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 Agriculture.)
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 transparent.
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 gallons.
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.
Twenty years ago, it seemed that virtually everyone smoked. You couldn't sit in a restaurant for five minutes without stinking of cigarettes for hours. Now, in state after state, even biker bars are going smoke-free.
Clearly, there has been a dramatic shift in the public's attitude toward smoking -- but it hasn't been an intellectual shift. Since the 1964 Surgeon General's report on the dangers of smoking, anyone tapping a cigarette out of a pack knew the possible health consequences. Still, through the combined magic of advertising and denial, for years the strongest image in many people's minds as they puffed away was Faye Dunaway romantically chain-smoking.
Over the past two decades, that image has changed. When a person fingers a cigarette today, she's more likely to envision a dying Yul Brynner denouncing smoking, or lying tobacco execs, or the Marlboro Man gasping for breath through a chest tube.
What's changed are the emotional images associated with smoking, the ones anti-tobacco activists worked so hard to publicize.
The force of these images has resulted in 35 billion fewer cigarettes smoked annually in the U.S. since 1998, according to the Department of Agriculture. In Maine, where the state's anti-smoking campaign is as fully funded as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend, smoking among high-school students declined by 37 percent between 1997 and 2002. The tobacco war has proven that no matter how addictive the substance and how well-funded the industry's ads, people can wean themselves off dangerous habits.
Could we apply tobacco-war lessons to the fight against global warming?
The issues are surprisingly similar. We know what will happen if we keep the planet smoking: heat waves and spreading diseases, wilting crops and rising seas. But in spite of this knowledge, when an American gets behind the wheel of an SUV, the strongest image in his mind is of attractive, wealthy people accelerating up a ravine in a shiny, new, oversized vehicle.
One reason we haven't come to grips with reality is that some fossil-fuel companies have been imitating R.J. Reynolds, doing all they can to hide the truth. Several of the biggest oil companies (including ExxonMobil and Texaco) for years backed the Global Climate Coalition, which exaggerated uncertainties about global warming and propagated misinformation about climate science. Although officially disbanded, the GCC website is still plastered with misleading articles. ExxonMobil and other corporations also spend big bucks on deceptive ad campaigns, publishing scientifically questionable messages about global warming in prominent spots like the New York Times op-ed page.
Also, like Big Tobacco, fossil-fuel companies lobby the government hard to protect their markets and their profits. During the 2000 election, they contributed more money to Republicans than any other industry.
One of the strongest weapons in the tobacco war has been anti-smoking commercials. The war against fossil fuels could employ the same technique. Recently, a national survey conducted by the FrameWorks Institute, a D.C.-based communications think tank, found that anti-global warming ads can be highly effective if they feature a carefully chosen spokesperson (business executives, religious leaders, and scientists were generally well-received) who explains the problem with a simple analogy (such as a blanket of carbon dioxide trapping heat above the Earth) and points out viable solutions.
"Solutions are the starting point. People are tired of doom and gloom," said Howard Ris, Jr., former president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who oversaw the FrameWorks study.
Such an ad campaign could be funded by a carbon tax, like the cigarette tax that funded anti-smoking commercials. "Yeah, right," you say. But remember: Twenty years ago, no one thought tobacco companies would pay out billions in damages, much of it earmarked for anti-smoking campaigns. Only accumulated medical information about addiction, exposés about tobacco-company lies, and heartbreaking stories of defendants dying of cancer changed public attitudes.
In five years, who knows what images Americans will associate with wasting energy? If the hurricane of the century hits Florida or dengue fever shows up in Detroit, the public's thinking might change. Already, concern about global warming is such that, in spite of the combined power of the gas, coal, oil, and automotive lobbies, the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act missed passing in the Senate last fall by a mere seven votes.
Following the example of anti-tobacco activists and attorneys, several lawyers are currently preparing class-action suits against companies that have recklessly toyed with the climate. Perhaps a group of children will one day sue ExxonMobil for spoiling the planet and compromising their futures. I can imagine TVs around the country tuned in to see a small girl testifying in court, perched on a phonebook. I can imagine the images in viewers' minds shifting, changing what they feel when they turn the key in the ignition. I can imagine state officials -- already addicted to cigarette taxes and settlements -- leaning closer, smelling big money.
