Pest poison

This week, columnist Rob Brown talks about the harmful effects of pesticides

Chemically castrating frogs is not nice. This continent’s frog populations have been declining for a long time. For much of that time the reason for the downslide has been a mystery. It isn’t anymore. Scientists have found at the smoking gun. It’s called Atrazine.

Atrazine is a herbicide manufactured by the people at Syngenta, a Swiss company that manufactures more poison than any other. There are a lot of jobs at Syngenta. There is a lot of money too. More than enough to lavishly fund lobbyists primed to persuade American politicians to do everything in their power to see that Atrazine is used widely to keep the weeds down in those wide open spaces where corn, sugar, sorghum, yams, and rice are grown. This is especially important since the European Union banned the use of Atrazine in 2004.

The lobbyists have done well. Last year alone, over 80 million pounds of Atrazine was dumped on American crop and turf lands, where it has been in use for 50 years. In concentrations of 2.5 parts per billion, Atrazine will turn exposed male frogs into females. If you don’t know squat about bio diversity and bio accumulation, you might say, “Hey, they’re only frogs.” But, you would be failing to see that the meat of the matter is in how this happens.

Atrazine messes with the reproductive capabilities of insects and fish. This is because it’s an endocrine disruptor that screws with the endocrine system of animals of all kinds including you. How important is your endocrine system? Google it and you will be impressed with its importance and you will leave with an idea of the enormity of the problem.

Independent scientists have been beavering away at the downstream effects of Atrazine and have connected it to birth defects, infertility, and are closing in on its linkage to cancer. For their efforts, these scientists have been subject to attacks on their credibility by the agents at Syngenta, which is bent on protecting its multibillion dollar American market.

Paul Winchester, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, wrote a paper reviewing national records for 30 million births, and found that children conceived between April and July – when the concentration of Atrazine, mixed with other pesticides, in water is highest – were more likely to have genital birth defects. Winchester received a subpoena requesting that he turn over to Syngenta every email he had written about Atrazine in the past decade.

In 2012, Syngenta was the defendant in a class action lawsuit concerning the levels of atrazine in human water supplies. After the US Department of Agriculture discovered 94 per cent of the water they tested contained Atrazine, Syngenta agreed to pay $105 million to reimburse more than a thousand water systems for the cost of filtering Atrazine from drinking water, a clear acknowledgement of wrong doing, despite the corporation’s claim that it had done no wrong.

The agriculture business is replete with toxins like Atrazine that leach into ground water and make their way up the food chain and into all of us. Aquaculture is the watery equivalent to agriculture. So you might think that our federal government would have learned some lessons from the enormous problems pesticide use has caused in agriculture in terms of birth defects, infertility, and cancer, and therefore be taking a proactive,  precautionary approach to pesticide use in the fish farming. 

It’s bad enough that fish farms are sited in our most sensitive and important marine habitat where their effluent kills the ocean floor; it’s bad enough that non native fish escape from pens and endanger wild native fish; it’s bad enough that farmed fish are fed colouring to taint their flesh and fed antibiotics, and are nutritionally inferior to wild salmon; but now, Gail Shea, the latest dud in a long line of duds who (with the notable exception of David Anderson) have had the Fisheries portfolio, has taken time out from her campaign to market seal meat to announce that she proposes to relax the laws that forbid the release of dangerous substances into Canada’s waterways.

It takes powerful poison to knock out weeds. Taking out vermin like fleas, bed bugs, cockroaches, and lice requires equally potent chemicals, and the fish farming industry is lousy. For years they have been using a poison (they euphemistically call poisons “therapeutants” in the biz) with the catchy trade name Slice to knock lice off their farmed fish. Back east, the lice have developed a resistance to the poison. The industry there sought permission to use a pesticide called Alphamax. Convenient handmaiden that it is, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency was all set to issue a year long authorization for its use, but was blocked from doing so by Environment Canada, the latter citing Section 36 of the Fisheries Act, which sensibly forbids the dumping of deleterious substances into fish bearing streams.

Minister Gail of PEI and her mandarins has a simple solution: they are poised to grant the Minister of Fisheries special powers to override section 36.

Do you get the uneasy feeling Canada is more like a banana republic with each passing day?