that pesticides are necessary to feed a growing population.

It states: “While scientific research confirms the adverse effects of pesticides, proving a definitive link between exposure and human diseases or conditions or harm to the ecosystem presents a considerable challenge. This challenge has been exacerbated by a systematic denial, fueled by the pesticide and agro-industry, of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals, and aggressive, unethical marketing tactics.”

And despite links to “cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders, and sterility,” the study notes that “the industry frequently uses the term ‘intentional misuse’ to shift the blame on to the user for the avoidable impacts of hazardous pesticides.”

Elver further debunked the “myth” that pesticides are necessary. “Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger,” she told the Guardian. “According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we are able to feed 9 billion people today. Production is definitely increasing, but the problem is poverty, inequality, and distribution.”

And pointing to the fact that most pesticides are used on commodity crops, she added: “The corporations are not dealing with world hunger, they are dealing with more agricultural activity on large scales.”

As for the study’s recommendations—that nations “transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production,” such as agroecology, and, in the near term, that governments use the “precautionary principle” to pass stronger regulations on chemicals—it remains to be seen whether those ideas will pass muster in the current political climate.

In the United States, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, science has been largely overruled by political rhetoric.

Currently, there are some unsettling indications that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) led by Administrator Scott Pruitt, a known foe of environmental and public health protections, will work to undo existing and pending pesticide regulations.

Danya Hakeem, program director for the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, and Michael Shank, sustainable development professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, wrote last month that “[o]ne clear indication that the EPA could increase chemical use is that the EPA transition team was led by Myron Ebell from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, whose known sponsors included Monsanto and Dow Chemical. It’s clear that this will be a pro-chemical EPA.”

Further, while serving as Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt had a record of going to bat for Big Ag interests, including vocally supporting a failed “Right to Farm” measure, which stipulated that “no law can interfere” with the right to make use of agricultural technology, livestock procedures, or ranching practices.

Oklahoma, where Pruitt served as state senator until being elected AG in 2010, led the nation in pesticide-related illnesses and deaths from 2000-2010, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And as Civil Eats’ Elizabeth Grossman recently pointed out, there are some major pesticide decisions in the pipeline.

In the final days of the Obama administration, Grossman noted, the EPA “issued a flurry of reports on some of the country’s most widely used pesticides,” a number of which are currently under review by Pruitt’s EPA, including “atrazine, chlorpyrifos, glyphosate, malathion, and the insecticides known as neonicotinoids.”

“Decisions made on the basis of these environmental and health assessments will likely determine the level of pesticide residue allowed on the food we eat,” Grossman wrote. “They will affect children’s neurological health and development, particularly in agricultural communities. They will determine how farmworkers are protected from pesticide exposures. And they will affect the fate of threatened and endangered species across the country.”

“So,” she concluded, “the stakes are high.”

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A sperm under the influence of an endocrine disrupting chemical in sunscreen. Because of chemicals like these, sperm have trouble swimming properly to deliver the goods.Credit Prof. Timo Strünker, Münster, Germany

A sperm under the influence of an endocrine disrupting chemical in sunscreen. Because of chemicals like these, sperm have trouble swimming properly to deliver the goods.Credit Prof. Timo Strünker, Münster, Germany

Are Your Sperm in Trouble?

Let’s begin with sex.

As a couple finishes its business, millions of sperm begin theirs: rushing toward an egg to fertilize it. But these days, scientists say, an increasing proportion of sperm — now about 90 percent in a typical young man — are misshapen, sometimes with two heads or two tails.

Even when properly shaped, today’s sperm are often pathetic swimmers, veering like drunks or paddling crazily in circles. Sperm counts also appear to have dropped sharply in the last 75 years, in ways that affect our ability to reproduce.

“There’s been a decrease not only in sperm numbers, but also in their quality and swimming capacity, their ability to deliver the goods,” said Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who notes that researchers have also linked semen problems to shorter life expectancy.

Perhaps you were expecting another column about political missteps in Washington, and instead you’ve been walloped with talk of bad swimmers. Yet this isn’t just a puzzling curiosity, but is rather an urgent concern that affects reproduction, possibly even our species’ future.

Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas at Austin and the editor of the journal Endocrinology, put it to me this way: “Semen quality and fertility in men have decreased. Not everyone who wants to reproduce will be able to. And the costs of male disorders to quality of life, and the economic burden to society, are inestimable.”

Human and animal studies suggest that a crucial culprit is a common class of chemical called endocrine disruptors, found in plastics, cosmetics, couches, pesticides and countless other products. Because of the environmental links, The New Yorker once elegantly referred to the crisis as “silent sperm,” and innumerable studies over 25 years add to the concern that the world’s sperm are in trouble.

And so are men and boys. Apparently related to the problem of declining semen quality is an increase in testicular cancer in many countries; in undescended testicles; and in a congenital malformation of the penis called hypospadias (in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis instead of the tip). These problems are often found together and are labeled testicular dysgenesis syndrome.

There is still disagreement about the scale of the problem, and the data aren’t always reliable. But some scientists are beginning to ask, At some point, will we face a crisis in human reproduction? Might we do to ourselves what we did to bald eagles in the 1950s and 1960s?

“I think we are at a turning point,” Niels Erik Skakkebaek, a Danish fertility scholar and pioneer in this field, told me. “It is a matter of whether we can sustain ourselves.”

One recent study found that of sperm donor applicants in Hunan Province, China, 56 percent qualified in 2001 because their sperm met standards of healthiness. By 2015, only 18 percent qualified.

“The semen quality among young Chinese men has declined over a period of 15 years,” concluded the study, which involved more than 30,000 men.

Credit Liza Donnelly

Perhaps even more alarming, Canadian scientists conducted a seven-year experiment on a lake in Ontario, adding endocrine disrupting chemicals and then observing the impact on fathead minnows. The chemicals had a devastating impact on males, often turning them into intersex fish, with characteristics of both sexes but incapable of reproducing.

The crisis for male reproductive health seems to begin in utero. Male and female fetuses start pretty much the same, and then hormones drive differentiation of males from females. The problem seems to be that endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic hormones and confuse this process, interfering with the biological process of becoming male.

How should we protect ourselves? Swan said she avoids plastics as much as possible, including food or drinks that have touched plastic or been heated in plastic. She recommends eating organic to avoid pesticide residues, and avoiding Tylenol and other painkillers during pregnancy. Receipts from thermal printers, like at gas pumps and A.T.M.s, are also suspect. When in doubt, she consults guides at

Yet this isn’t just a matter of individual action, but is also a public policy issue that affects tens of millions of people, their capacity to reproduce and their health and life expectancy.

What’s needed above all is more aggressive regulation of endocrine disrupting chemicals. America has been much slower than Europe to regulate toxic chemicals, and most chemicals sold in the U.S. have never been tested for safety.

The larger question is why we allow the chemical industry — by spending $100,000 on lobbying per member of Congress — to buy its way out of effective regulation of endocrine disruptors. The industry’s deceit marks a replay of Big Tobacco’s battle against regulation of smoking.

If you doubt the stakes, look at the image with this column of a hapless sperm swimming in circles, and remember this: Our human future will only be as healthy as our sperm.



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