America’s Environmental Lipstick

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America's Environmental Lipstick

Pesticides have been widely spayed over farms, forests, gardens, golf courses, and lawns all over America for several decades. Consequently, they have caused perpetual ecocides, destruction, and disease.

A Glimmer of Legal Hope

I worked for the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years, spanning the last two years of the administration of Jimmy Carter, the administration of Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior, Bill Clinton and the first four years of George W. Bush.


The 1970s was a time of environmental legislation: National Environmental Policy Act, 1970; Clean Air Act, 1970; Clean Water Act, 1972; Marine Mammal Protection Act, 1972; Endangered Species Act, 1973; Safe Drinking Water Act, 1974; Toxic Substances Control Act, 1976; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 1976.


With the exception of the passage of these modest laws in the 1970s, the decades that followed institutionalized the appearance of environmental protection. Real environmental protection found lyrical life in works like "Silent Spring" of Rachel Carson in 1962. It is possible the country never left the pre-1970s age of stasis when the frozen political system hardly took seriously the rising environmental consciousness of the American people. 


Who Regulates Whom?

Republican president Richard Nixon gave birth to the EPA in December 1970. This was, potentially, a great act of political invention by a president deep in the crippling wounds of war. It could have made a difference but, a few years later, in the 1980s, another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, snuffed the hope of EPA.


The spark that shed light on the silent but hazardous business of business as usual came from the chemical industry. How America approved its endless stream of chemicals is revealing much more than boring chemical formulas. The malpractices of the "regulated" chemical industry simply imploded – in the late 1970s. This was an industry in charge of America. The idea that a government agency might "regulate" it was no more than a public relations stunt. So it was not surprising the hubris of capital could bury the worst of news about its practices.


The ugly truth emerged in 1976 when a pathologist of the US Food and Drug Administration named Adrian Gross uncovered a fraud of enormous scope and significance. This had to do with the criminal testing of pesticides, other chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. The chemical and pharmaceutical industries were paying laboratories to test their products, which the private laboratories did by largely faking the results.


It took EPA down to 1983 to shut down Industrial Bio-Test, the largest of the criminal labs uncovered by Adrian Gross. IBT operated since the 1950s. By 1976 it had "tested" 40 percent of the chemicals in the United States. Its clients included several industries, and federal and state governments.


EPA also shut down other smaller but equally criminal laboratories throughout the country.


Yet, the EPA failed to end the crime that Adrian Gross discovered in 1976: the using of manufactured results for the approval of hazardous substances. Industrialized farmers, for example, are determined to keep relying on pesticide poisons for growing crops. And the owners of pesticides, just like the owners of drugs and other chemicals, go on with their business of "testing" or have private labs "test" their own products. The 1976 revelations of testing fraud did not matter.


Not only that, but Adrian Gross, by 1979 working at the EPA, discovered another version of IBT deception within his own branch of toxicology. Highly trained and well-paid EPA toxicologists willfully avoided the examination of industry's data. What they used to do instead was cutting and pasting the industry's conclusions onto their "evaluations." This infuriated Gross who ordered the toxicologists to abandon such illegal practice. However, senior EPA officials punished Gross. They demoted him and gave him a meaningless title, a room, a computer and zero responsibility. Gross died in 1992.


No powerful member of America's ruling class, not even Senator Edward Kennedy, intervened to protect Gross. I mention Kennedy because he held hearings in 1976 about the IBT fraud. He also praised Adrian Gross. But he quickly forgot about the crisis the discovery of Gross made possible. This tragedy was symptomatic of the failure of America and EPA to take the side of good science, environmental protection, and public health. Indeed, the period from 1976 to 1992 was typical of how the White House and Congress, well informed about IBT and Adrian Gross, did not intervened to see justice done. The lesson was that power in Washington was out of control: corporate money corrupts the White House, Congress and, through the political appointees of the presidents running EPA, the EPA itself.

America's Environmental Lipstick

The Price of Corruption

Faced with the colossus of corruption, EPA reinvented itself. It adopted the methods of polluters. This means it has been outsourcing its responsibility of evaluating the pesticide test data of the industry. That way, it's unlikely the EPA will come across another criminal lab. The Reagan administration forced EPA into this unethical behavior.