The CDC has demonstrated that the anti-smoking war is best fought concurrently on many fronts, through school education, cessation programs, and advertisements. Likewise, a carbon tax could fund public transportation, sustainable energy, ads, and educational programs.
There is, admittedly, a weak point in the comparison between the tobacco and fossil-fuel wars: If you stop smoking -- bingo! -- you've improved your health. If you choose to better insulate your house or commute by bike or bus, you have to convince millions of others to do the same before global-warming trends will be affected.
This reasoning, though, holds sway only because we aren't firmly committed to the cause. None of us would pay a dollar to a terrorist holding a bake sale, even though thousands of others would need to do the same before he'd have enough to buy a bomb. We wouldn't because we have a strong emotional image of what terrorism can bring about, seared into our national consciousness.
We now need to sear that consciousness with vivid images of the consequences of wasting energy. We need to explain global warming in plain language, with straightforward analogies. Ad execs, lawyers, and activists must band together, like the anti-tobacco lobby, and form a united front to literally change people's minds.
Then, finally, we might kick this deadly habit.
If you plan to have sex anytime soon, let's hope it's not in Niger, Africa. According to the nonprofit organization, Save the Children, just 4 percent of couples in Niger have access to birth control. Although the situation in this West African country is extreme, more than 125 million couples worldwide -- most of them in developing countries -- cannot get contraceptives. Some of the children that have resulted from these couplings were wanted and some were not, but one thing is certain: Lack of access to birth control increases the burden on already strained parents and on the global ecosystem.
Sujoy Guha, professor of biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, believes he has the answer to this problem. Highly regarded in India for his work on everything from disability rights to drinking-water purification, Guha has spent the last 25 years perfecting his invention; Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance, better known (thankfully) as RISUG. RISUG, he says, has all the advantages of the perfect contraceptive -- and, some would say, a surprising bonus: It's made for men.
RISUG works by an injection into the vas, the vessel that serves as the exit ramp for sperm. The injection coats the vas with a clear polymer gel that has a negative and positive electric charge. Sperm cells also have a charge, so the differential charge from the gel ruptures the cell membrane as it passes through the vas, stopping the sperm in their tracks before they can even start their journey to the egg. RISUG doesn't affect the surrounding tissues because they have no charge.
Compared to the other male contraceptive choices currently available -- abstinence, withdrawal, condoms and vasectomies -- RISUG is a whole new ballgame. In fact, Guha and others believe, the contraceptive promises to be even better than the choices available to women. Guha enumerates six advantages of his invention:
- Neither sexual partner has to interrupt the throes of passion to use it -- no more running to the bathroom and fumbling with various ointments and plastics.
- The process, once it is refined and approved, will be completely non-surgical. Whew, say a lot of men.
- It's long-lasting. According to Guha, a single injection can be effective for at least 10 years.
- After testing RISUG on more than 250 volunteers, neither Guha nor other researchers in the field have found side effects more worrisome than a slight scrotal swelling in some men immediately following the injection. This swelling goes away after a few weeks. Compare that to the Pill, which even today can cause health problems ranging from severe migraines to blood clots.
- It works. Of all the men who've had the RISUG injection (and 15 of the 250 had it more than 10 years ago), there has been only one unplanned pregnancy among their partners -- and in that instance, the injection wasn't administered properly.
- Best of all, the contraceptive appears to be reversible with another injection. To date, reversing the procedure has been tried only on non-human primates, but among them, it's been reversed successfully multiple times.
If RISUG's current stage of clinical testing goes well, it will be on the market in India by next year. Within a few more years, if all proceeds as planned, the injection to reverse it will also be on the market.
Just Shoot Me!
But would men in India -- or anywhere else -- use it? Every U.S. male authority I talked to in the field, including experts at the World Health Organization and the U.S. Agency for International Development, pooh-poohed the idea. "Men don't like doctors to have anything to do with their testicles," summarized Don Waller, a contraceptives expert and professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Maybe not -- but one in six married men in the U.S. have had vasectomies, which definitely require medical personnel poking at the gonads.
Moreover, surveys conducted by the University of Edinburgh, the Kaiser Foundation, and other entities have shown that in countries as diverse as Hong Kong, South Africa and the U.S., the majority of men say they want more options for male contraceptives.
