Monday, October 21, 2013

[biofuelwatch] Argentines link health problems to agrochemicals

Argentines link health problems to agrochemicals
Michael Warren and Natacha Pisarenko
Associated Press/Aurora Advocate, October 18, 2013

Argentine farmworker Fabian Tomasi was never trained to handle
pesticides. His job was to keep the crop-dusters flying by filling
their tanks as quickly as possible, although it often meant getting
drenched in poison.

Now, at 47, he's a living skeleton, so weak he can hardly leave his
house in Entre Rios province.

Schoolteacher Andrea Druetta lives in Santa Fe Province, the heart of
Argentina's soy country, where agrochemical spraying is banned within
500 meters (550 yards) of populated areas. But soy is planted just 30
meters (33 yards) from her back door. Her boys were showered in
chemicals recently while swimming in the backyard pool.

After Sofia Gatica lost her newborn to kidney failure, she filed a
complaint that led to Argentina's first criminal convictions for
illegal spraying. But last year's verdict came too late for many of
her 5,300 neighbors in Ituzaingo Annex. A government study there found
alarming levels of agrochemical contamination in the soil and drinking
water, and 80 percent of the children surveyed carried traces of
pesticide in their blood.

American biotechnology has turned Argentina into the world's
third-largest soybean producer, but the chemicals powering the boom
aren't confined to soy and cotton and corn fields.

The Associated Press documented dozens of cases around the country
where poisons are applied in ways unanticipated by regulatory science
or specifically banned by existing law. The spray drifts into schools
and homes and settles over water sources; farmworkers mix poisons with
no protective gear; villagers store water in pesticide containers that
should have been destroyed.

Now doctors are warning that uncontrolled pesticide applications could
be the cause of growing health problems among the 12 million people
who live in the South American nation's vast farm belt.

In Santa Fe, cancer rates are two times to four times higher than the
national average. In Chaco, birth defects quadrupled in the decade
after biotechnology dramatically expanded farming in Argentina.

"The change in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a
change in the profile of diseases," says Dr. Medardo Avila Vazquez, a
pediatrician and neonatologist who co-founded Doctors of Fumigated
Towns, part of a growing movement demanding enforcement of
agricultural safety rules. "We've gone from a pretty healthy
population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and
illnesses seldom seen before."

A nation once known for its grass-fed beef has undergone a remarkable
transformation since 1996, when the St. Louis-based Monsanto Co.
promised that adopting its patented seeds and chemicals would increase
crop yields and lower pesticide use. Today, Argentina's entire soy
crop and nearly all its corn and cotton are genetically modified, with
soy cultivation alone tripling to 47 million acres (19 million

Agrochemical use did decline at first, then it bounced back,
increasing eightfold from 9 million gallons (34 million liters) in
1990 to more than 84 million gallons (317 million liters) today as
farmers squeezed in more harvests and pests became resistant to the
poisons. Overall, Argentine farmers apply an estimated 4.3 pounds of
agrochemical concentrate per acre, more than twice what U.S. farmers
use, according to an AP analysis of government and pesticide industry

Glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's popular Roundup brand of
pesticides, is one of the world's most widely used weed killers. It
has been determined to be safe, if applied properly, by many
regulatory agencies, including those of the United States and European

On May 1, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even raised the
allowable levels of glyphosate residues in food, concluding that based
on studies presented by Monsanto, "there is a reasonable certainty
that no harm will result to the general population or to infants and
children from aggregate exposure."

Argentina's 23 provinces take the lead in regulating farming, and rules vary.

Spraying is banned within 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of populated areas
in some provinces and as little as 50 meters (55 yards) in others.
About one-third of the provinces set no limits at all, and most lack
detailed enforcement policies.

A federal environmental law requires applicators of toxic chemicals to
suspend or cancel activities that threaten public health, "even when
the link has not been scientifically proven," and "no matter the costs
or consequences," but it has never been applied to farming, the
auditor general found last year.

In response to soaring complaints, President Cristina Fernandez
ordered a commission in 2009 to study the impact of agrochemical
spraying on human health. Its initial report called for "systematic
controls over concentrations of herbicides and their compounds ...
such as exhaustive laboratory and field studies involving formulations
containing glyphosate as well as its interactions with other
agrochemicals as they are actually used in our country."

But the commission hasn't met since 2010, the auditor general found.