Does this mean a pesticide "registered" today by the EPA is a chemical tested by a criminal lab? It's impossible to answer this question. But what I can say with a degree of certainty is that this chemical is clouded by a legacy of fraud.


Corruption and criminal behavior in the "testing" of pesticides have been having deleterious consequences, however. Pesticides are by definition killers of life. They are biocides causing outright death, cancer, and neurological maladies. They are basically petroleum products and products of war.


For example, the widely used week killer known as 2,4-D was a sibling of another weed killer, 2,4,5-T, in America's chemical weapon, Agent Orange. The US Army used Agent Orange from 1961 to 1970 to kill rice fields and jungles in Vietnam. Both weed killers were contaminated by the most acutely toxic of dioxins – 2378 tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD.


In late 1970s and 1980, groups of women living near the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon and women from the small towns of Elbe, Mineral, and Ashford in the State of Washington notified EPA they were having miscarriages, which they connected to the chemicals the National Forest Service and timber companies sprayed on the forest near them. It happened that Agent Orange 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T were some of the toxins sprayed over the forests in the neighborhoods of those women. EPA scientists investigated the claims of the women and, in fact, discovered TCDD in a creek near the homes of the affected Oregon women. That discovery, that tiny amounts of TCDD had deleterious effects on women, convinced EPA to ban 2,4,5-T in 1983.


The politics of the Reagan administration did not allow for regulatory action against 2,4-D.


Ecocide and Disease

Weed killers like 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T and numerous other petrochemical farm sprays have been widely spayed over farms, forests, gardens, golf courses, and lawns all over America for several decades. They cause perpetual ecocides in the natural world. In the early 1980s, two of my EPA colleagues, David Coppage and Clayton Bushong, estimated the ecological and economic costs of using pesticides in the United States. They painted a picture of destruction and death all over America.


A single pesticide application or runoff, for example, might kill as many as a million fish. They cited a 1978 EPA study showing that pesticide pollution could cause acute 'kills' of more than 100,000,000 fish a year. Spraying millions of acres of salt marsh and tidelands for mosquitoes would probably kill every year "billions of fish and aquatic invertebrates." Fish eating birds would also suffer tremendously. They would probably fail to reproduce.


Finally, Coppage and Bushong reported that DDT-like compounds, dieldrin and heptachlor, killed about 80 percent of songbirds, and "eliminated some game birds."[1]


Another example comes from the neonicotinoids, powerful neurotoxins coming out of Germany. These neurotoxins are "lethal to birds as well as to the aquatic systems on which they depend."[2] They also threaten honeybees and Monarch butterflies with extinction. Even sub-lethal exposure of honeybees to neonicotinoids causes them "to vanish from their hives."[3]


According to an open letter to beekeepers dated June 4, 2015 by Graham White (beekeeper, Scotland, UK), Tom Theobald (beekeeper, Colorado), and Henk Tennekes (toxicologist, Netherlands), pesticides, including neonicotinoids, have killed "over 10 million American bee colonies since 2003." They report the current annual losses of colonies amount to more than 40 percent. Some beekeepers have been losing up to 90 percent of their bee colonies while others have gone out of business.[4]


Pesticides are harming large animals like Florida alligators,[5] and cause disease and death to innumerable other animals, including the endangered species.[6]


The recent experience of the UC-Berkeley professor of biology, Tyrone Hayes, is telling. Novartis / Syngenta, a global pesticide and drug company, hired Hayes to study the impact of their weed killer, atrazine, on frogs. Farmers clear weeds from their fields of corn with atrazine. Hayes, an endocrinologist, soon found atrazine and other chemicals were responsible for the dramatic decline of amphibians, animals like frogs, dating from the age of dinosaurs.[7]


Hayes published dozens of peer-reviewed papers documenting the deleterious impacts of atrazine on frogs.[8] This caused Hayes trouble with Novartis and the EPA that rejected his findings that atrazine has been causing reproductive harm to frogs. Novartis also stopped funding his research.


