By Clare Howard
Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gives the green light for a score of agricultural chemicals to come to market. But the chemicals the EPA registers for use have little connection with the frequently more toxic substances sold by the millions of pounds to unsuspecting American consumers.
Dr. Warren Porter, a professor of zoology and environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin, likens the EPA’s process for registering chemicals to “bait and switch” sales tactics. Pesticide makers win approval for specific active ingredients, and then mix those chemicals with a number of other ingredients. The result is a far different formulation that has bypassed government safety reviews and is then sold to the public.
“It’s like releasing molecular bulls in a china shop,” Porter said. “Virtually no pesticide is registered by the EPA. The EPA only registers the active ingredient.”
Porter and other scientists have found that once the EPA registers a specific chemical for use, the manufacturer then combines it with a number of other solvents, surfactants and inert ingredients that were never part of the registration process. The goal in formulating pesticides, often, is to increase toxicity and facilitate penetration of the toxin through the cell wall where it then kills mitochondria and damages DNA.
Even ingredients labeled “inert” are proving to alter the properties of the approved active ingredients, a growing number of scientists are finding. The result, their research suggests, is a chemical time bomb with significantly increased toxicity, and often with a longer half-life in the environment.
“The EPA is registering one thing and something very different is being sold to the public,” Porter said.
He cites research showing links between pesticides and increasing rates of cancer, chronic diseases, birth defects, autism, learning disabilities like attention deficit disorder, obesity, diabetes and neurologic disorders. Declining sperm counts in men may also be linked with environmental toxins, Porter said. He contends that if current rates of decline continue unabated, in two generations there will be no natural human fertilization.
The EPA registration process for pesticides relies primarily on laboratory analysis provided by corporations seeking registration for their products, “a clear conflict of interest,” Porter said. He faults the practice of using mature male mice and rats in laboratory analysis of chemicals. His research over decades has shown females and immature offspring are more susceptible to chemical toxins and suffer more severe health risks from exposure than do mature males.Farmers rarely apply one chemical at a time. Rather, they mix chemicals to save on the number of applications. Porter has found that even nitrogen added as a fertilizer causes spikes in the toxicity levels of many pesticides.
He and other scientists are becoming increasingly vocal in challenging environmental pesticide levels considered safe by the EPA. They note that farmers rarely apply one chemical at a time. Rather, they mix chemicals to save on the number of applications. Porter has found that even nitrogen added as a fertilizer causes spikes in the toxicity levels of many pesticides.
He cites research showing birth defects and chronic diseases linked to exposures at levels much below the EPA’s established safe threshold. Porter said people often think pesticide residues at parts per billion are miniscule, but he cautioned that the human endocrine system operates at parts per trillion — 1,000 times more sensitive than levels used by the EPA evaluation of chemicals.
Pesticide residues proven to be neurotoxins have been found in children’s urine samples in parts per billion, 1,000 times greater than levels linked with neurologic damage, he said. Some pesticides accumulate in fat cells in the body, so daily exposure may build levels stored in the body. Many pesticides are endocrine disruptors which regulate hormones that affect almost every organ in the body, but EPA’s registration does not adequately evaluate neurological, endocrine, immune, developmental or epigenetic impacts, Porter said, citing laboratory research showing pesticide exposure by a parent can cause genetic damage four generations into the future.
While the EPA’s oversight has tightened in recent years, the agency’s regulation of pesticides and food safety issues falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. House and Senate agriculture committees, whose members benefit from the agrichemical industry’s largess. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, members of these committees collected more than $11.5 million in contributions from the agribusiness industry so far in the 2012 election cycle. In addition, the industry spent about $117 million lobbying Congress last year.
An EPA spokesperson was not available to discuss concerns with the agency’s procedures for registering chemicals.
The solution? Porter believes the EPA has proven itself incapable of adequately regulating and protecting the public. He believes that once consumers understand the long-term risks of pesticides, they will turn away from them, drying up the market for food produced with chemical agents.
“The public can ignore these findings at their own peril,” Porter said, “and their children will pay.”
Clare Howard is a freelance journalist and member of 100Reporters. This series was made possible through a George Polk Investigative Report grant funded by the Ford Foundation.