Grist Magazine

December 1, 2005


By Audrey Schulman

Three years ago, while my extended family was vacationing at my dad's
cranberry farm, he mentioned that one of his fields would be sprayed
that evening. There were five children under 10 in the house, and I
was eight months pregnant. The field was 100 feet away. I asked my dad
about the pesticides, but he said, "Don't worry. The government runs
tests on the chemicals. They make sure they're safe."

That night, through a closed window, I watched the plane rumble low
over the field, the fog behind it drizzling softly to the ground.
Behind me, in the house, the kids laughed and called, playing hide-
and-seek. I started wondering about these tests. I decided to do a
little research. According to the U.S. EPA, about 5 billion pounds of
pesticides were used in the U.S. in 2001. And researchers estimate
only 1 to 2 percent of agricultural applications reach their target
pest. Not surprisingly, these toxins can be found in almost every
stream -- and in most Americans' bloodstreams.

This country's heavy reliance on synthetic pesticides is fairly new.
We're still on a learning curve that began in the 1940s. Around then,
partially spurred on by chemical-warfare research, the new industry
began to churn out products designed to kill everything from fungi to
rodents. Until the 1960s, these toxins were tested mainly to make sure
they were effective. But since Silent Spring, people have become
increasingly wary about their health effects. Today, each new active
ingredient must pass more than 100 safety tests to be legally
registered. (Despite the fact that inert ingredients, which can
constitute up to 99.9 percent of the total, can be just as toxic,
tests are mandated only for active ingredients.)

At the EPA website, I found a seemingly thorough list of tests that
examined chemicals' effects on birds, mammals, fish, invertebrates,
and plants. These tests checked for storage stability, residue on
food, soil absorption, and short-term toxicity, as well as
carcinogenic effects, prenatal harm, and damage to human fertility and
genetic material. As I scanned the categories, a knot of worry inside
me began to relax. Until I learned all these experiments are completed
by the manufacturers.

I called EPA press officer Enesta Jones, who said she had no problem
with manufacturers overseeing safety experiments. Since the EPA is
responsible for pesticide registration, she explained, it conducts
compliance investigations, has developed strict guidelines, and
reviews all data to ensure its integrity. (The agency's role does not
include enforcement of the tolerance levels it establishes, a duty
that falls to the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of

Now, I've always been impressed with science, which seems to be one of
the few fields that hasn't recently suffered some large scandal. Good
science is based on transparency. Breakthroughs are reported in peer-
reviewed journals, and experiments can be reenacted to verify the
results. The openness of the system creates a consensus that heads
toward truth. Unfortunately, pesticide-safety experimentation is not

Although the analyses are performed by professional scientists, the
results are often reported only to the EPA. They are rarely published
in peer-reviewed journals, and must often be requested through the
Freedom of Information Act, a process that can take years.

To get an idea of what's behind the curtain, consider the findings of
Tyrone Hayes. A professor of developmental endocrinology at the
University of California-Berkeley, Hayes published an article in
BioScience (yes, it's peer-reviewed) in which he compared several
previous experiments performed by others on the effect of atrazine on
frogs' sexual differentiation. Seven of the studies performed on this
popular corn pesticide were paid for by Syngenta, the manufacturer;
nine others were funded by independent sources. Every one of the
Syngenta-funded studies concluded that atrazine did not affect
amphibian gonads, while all but one of the independent studies found
that the chemical did have an effect, sometimes at the level of one-
tenth part per billion in water. That's a stunningly small amount --
about the same as dropping one tablespoon in almost 40 million

The Syngenta studies didn't falsify data; they were simply designed to
find "no effect," by exposing both the control and experimental groups
to enough atrazine to affect their gonads. This type of testing isn't
criminal. It's just bad science.

And here's more: last year, Alan Lockwood, professor of neurology and
nuclear medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo,
published an analysis in the (peer-reviewed) American Journal of
Public Health of the pesticide tests on humans that he could get
access to through FOIA. In one, the consent form implied that the
pesticide -- a known neurotoxin -- might make the subjects smarter. It
didn't mention the actual possibilities of vomiting, convulsions, or
death. In another, when four of six participants got sick and had to
drop out, the experimenters based their positive results on the two
remaining subjects. Lockwood said all the studies had "serious ethical
or scientific deficiencies -- or both."

The idea of testing on human volunteers, halted in 1998, has
resurfaced thanks to industry pressure and a "sympathetic ear" in the
form of EPA administrator Stephen Johnson. But the notion still has
powerful opponents -- Johnson's confirmation was blocked until he
cancelled a plan to study pesticides' effects on low-income children
-- and controversy has surrounded EPA's draft rules on such tests,
released this fall. A public-comment period on the rules ends Dec. 12.

The son I was pregnant with when the cranberry bog was sprayed has
developed slowly in different ways. He started talking so late the
state sent a speech therapist over to tutor him. My older son, who was
also there, can't draw. He's 5 now and gets frustrated trying to make
even a stick figure. The one time he tried to draw me, it looked like
an amoeba with three eyes.

Does this have to do with drifting pesticides? I can't tell you. None
of us will know for sure the effects of these chemicals until there's
good science involved -- science that isn't funded and reported by the
very people making the chemicals in the first place.

-- Audrey Schulman is the author of the novels The Cage, Swimming with
Jonah, and A House Named Brazil.