You know ... it would be nice if the Environmental Protection Agency actually protected the environment.
Or if it protected us from the environment that it's allowing to be created. Either one would be nice. Alas, neither one can be expected.
Professor Tyrone B. Hayes watches as one of his students leans over a table covered with small plastic cups, each containing a few ounces of water and a single African reed frog. The short, trim professor hovers, carefully checking the fluid and the frogs, glistening and mottled green in their makeshift miniaquariums. The water in each cup contains a minuscule amount of a single chemical, an amount that can be compared to the weight of one one-thousandth of a single grain of salt. The chemical is atrazine, the most widely used large-scale weed killer in the world. It is pervasive in U.S. streams and waterways and so persistent it can be detected in rain. It is officially considered safe at three parts per billion in human drinking water.
Hayes is experimenting on frogs, dosing them with atrazine at levels far below what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says humans can consume. What he's found is frightening, at least for the frogs. He has occasionally encountered not only the frog malformations previously related to pesticides in farm, golf course, and highway runoff -- missing limbs, deformed or missing eyes, partial jaws, no jaws -- but also one other, statistically widespread effect. Hayes has found that atrazine turns the testosterone in male frogs into estrogen, causing them to develop ovaries as well as testicles. In other words, atrazine is a chemical castrator. Research has also linked it to human prostate and breast cancer.....
... Last June, atrazine was reviewed by the EPA and by a scientific advisory panel composed of scientists from outside the agency. Seventeen atrazine studies were presented for review. Twelve of these studies were submitted by Syngenta, and three were from Hayes. The other two studies came from independent researchers, Heisler says. In this case, it seems, the scientific advisory panel and the EPA felt that the weight of the evidence supported continued use of atrazine. In this case, it also seems, the EPA was not overly concerned about apparent conflicts of interest. More than two-thirds of the studies supporting atrazine were provided by Syngenta, the company that manufactures it, and the advisory panel that helped conduct the risk review included Ronald Kendall, the Texas Tech scientist who had led Syngenta-funded research into atrazine's risks.
Hayes believes the EPA's risk review process, which not only allows but requires companies to study the dangers of their own often highly profitable products, leads, inherently, to biased results. "There has to be some way to police what the company is doing," he says. "If the company is required to study the safety of its own product, no one else is going to do it."
Seven countries in the European Union -- France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Austria, and Italy -- have banned atrazine. These countries have a policy of banning pesticides that occur in drinking water at levels higher than 0.1 parts per billion.
After the initial phase of an ongoing review in the United States, and even though it did not take atrazine off the market, the EPA did recently acknowledge that "there is sufficient evidence to conclude that atrazine causes sexual abnormalities in frogs." There apparently is not enough evidence, however, to stop farmers from dumping 80 million pounds of atrazine per year on U.S. farms.
Interestingly, Mr Hayes says that he's not trying to have atrazine banned; he's trying to protect the scientific process. So theoretically, the net result could possibly be the EPA allowing atrazine to remain on the market, but with explicit warnings required that the pesticide causes sexual abnormalities.
The fun part of the article comes in the middle, however, where other scientists talk about what's happened to them when they publish research contrary to certain commercial interests. All of the scientists have had incorrect information about them and their research deliberately given to the press by the conglomerates, they've tried to delay or suppress publication, they've done horrendously (and obviously) flawed research studies to refute solid studies that talk about the problems of their products; in one case, a researcher's home was burglarized, his research files stolen -- and research of any sort would be a thoroughly peculiar thing to steal, and would, one might think, point the finger directly back at that company -- and he alleges that they've slandered him internationally to discredit him.
Regarding the shell of what was once a vaguely competent Environmental Protection Agency ... unfortunately, not all of its sins can be laid at the foot of the Bush administration. Much of the process described in the article existed prior to this administration coming into office. That said, given the thoroughgoing evisceration of the agency and any of its enforcement powers that has taken place under the Bush administration, it might not be too much to say that they've certainly exacerbated an already somewhat untenable situation. (They're so very good at that, aren't they?)Posted by iain at June 03, 2004 10:57 AM