Better living through chemistry is killing us

Maybe I’m perverse. But I admired the fringe of green leaves — now shriveled and brown — that would occasionally pop up between the cobblestones in front of 120 Maple Avenue in Altamont where we have our newsroom.

The cobblestones were laid between the granite curb and the sidewalk when Maple Avenue was reconfigured as part of a $6 million state project, completed in 2006. The weeds that managed to work their way through the cracks represented resilience for me; a small plant would once in a while survive the feet walking over it or the dogs peeing on it.

That’s a good model for a newspaper editor and publisher — to keep striving, to keep trying to grow, to always reach for the light.

Their struggles reminded me of a tree on the long dirt road to the home where my parents had lived on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. The tree was alongside the curvy part of the road, the part my mother named Zig-Zag after the S-shaped curve in the nearby Olympic bobsled run, the part my father cursed when he plowed in the dead of winter.

This tree, when it was a seedling, had the bad fortune to sprout under a gigantic boulder. But somehow, it worked its way around, growing toward the sunlight. In its mature years, when I knew it, the tree was a sight to see. Its trunk was like a backwards letter C, growing clear around the boulder, and then straight up. Its branches were home to wildlife.

So I took particular interest when small yellow signs popped up along the cobblestones in Altamont last week. “Pesticide Application: Do Not Enter,” the signs said in capital letters. In a circle was an image of children and a pet with a diagonal line crossing through the picture.

Our village reporter, Sean Mulkerin, wrote a fair and thorough story on the subject, which we published last week along with a picture.

We at The Enterprise have no quarrel with the village and certainly have nothing but admiration for Jeffrey Moller, Altamont’s superintendent of public works. He always answers our questions promptly and honestly.

The village board, Moller said, had been getting complaints about weeds for some time, especially in the business district along Main Street and Maple Avenue. The village had sprayed three times with an environmentally friendly vinegar-and-epsom-salt mix but, said Moller, it appeared the weeds had become resistant to the spray.

Moller then took another environmentally friendly step; he sent workers out with weed wackers but one caught a rock that sailed through a car window, costing the village $400 to replace it.

And so, as a last resort, the area was sprayed with Ranger Pro, a Monsanto pesticide allowed by both federal and state government. In fact, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the village was not even required to notify villagers that the spraying would take place.

What’s wrong with this picture has nothing to do with Altamont. Rather, we have to look at the big picture.

We, as a society, are poisoning ourselves.

Ranger Pro is 41 percent glyphosate, the most widely-used herbicide in the United States, found in over 750 products.

Mulkerrin’s story ended by noting several high-profile, multi-million cases where Monsanto, the agrochemical giant, had to pay because exposure to glyphosate in Monsanto’s weed-killer Roundup had led to cancer.

As we’ve written on this page before, The U.S. President’s Cancer Panel produced a report in 2008-09 — well before the current administration started rolling back health and environmental protections — that concluded, “The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary. That is, instead of taking preventive action when uncertainty exists about the potential harm a chemical or other environmental contaminant may cause, a hazard must be incontrovertibly demonstrated before action to ameliorate it is initiated.

“Moreover, instead of requiring industry or other proponents of specific chemicals, devices, or activities to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful. Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety.”

Monsanto may consider the multi-million-dollar payouts just the cost of doing business as the tobacco industry did for years.

But the problem is much wider and deeper than that.

A paper, by Nancy L. Swanson, Andre Leu, Jon Abrahamson, and Bradley Wallet, published in 2014 in the Journal of Organic Systems, links glyphosate and genetically-engineered crops with the deterioration of health in the United States. 

The authors used data from the United States Department of Agriculture and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track the use of the herbicide glyphosate, introduced in 1974, and its increased use with the advent of genetically-engineered crops against the rise of a large number of diseases in the United states.

The correlations were near or above 90 percent for hypertension; stroke; diabetes; obesity; Alzheimer’s; senile dementia; Parkinson’s; multiple sclerosis; autism; inflammatory bowel disease; intestinal infections; acute kidney failure; and cancers of the thyroid, liver, bladder, pancreas, kidney, and myeloid leukemia.

Not only has there been an alarming increase in serious illnesses in the United States in the last 20 years, there has also been a marked decrease in life expectancy. We’re killing ourselves.

The costs are high. The CDC estimates the cost of diabetes and its treatment was $245 billion in 2012. Costs related to obesity were $147 billion in 2008. Costs for stroke and cardiovascular disease in 2009 were $476 billion and are projected at over $818 billion by 2030.

If we were healthier, we’d be a wealthier nation.

