Great Smokies Medical Center of Asheville

Are Pesticides and Herbicides Bugging You?

Three legged frogs. Bluebird eggs that don’t hatch. Infertile male alligators with female reproductive organs.

Futuristic headlines? Afraid not. The lyrics “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it . . .” may be relegated to a time when they could do it.

Pesticides and herbicides belong to a group of chemicals called “endocrine disruptors” that interfere with hormone biochemistry. Their effects go beyond the red eyes, burning skin, nausea, and dizziness routinely experienced with acute pesticide exposures. The developing fetus is especially vulnerable to pesticides. Fetal or maternal exposure to pesticides is statistically linked to cancer risk in childhood and later in life. Exposure to pesticides and herbicides during pregnancy should be strictly avoided.

Researchers have found that DDE, a breakdown product of the banned pesticide DDT, has found its way into almost all living tissue, where it disrupts the function of reproductive hormones in mammals. Wildlife studies of infertility and physical abnormalities of gulls, deer, birds, fishes, frogs, whales, porpoises, alligators, and turtles link environmental contaminants with disturbances in the production or action of sex hormones.

In 1996 in Idaho, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported that more than 30 million pounds of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides were used on 410,000 acres of potatoes.

Judith Hoy, an animal rehabilitator from the Bitterroot Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Montana, examined 254 accident-killed and injured male deer. Regardless of age, approximately 33 percent were normal; the remaining 67 percent showed varying degrees of apparent genital developmental anomalies, specifically mispositioned and undersized scrota and testes, rendering the deer unable to reproduce. The deer also exhibited other signs of poisoning: reddened eyes, the inability to digest food, and emaciation. Researchers link these abnormalities in male deer to the interference with male hormones resulting from contact with pesticides and herbicides.

A direct hit of pesticide or herbicide is not required. Drift of agricultural chemicals accounted for 44 percent of reported pesticide and herbicide poisoning cases in California during the mid 1990s, according to California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation.

A class of chemicals called chlorophenols or dioxins are especially damaging. One of them, Agent Orange, the herbicide used as a defoliant in the Vietnam War, kills plants by causing sudden uncontrolled plant growth (similar to cancer) for two weeks before the foliage dies.

It’s a good thing people have escaped the fate of wildlife, right? Afraid not. In addition to congenital defects and infertility, human pesticide exposure has been linked with Parkinson’s disease; myasthenia gravis; prostate, testicular, and breast cancers; leukemia; lymphoma; asthma; thyroid disorders; and chronic fatigue. Seems we have met the enemy and, no surprise, it is us.

What can you do? Don’t depend on pesticide manufacturers or companies who apply them for information about toxicity. Seek out less toxic solutions or less toxic methods of pesticide application. If the entire city of Toronto can implement a ban on the unnecessary use of pesticides (as they did in 2003, supported by 72 percent of the city’s residents), so can you in your little corner of the world.

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