I heard Hayes present his case in the 33rd National Pesticide Forum in Orlando, Florida, April 18, 2015. He spoke about men having 0.1 parts per billion atrazine in their urine, a condition responsible for a low sperm count in those men. But 0.1 parts per billion is what it takes to castrate frogs. He said atrazine knocks out sperm testosterone in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and rats. And rats are mammals like us. Then he explained that workers applying atrazine have 2,400 parts per billion of atrazine in their urine, an amount 24,000 times greater than 0.1 parts per billion responsible for low sperm in men.


Tyrone has no doubt atrazine is a biocide devastating animals across generations. He cited data workers in atrazine factories had a 8.4-fold increase in prostate cancer. Finally, he found it ironic that the very company producing atrazine, which promotes breast cancer in rats and humans, is also selling a drug against breast cancer.

America's Environmental Lipstick


What Food Do You Eat?

A small minority of Americans eats organic food. A federal law (the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990) prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals, sludge, radiation, and genetic engineering in raising organic food. However, these prohibitions don't apply in conventional industrialized production of crops and animals.


Thus, most Americans eat food probably tainted by brain-damaging and cancer-causing pesticides. But this food has more than pesticides. Meat, for example, comes out of vast toxic factories.


Animal farms are those toxic factories. Like prisons, they enclose hundreds of thousands of animals in very crammed, unhealthy, and inhumane conditions. Hogs, cattle, and chicken live their short lives in acute stresses from lack of sociability and exercise, and, therefore, access to the natural world. Their feed includes pesticides, hormones, genetically engineered corn and soybeans, and antibiotics. Eating the meat of these animals is not healthy; and for many people, ethically repugnant.


In addition, animal farms are always dangerous to human communities and to the natural world. The huge quantities of animal wastes, kept in lagoons, contaminate the land, ground water, creeks and rivers. Animal farms are also sources of Earth warming gases. Moreover, they emit terrible stench that destroys the living of humans in their neighborhood.


Thus America's food system is in a bad state. In 2015, scientists from Johns Hopkins University concluded our food system is "largely unhealthy, inequitable, environmentally damaging" and, of course, "unsustainable."[9]


Neurotoxins and Cancer

The pesticide part of that danger has a long history. 


In the late 1970s, EPA-funded studies at Colorado State University, which showed the human brain damaging effects of farm neurotoxins like parathion. Even one exposure to these organophosphates suffices to have deleterious effects on the person's learning skills, memory and intelligence.  Some forty-five years later, farmers in America continue to suffer from the brain damaging effects of their toxic sprays. The price they now pay is high rates of depression and suicide.[14]


Also in the late 1970s, EPA studies demonstrated the toxic effects of very small amounts of insecticides  -- parts per billion -- on the endocrine system of mammals. Almost half a century later, it's becoming clear "endocrine-disruptive chemicals contribute substantially to disease and disability."[10]


In the early 1990s, the EPA had evidence Iowa farmers were dying from cancer at twice the rate of people living in the cities. We don't have that kind of knowledge for farmers and city folk today. But the President's Cancer Panel informs us that about 41 percent of Americans will get cancer at some time in their lives and about 21 percent will die from cancer.[11]


Young mothers are especially vulnerable to this toxic barrage, which harms them and their fetus and newborn. EPA has known since the 1970s that neurotoxic and carcinogenic pesticides are found in mothers' milk. DDE, the carcinogenic metabolite of DDT, the neurotoxic and long-lasting golden bullet of the farmers for decades, laced mothers' milk. EPA banned DDT in 1972. Now several other hazardous pesticides are in mothers' milk.


In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued this warning: "Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates associations between early life exposure to pesticides and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems."[12]


The continuing presence of biocides in mothers' milk speaks volume for the failure of America's regulatory system. It highlights the moral bankruptcy of America to protect its most precious asset: the health of the developing infants, the next generation of Americans.


On October 26, 2012, Theo Colborn, a scientist and expert on the endocrine system, wrote to president Barack Obama, urging him to gather the nation's best minds to bring to an end the dangers to children. She spoke about the "numerous disorders afflicting children." "Today," she said, "one out of three babies will develop diabetes and if you are African American or among the other minorities that will be every other baby." She then reminded the president of how pervasive the terror of maladies is to children: For example, one in 88 babies born today is likely to get autism.[13]


Clearly this voice of reason and passion did not touch Obama. Like his predecessors, he remains indifferent to both ecocides and spreading and increasing human disease and death from industrial malpractices and pollution.