The Journal of Organic Systems paper looks at just the effects of the exponential increase in the amount of glyphosate applied to food crops and in the percentage of genetically-engineered food crops planted.

Plants are modified so that they can withstand the direct application of the herbicide. The herbicide-tolerant plants then absorb the poisons, and humans and domestic animals eat them.

The genetically-modified-organism industry claims that genetic engineering is the same as plant hybridisation, which has been practiced for centuries — an argument that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration accepted for not having to submit genetically-engineered food to rigorous safety testing for FDA approval.

The Organic Systems study corrects those distorted facts by explaining, unlike with natural breeding methods, genetically-engineered food transfers multiple genes across taxonomic kingdoms. All living things are classified in a seven-step ranking system that starts with species, and goes to genus, to family, to order, to class, to division, and finally to kingdom.

Species that belong to different families do not naturally inter-breed, and neither do species from different kingdoms. Plants, for example, to not interbreed with animals, bacteria, or viruses. Genetic engineering allows for the transfer of genes between kingdoms in a way that does not occur naturally.

The purveyors of herbicides and genetically-engineered foods claim the genetically-engineered food is “substantially equivalent” to natural products yet researchers have found differences in vitamin, fat, and protein content and could also distinguish the genetically-engineered food by its glyphosate and AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid, glyphosate degradation product) residues.

Glyphosate and its degradation product have been found in air, rain, groundater, surface water, soil, and sea water — and the amounts detected are increasing over time with increasing use. Humans are likely accumulating it over time.

Researchers have found chronically ill humans have significantly higher glyphosate residues in urine than healthy humans. But it doesn’t entirely pass through the body as urine; it has been found in tissues. In the United States, the glyphosate residues allowed in food are some of the highest in the world.

Researchers have documented the connection between glyphosate and chronic disease as it disrupts the metabolic process. “Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” write the authors of the Organic Systems paper.

They explain in detail how glyphosate-based herbicides are endocrine disruptors in human cells and can thereby alter the body’s normal functions. Because glyphosate disrupts gut bacteria balance, the metabolic process, the uptake of nutrients, and the endocrine system, and damages DNA, the authors looked for — and found — correlations between the increase of many diseases and the increase in the use of glyphosate, particularly with the advent of glyphosate-resistant food crops.

Similar to the awakening, which took place globally over decades, to the threat of climate change caused by humans, we need an awakening to the threat caused by now-accepted chemicals.

The best solution would be the one we started with, proposed by the President’s Cancer Panel: Have a federal government that takes a precautionary rather than a reactionary approach to regulation. To our own peril, we have no hope of that with the current administration.

Businesses push for profit. It is the job of government to ensure that people, and the planet, are not harmed by that push. Although individual states may be more enlightened than the current federal administration, the nature of our commerce, which is nationwide, and also worldwide, means the effects will be limited.

Part of the sea change that needs to take place in our society if we are to save ourselves from poisons has to do with aesthetics. 

I don’t spray Roundup on my lawn or garden or even use fertilizers. I welcome the dandelions and violets that brighten the lawn in springtime. If a weed is prickly underfoot, I pull it out.

Perhaps, in the same way that Altamont residents and business owners shovel the sidewalks in front of their places after a snowstorm, they could pull out any weeds that bother them alongside the sidewalk — no chemicals needed.

I was heartened this spring when I interviewed Carole Henry, the coordinator for the Master Gardeners at Albany County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension, who oversees carefully selected and trained gardeners who advise others.

Henry welcomes the dandelions in her own yard, too. Dandelions, she said, are a good early food for bees, and she’s also planted milkweed.

“All my neighbors spray their lawns,” said Henry. “I don’t spray.”

To fulfill the value of “sustainable garden practices,” Henry said of the Master Gardeners, “We teach people to compost and to make the soil better, to stay away from pesticides.”

At the back of the extension’s parking lot are demonstrations of many different methods of composting, each with accompanying explanations. The central idea is to have bacteria break down waste into rich organic matter to enrich soil.

“Doing less is better,” said Henry. “Let’s say with grass: Everybody wants to fertilize. “But the best way to get rid of crabgrass is to overseed with grass. You don’t have to use chemicals … It’s less harmful to the environment.”

She went on, “With all the advertising, it’s ingrained … You get a call: ‘What do I spray to get rid of this?’ You have to talk people through this: ‘Don’t kill ground bees. They’re necessary for pollination.’”

Until our government takes a precautionary stance, individuals will have to look out for themselves — buying locally from farmers we trust, raising and making our own food, and appreciating the weeds that grow naturally in our midst rather than chemically eradicating them.

We need to open our eyes, not just to see the beauty in a weed but to push our elected leaders to see the need to be proactive in protecting us.

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