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Why Commonly Used Pesticides May Be To Blame for the Deaths of So Many Members of My Farming Family

We need to delve deeply into the potential link between a widely used chemical and the health of our food producers and their communities.

My family has gotten a lot smaller lately. My mother died in 2004, my father in 2007, and my uncle in 2008.

I’ve done the five stages of grief, as introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, but not exactly as she described. It’s true that I initially felt denial: “I’m a lucky person; this can't be happening.” Then I was angry and felt sorry for myself. Then, at least during my mother’s struggle with pancreatic cancer, I hit the bargaining table. Mom was a Sunday school teacher when I was little, so I pleaded with God: “Please let the diagnosis be wrong, please let the chemo work, please don’t let the good die young.” To hedge my bets, I occasionally promised, “if she can beat the odds, I’ll volunteer at the local cancer center and I’ll donate my life savings to research.” It didn’t work. In less than four months, she was dead.

Depression crept in, and this stage held me in its grip for a long time. I gained acceptance a year or two after my mother’s death—she would’ve wanted me to—but this stage eluded me with the loss of my father and my uncle. Now, I’m just angry. Outraged, in fact.

My father had stomach cancer. My uncle had prostate cancer. Both were farmers.

I can remember when the two of them would come in from the fields covered with fine, white powder. The only part of their bodies that wasn’t white was the top of their heads when they took off their caps before sitting down to lunch. Dad said it was DDT, a pesticide that was banned in 1972 after Rachel Carson alerted the nation to its danger.

Today there are lots of other pesticides and genetically modified seeds to combat corn borers and other insects. As for weeds, the most popular herbicide, by far, was and still is atrazine, first registered for use in the United States in the late 1950s. I remember asking my father about it sometime after I went to college and started worrying about toxins in our air and drinking water. He shrugged off my concerns, convinced that atrazine had no effect on humans and dissipated from the environment rapidly anyway. I felt a continuing sense of unease, suspicious that he and my uncle were breathing it and all of us were drinking it every time we turned on the tap.

Studies show a link between atrazine and prostate cancer. At least one study [PDF] of farm communities in Ontario, Canada, found higher rates of stomach cancer in areas with high levels of atrazine in the drinking water. If my sisters or I develop breast cancer, atrazine may be to blame. There seems to be little to no evidence that exposure to atrazine causes pancreatic cancer, but then again maybe it’s because no one has looked for it.

That may soon change. Last fall the U.S. EPA announced a review of atrazine’s federal registration (see August 2009 posts by Rena Steinzor and Holly Doremus). The announcement came on the heels of a report documenting widespread exposure throughout U.S. farm states, and a growing body of evidence of health effects even at low-exposure levels. (See the Pesticide Action Network's report, The Syngenta Corporation and Atrazine: The Cost to the Land, People and Democracy).

Atrazine is one of the most commonly detected herbicides in water. A government map of atrazine in the groundwater of agricultural states shows an alarming blotch of bright red throughout western Iowa, where I grew up, and eastern Nebraska, where I currently live. The red depicts the highest levels of atrazine detection in shallow groundwater (over 75%). An EPA monitoring program found that 94 of 136 public water systems tested between 2003 and 2005 had atrazine concentrations above the federal drinking water standard of three parts per billion.

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