But even if men used RISUG, would women trust them? It's doubtful that the whispered promise of having been RISUGed would fly during a one-night stand. However, in the context of a committed relationship, RISUG could shift some of the responsibility for family planning off the women who have borne (and born) too much of it for too long, at the expense of their health, time, finances and emotions.
That shift is definitely possible, according to Ronald Weiss, a vasectomy specialist in Toronto, who says men's attitudes toward contraception are changing. "In Canada, 10 years ago, it used to be tubal ligations [the more-invasive female equivalent of a vasectomy] to vasectomies were performed at a ratio of 2 to 1. Now that number is reversed."
Weiss believes a lot of men would prefer a procedure that wasn't permanent. And, he says, RISUG is the most promising male contraceptive out there.
Still, there's been a lot more media fervor over the possibility of a male version of the Pill -- even though its potential side effects for men include everything from liver damage and prostate problems to what is referred to in the literature as gynecomastia. Translation: Men growing breasts.
Weiss thinks RISUG is preferable. "The only people who should be excited about the male Pill are pharmaceutical companies," he said. He believes so much money has been poured into researching the Pill because pharmaceutical companies want something consumers will have to buy again and again -- as opposed to an inexpensive, one-time injection. In the U.S., a 10-year supply of the female Pill costs about $3,600. RISUG would be dramatically less expensive, while pharmaceutical companies would have to pay $25 million to $40 million to bring it to market.
From the consumers' point of view, RISUG could be a godsend during the approximately 30 years the average person spends trying not to cause a pregnancy.
And in the developing world, RISUG would mean much more.
This Little Injection Went to Market ...
"Realize that overseas there just aren't decent options," said Elaine Lissner, director of the Male Contraception Information Project. "By the time condoms arrive there, they're cracked by the heat. Poverty and lack of medical follow-up are a problem. You can't use a diaphragm if you don't have clean running water. You can't use an IUD if no medical treatment exists if something goes wrong. You can't use the Pill if it's too expensive."
In the developing world, RISUG's price tag could be brought down to about $22, the price at which Guha and Indian Drugs & Pharmaceuticals Ltd. (the largest Indian drug company) are planning to market it in India. This makes RISUG potentially affordable by even the world's poorest. Studies have shown that when couples in the developing world start having fewer children, both the health and literacy of the children improve, and mothers are more likely to survive long enough to raise their kids. Moreover, families with fewer children have less impact on the natural world, because they are not as desperate for firewood, water and bush meat.
This "less children/healthier environment" connection has become so clear that wildlife organizations have started to team up with family-planning groups in biodiversity-rich areas of the world. In the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, Conservation International is working with Mexfam to slow the clearing of the forests as well as to offer people there the option of reproductive health care.
Inevitability, talk of providing contraceptives to people in developing countries raises allegations of racism -- but there's a huge difference between forced eugenics and offering people the choice to control their own fertility. According to Save the Children, 72 percent of Sweden's population has access to contraceptives; why shouldn't the same choices be available in Niger? With the world's population growing by 77 million people per year, access to contraceptives is not something the industrialized world can continue to hog.
So far, what's holding up the potential marketing of RISUG outside of India is safety testing. Although the Indian medical community maintains that its safety testing is better than that of the U.S., Jeff Spieler, chief of research at USAID's Office of Population and Reproductive Health, said, "The pre-clinical toxicology testing in India [on RISUG] was weak."
Lissner agreed that some of the older studies should be redone, but given the near-perfect record of RISUG so far, she noted, "If I were a man, I'd feel safer having RISUG injected than eating non-organic fruit."
RISUG will probably soon be marketed in India, but the U.S. will play a critical role in determining its use elsewhere in the developing world. Grants from U.S. agencies, corporations, and nonprofits spur on a significant portion of the world's research. But, said Waller of the University of Illinois, "If funds from the U.S. are paying for another country's research, then the research has to be already approved by the FDA. Otherwise it looks like we're using the rest of the world as experimental subjects."
Thus, lack of interest in RISUG by the U.S. helps delay its use around the world.
As Lissner said, "Every month we delay means thousands more women dying in childbirth, more families in poverty from too many children, and more women dying in attempted abortions."
Audrey Schulman is the author of the novels "The Cage," "Swimming with Jonah" and "A House Named Brazil." She has written a chapter on female sexuality in "The Complete Guide to Mental Health for Women."