Government officials insist the problem is not a lack of research, but
misinformation that plays on people's emotions.

"I've seen countless documents, surveys, videos, articles in the news
and in universities, and really our citizens who read all this end up
dizzy and confused," Agriculture Secretary Lorenzo Basso said. "I
think we have to publicize the commitment that Argentina has to being
a food producer. Our model as an exporting nation has been called into
question. We need to defend our model."

In a written statement, Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher said the
company "does not condone the misuse of pesticides or the violation of
any pesticide law, regulation, or court ruling."

"Monsanto takes the stewardship of products seriously and we
communicate regularly with our customers regarding proper use of our
products," Helscher said.


Argentina was among the earliest adopters of the new biotech farming
model promoted by Monsanto and other U.S. agribusinesses.

Instead of turning the topsoil, spraying pesticides and then waiting
until the poison dissipates before planting, farmers sow the seeds and
spray afterward without harming crops genetically modified to tolerate
specific chemicals.

This "no-till" method takes so much less time and money that farmers
can reap more harvests and expand into land not worth the trouble

But pests develop resistance, even more so when the same chemicals are
applied to genetically identical crops on a vast scale.

So while glyphosate is one of the world's safest herbicides, farmers
now use it in higher concentrates and mix in much more toxic poisons,
such as 2,4,D, which the U.S. military used in "Agent Orange" to
defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War.

In 2006, a division of Argentina's agriculture ministry recommended
adding caution labels urging that mixtures of glyphosate and more
toxic chemicals be limited to "farm areas far from homes and
population centers." The recommendation was ignored, according to the
federal audit.

The government relies on industry research approved by the EPA, which
said May 1 that "there is no indication that glyphosate is a
neurotoxic chemical and there is no need for a developmental
neurotoxicity study."

Molecular biologist Dr. Andres Carrasco at the University of Buenos
Aires says the burden from the chemical cocktails is worrisome, but
even glyphosate alone could spell trouble for human health. He found
that injecting a very low dose of glyphosate into embryos can change
levels of retinoic acid, causing the same sort of spinal defects in
frogs and chickens that doctors increasingly are registering in
communities where farm chemicals are ubiquitous.

This acid, a form of vitamin A, is fundamental for keeping cancers in
check and triggering genetic expression, the process by which
embryonic cells develop into organs and limbs.

"If it's possible to reproduce this in a laboratory, surely what is
happening in the field is much worse," Carrasco said. "And if it's
much worse, and we suspect that it is, what we have to do is put this
under a magnifying glass."

His findings, published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology
in 2010, were rebutted by Monsanto, which said the results "are not
surprising given their methodology and unrealistic exposure

Monsanto said in response to AP's questions that chemical safety tests
should only be done on live animals, and that injecting embryos is
"less reliable and less relevant for human risk assessments."

"Glyphosate is even less toxic than the repellent you put on your
children's skin," said Pablo Vaquero, Monsanto's corporate affairs
director in Buenos Aires. "That said, there has to be a responsible
and good use of these products because in no way would you put
repellent in the mouths of children and no environmental applicator
should spray fields with a tractor or a crop-duster without taking
into account the environmental conditions and threats that stem from
the use of the product."

Out in the fields, warnings are widely ignored.

For three years, Tomasi was routinely exposed to chemicals as he
pumped pesticides into the tanks of crop-dusters. Now he's near death
from polyneuropathy, a debilitating neurological disorder, which has
left him wasted and shriveled.

"I prepared millions of liters of poison without any kind of
protection, no gloves, masks or special clothing," he said. "I didn't
know anything. I only learned later what it did to me, after
contacting scientists."

"The poison comes in liquid concentrates, in containers with lots of
precautions to take when applying it," Tomasi explained. "But nobody
takes precautions."

With soybeans selling for about $500 a ton, growers plant wherever
they can, often disregarding Monsanto's guidelines and provincial law
by spraying with no advance warning, and even in windy conditions.

In Entre Rios, teachers reported that sprayers failed to respect
50-meter (55-yard) limits at 18 schools, dousing 11 during class. Five
teachers filed police complaints this year.

Druetta also filed complaints in Santa Fe, alleging that students
fainted when pesticides drifted into their classrooms and that their
tap water is contaminated. She is struggling to get clean drinking
water into her school, she said, while a neighbor keeps a freezer of
rabbit and bird carcasses, hoping someone will test them to see why
they dropped dead after spraying.

