Activists, media unfairly malign safe chemicals

Alex Avery Director of Research, Center for Global Food Issues
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When Raymond Donovan, President Reagan’s labor secretary, was finally found innocent of all charges in a three-year, multimillion-dollar prosecution brought by a politically motivated district attorney in New York City, he famously asked the court, “What office do I go to now to get my reputation back?”

The same question could be asked in the ideologically driven campaign to malign the essential chemical inputs of our modern industrial and agricultural economy. Every half-baked study with inadequate controls or publicity-seeking scientists making unsupportable claims gets front-page headlines, especially if their conclusions are scary enough and contain the word “cancer.”

But when careful scientists run painstaking, well-designed studies and come up with findings that would tend to exonerate a given chemical or substance, that information is rarely found newsworthy.

Such was the case with the cause-celeb agricultural chemical, atrazine, one of the most widely used and extensively studied herbicides in the world. Largely because it is so popular, anti-pesticide activists have been trying for decades to make some sort of case against it. Indeed, when the National Resources Defense Council came out with another one of their ginned-up studies two years ago, it got a major front-page “investigative” story in The New York Times.

Last week, however, one of the most important epidemiological studies of agricultural chemicals — the Agricultural Health Study, or AHS — released its periodic findings, completely exonerating atrazine of any connection to cancer. That study got almost no media coverage.

The AHS is considered the gold standard of epidemiological studies. A combined effort of the National Cancer Institute, HHS, and the EPA (no taint of “industry involvement” there), it has been running since 1994 and includes more than 57,000 licensed pesticide applicators. These are farmers and agricultural workers in Iowa and North Carolina who spend their days mixing, loading and spraying pesticides and sleep at night with their families in homes in the middle of fields where these pesticides have been applied. If anyone is going to suffer any adverse health consequences from these chemicals, it seems a fair bet that these farmers and ag workers would. The fact that they haven’t should be big news.

The findings of these government scientists were about as categorical as real scientists can ever get. Their conclusion: “Overall, there was no consistent evidence of an association between atrazine use and any cancer site.” This report, of course, simply reconfirms earlier reports coming in from the AHS, as well as other studies that have cleared atrazine of any guilt by association with cancer.

As they have in the past, however, the activists will almost certainly ignore this report. If forced to deal with it, they will probably inflate the scientists’ one notation about a “suggestion” of an increased risk of thyroid cancer, which the study’s authors take pains to explain are based on “relatively small numbers and minimal supporting evidence.” Almost certainly, this blip is the result of the usual sort of statistical noise one gets in a study of this magnitude. When the AHS reported out several years ago, they similarly noted two other such blips for different cancers, both of which were absent this time around.

Of course, one of the hallmarks of ideologically driven prosecutions is that they are highly selective. One sees this in spades with agricultural chemicals. While no amount of exculpatory data will ever get a synthetic pesticide a break, the massive use of “organic” pesticides is largely ignored.

It’s a good bet, in fact, that the vast majority of people who buy “organic” produce would be surprised if not shocked to find out that most certified organic food is grown with the heavy application of pesticides. These pesticides are approved by the USDA for organic use, but there is little reason to believe they are necessarily more benign than synthetic substances. Copper compounds, for instance, are used in organic farming as fungicides and bactericides. Copper is a broadly toxic heavy metal that bio-accumulates in the tissues of animals. One of the more widely used copper compounds, copper sulfate, is classified by the EPA as “highly toxic” and vineyard workers have developed liver disease after three to 15 years of exposure.

Other “natural” pesticides used by organic growers are Pyrethrins, the refined extract of the African chrysanthemum. Sounds nice, but you don’t want to drink it in some herbal tea infusion. Pyrethrins are chemical nerve toxins that are toxic to aquatic life and classified by the EPA as a “likely human carcinogen.”

We have seen in the recent tragic outbreak of E. coli in Germany, which seems to have been traced back to an organic farm, that organic agriculture’s use of animal manure to grow fruits and vegetables may be more “natural,” but it poses significant safety hazards as well.

We’ll see how much attention the mainstream press gives to this fact. In the meantime, the truly innocent can’t seem to get a break.

Now that the evidence is in on atrazine, and the jury has once again cleared the chemical of all charges on the question of cancer, one might fairly ask, along with Secretary Donovan, “What office does it go to now to get its reputation back?”

Alex Avery is the Director of Research and Education at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues.