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Sprinkling a sex-changing chemical on our food?

As students at Paul Smith’s College in the environmental science program, we are inundated with environmental problems and case studies day after day. Rarely ever is one of them a success story in which the environmental aspects triumph and all is right in the end. This day-to-day battery of what’s wrong with the world which surrounds and, more importantly, sustains us has a way of desensitizing a person to such issues. So if an environmental science student is particularly irked by an environmental problem, it is probably a very valid concern.

One of the very few environmental issues that really pushes my buttons is the use of atrazine. This is another case of the usual political, “We know it’s bad, but the United States of America needs it!” Well, America can find a replacement because, simply put, the use of atrazine is dangerous, unacceptable and downright stupid.

First off, I should explain what atrazine is, of course. Atrazine is a pesticide used to kill both broadleaf and grassy weeds. It is the most widely used pesticide in the U.S. It is most frequently used on corn, one of our most widely grown crops, as well as sugarcane, winter wheat and many others. It is used most in the Midwest, but its use extends throughout the country. And although it is not considered a persistent organic pollutant, it does persist a fairly long time in the environment.

But its use comes with great cost. Atrazine is a known endocrine disrupter and is known to cause low birth weight in infants. This results in higher infant illness and thus higher infant mortality, i.e., death of human babies. Atrazine is also known to cause cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Scientists found that in rats, this endocrine disrupter actually caused delayed puberty. Granted, rats have smaller bodies, and the chemical would be more concentrated in theirs, but since atrazine does persist in the environment, its concentration around (and in) us continues to grow.

Perhaps the scariest research to date involving atrazine is that of the sex change it causes in frogs. Researchers have discovered that when male frogs are exposed to atrazine, they undergo a sort of “chemical castration” as the compound disrupts key sex-related endocrines. These chemically castrated male frogs have actually been shown to become breeding capable females.

So here we have a chemical compound that is capable of turning male creatures into females. Truly, this is an amazing scientific feat, no doubt. The kind of stuff that would be dreamt up and developed in a biological warfare lab, and we spread it all over our food. And if it’s not enough that this poison is spread all over the food we eat, atrazine is the most commonly detected pesticide in American groundwater — i.e. your drinking water.

Despite all that we know it does to people and could potentially do to people, this chemical warfare agent is in everything. With all that we know, and with the knowledge that Europe has gone as far as to ban its use entirely, why are we still using atrazine?

Brenden Blair is a student at Paul Smith’s College.

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