We need to end this self-inflicted tragedy immediately.


Any Solutions?

Cleaning up the country's environmental mess demands a rethinking of our purpose as a civilized society. Is it enough to indulge in temporary reforms, banning this terrible chemical but replacing it with another equally deleterious substance? Can we go on polluting the natural world, warming the Earth, even killing the endangered species protected by law?


My answer is No to both questions. Business as usual is unacceptable.


We need, first of all, to make the EPA a real EPA. On the possible model of the Supreme Court or the Federal Reserve, the new EPA must be an independent agency outside the influence of the White House, Congress and the industry. The president would nominate an administrator for a ten-year service. The administrator, not the president, would appoint his / her deputies. Laws should prohibit the White House, Congress, and industry lobbyists from influencing the EPA.


Laws should also prohibit the industry from testing its own products.


An independent national laboratory should test pesticides, other chemicals and drugs. Such a laboratory would be an integral part of rebuilding America's infrastructure for public and environmental health.  


Another fundamental step the country must take is to return to its family farm system of agriculture. Federal subsidies ought to go strictly to those farmers owning farms around 160 acres in size. The land grant universities must also be made to return to their original mission of assisting the family farmers raise healthy and abundant food without damaging the natural world. Should they resist serving family farms, the land grant universities should be shut down. This family farming will integrate traditional knowledge with ecological science for both a democratic farming and a healthy food and a healthy wildlife and nature.


Such a transition to a healthy, small-scale agriculture would bring the phase out of poisonous pesticides and the unnecessary genetic engineering of crops. The other great benefit of family farming would be in the diminution and eventual rapid decline of the Earth-warming gases of industrialized agriculture. In addition, democratic family farming will revive rural America with millions of small farmers raising food as a way of life.


These three conditions, redesigning the EPA to its original purpose of protections human health and the natural world from harm, the founding of an independent national testing laboratory, and bringing family farming back to life, can trigger even greater transformation for a livable and healthy United States and a livable and a healthy planet.


Evaggelos Vallianatos is the author, with McKay Jenkins, of "Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA" (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).    




[1] David L. Coppage and Clayton Bushong, "On the Value of Wild Biotic Resources of the United States Affected by Pesticides" (Office of Pesticide Programs, US EPA, [early 1980s].

[2] Pierre Mineau and Cynthia Palmer, "The Impact of the Nation's Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds," American Bird Conservancy, March 2013.

[3] Chensheng Lu et al., "Sub-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids impaired honey bee winterization before proceeding to colony collapse disorder," Bulletin of Insectology 67 (1): 125-130, 2014.

[5] Louis Guillette, professor of zoology at the University of Florida, has been studying the reproductive and endocrine impacts of pesticides and other pollutants on alligators in Lake Apopka in Florida. See "Fooling with Nature," FRONTLINE PBS, interview, November 1997: Guillette now teaches at the Medical University of South Carolina.

[6] There's a large scientific literature on the ecological and medical effects of pesticides. Rachel Carson summarized that literature from the 1940s to early 1960s in her book, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962). Maryland Pesticide Network has been summarizing the health effects literature in its journal, "Pesticides and Public Health." The Center for Biological Diversity studied the effects of pesticides on endangered species and concluded another "silent spring" was devastating to endangered species: Brian Litmans and Jeff Miller, "Silent Spring Revisited" (2004):


[7] Tyrone Hayes et al., "Pesticide Mixtures and Amphibians," Environmental Health Perspectives, 24 January 2006:

[9] Kerry L. Shannon et al., "Food System Policy, Public Health, and Human Rights in the United States," Annual Review of Public Health, 2015. 36: 151-73.

[10] Leonardo Tranande et al., "Estimating Burden and Disease Costs of Exposure to Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in the European Union," The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, March 5, 2015.

[11] Suzanne H. Reuben, "Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now" (The President's Cancer Panel, US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, April 2010.)

[12] James R. Roberts and Catherine J. Karr, "Pesticide Exposure to Children," Pediatrics, Vol. 130, No. 6, December 2012, 1757-1763.


[14] Brian Bienkowski, "High Rates of Suicide, Depression Linked to Farmers' Use of Pesticides," Scientific American, October 6, 2014.

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