Buenos Aires forbids loading or hosing off spraying equipment in
populated areas, but in the town of Rawson, it's done directly across
the street from homes and a school, with the runoff flowing into an
open ditch.

Felix San Roman says that when he complained about clouds of chemicals
drifting into his yard, the sprayers beat him up, fracturing his spine
and knocking out his teeth. He said he filed a complaint in 2011, but
it was ignored.

"This is a small town where nobody confronts anyone, and the
authorities look the other way," San Roman said. "All I want is for
them to follow the existing law, which says you can't do this within
1,500 meters (of homes). Nobody follows this. How can you control it?"

Sometimes even court orders are ignored.

In January, activist Oscar Di Vincensi stood in a field near a
friend's house waving a ruling against spraying within 1,000 meters
(1,100 yards) of homes in his town of Alberti. A tractor driver simply
ignored him, dousing him in pesticide.

Di Vincensi's video of that incident went viral on YouTube earlier this year.


Dr. Damian Verzenassi, who directs the Environment and Health program
at the National University of Rosario's medical school, decided to try
to figure out what was behind an increase in cancer, birth defects and
miscarriages in Argentina's hospitals.

"We didn't set out to find problems with agrochemicals. We went to see
what was happening with the people," he said.

Since 2010, this house-to-house epidemiological study has reached
65,000 people in Santa Fe province, finding cancer rates two times to
four times higher than the national average, including breast,
prostate and lung cancers. Researchers also found high rates of
thyroid disorders and chronic respiratory illness.

"It could be linked to agrochemicals," he said. "They do all sorts of
analysis for toxicity of the first ingredient, but they have never
studied the interactions between all the chemicals they're applying."

Dr. Maria del Carmen Seveso, who has spent 33 years running intensive
care wards and ethics committees in Chaco province, became alarmed at
regional birth reports showing a quadrupling of congenital defects,
from 19.1 per 10,000 to 85.3 per 10,000 in the decade after
genetically modified crops and their agrochemicals were approved in

Determined to find out why, she and her colleagues surveyed 2,051
people in six towns in Chaco, and found significantly more diseases
and defects in villages surrounded by industrial agriculture than in
those surrounded by cattle ranches. In Avia Terai, 31 percent said a
family member had cancer in the past 10 years, compared with 3 percent
in the ranching village of Charadai.

Visiting these farm villages, the AP found chemicals in places where
they were never intended to be.

Claudia Sariski, whose home has no running water, says she doesn't let
her twin toddlers drink from the discarded poison containers she keeps
in her dusty backyard. But her chickens do, and she uses it to wash
the family's clothes.

"They prepare the seeds and the poison in their houses. And it's very
common, not only in Avia Terai but in nearby towns, for people to keep
water for their houses in empty agrochemical containers," explained
surveyor Katherina Pardo. "Since there's no treated drinking water
here, the people use these containers anyway. They are a very
practical people."

The survey found diseases Seveso said were uncommon before -- birth
defects including malformed brains, exposed spinal cords, blindness
and deafness, neurological damage, infertility, and strange skin

Aixa Cano, a shy 5-year-old, has hairy moles all over her body. Her
neighbor, 2-year-old Camila Veron, was born with multiple organ
problems and is severely disabled. Doctors told their mothers that
agrochemicals may be to blame.

"They told me that the water made this happen because they spray a lot
of poison here," said Camila's mother, Silvia Achaval. "People who say
spraying poison has no effect, I don't know what sense that has
because here you have the proof," she added, pointing at her daughter.

It's nearly impossible to prove that exposure to a specific chemical
caused an individual's cancer or birth defect. But like the other
doctors, Seveso said their findings should prompt a rigorous
government investigation. Instead, their 68-page report was shelved
for a year by Chaco's health ministry. A year later, a leaked copy was
posted on the Internet.

"There are things that are not open to discussion, things that aren't
listened to," Seveso concluded.

Scientists argue that only broader, longer-term studies can rule out
agrochemicals as a cause of these illnesses.

"That's why we do epidemiological studies for heart disease and
smoking and all kinds of things," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a former
EPA regulator now with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "If you have
the weight of evidence pointing to serious health problems, you don't
wait until there's absolute proof in order to do something."

Warren can be reached on Twitter at @mwarrenap


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