Monday, July 29, 2013

It’s Complicated

In my last post I wrote about pesticides and I noted that certain types are considered especially dangerous, but that all types should be viewed with great caution. A few days ago, a small wave of articles about bee death reinforced that point. 

The bee population has been declining rapidly over the past years. An article in Science World Report notes that beekeepers lost 31 percent of their colonies in late 2012 and early 2013. Scientists have been working hard to understand what's causing the decline because bees are an integral part of the food production cycle and if they're not available in large enough numbers to pollinate crops, results could be disastrous. Currently, it takes 60% of the country's bee population to pollinate California's almond crop alone.

In the most recent studyresearchers fed pollen from seven types of crops to healthy bees, which caused them to experience a significant decline in their ability to fight off a particular parasite. The pollen was found to be highly contaminated with agricultural products, with 35 different pesticides detected. On average, the samples were found to contain nine different pesticides and fungicides each, with one sample containing 21.Scientists were able to identify eight chemicals that were associated with increased risk of parasite infection in the bees.

The research makes several significant points:

  • Fungicides, which are designed to kill fungus rather than insects, were thought to be harmless to bees. The study found, however, that bees fed pollen contaminated with fungicides were three times more likely to be infected by the parasite.

  • Weeds and wildflowers, from which some bees collect pollen, were found to be contaminated with pesticides despite the fact that they were not directly sprayed.

  • A class of pesticides called neonicotinoids has been linked to bee deaths, but the new research shows that banning those chemicals is unlikely to solve the problem without additional steps. In an article entitled Scientists Discover What's Killing the Bees and It's Worse Than You Thoughta researcher is quoted as saying that  “The pesticide issue in itself is much more complex than we have led to believe. It’s a lot more complicated than just one product, which means of course the solution does not lie in just banning one class of product.”

Hopefully, the study's results will lead to some significant changes in the types and amounts of pesticides currently used. As I've said many times, however, none of us must wait for government action before making changes in our own use of pesticide products. Seemingly small decisions really can make a difference to the health of those who apply the chemicals and all who come in contact with them, whether they be of the honeybee or human variety.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Protecting the Children

I'm returning to the blog world after a hiatus caused by a computer crash. I would love to celebrate my return with an upbeat, positive post, but I can't quite make myself write it. As much as I would prefer to put it far from my mind, I just can't ignore the story of what happened to 23 children in India last week. They went to school, ate lunch, and died. Their lives mattered and we owe it to them to learn what we can from their tragedy.

Although some initial reports on the story speculated that the children died from bacterial food poisoning, it didn't take long for officials to blame pesticide contamination for the deaths. Authorities have now confirmed that cooking oil used to prepare the lunch was contaminated with an agricultural pesticide. At this writing, it’s still unknown how the pesticide contaminated the oil, but one theory is that the container which held the oil may have been previously used for storing the dangerous chemical.

There are thousands of potentially harmful chemicals produced, but few are as potentially dangerous as pesticides, which are specifically designed to kill. As I noted in a previous blog postthe chemical used in the gas chambers of Auschwitz was a pesticide. Organophosphates (the type implicated in the India poisonings) are especially dangerous, but all commercial pesticides are capable of causing great harm.

Unfortunately, the incident in India is not unique. In 1999, children in Peru died in very similar circumstances. Schoolchildren between the ages of 3 and 14 ate a school-provided breakfast which was later determined to be contaminated with an organophosphate insecticide. Of the village's 48 children, 24 lost their lives to the chemical that day.

Pesticide-related deaths are not just a third-world problem, and the types of pesticides causing fatalities are not always what people might imagine. A report by The Center for Public Integrity notes that products (pesticides) used to treat head lice have been linked to "conditions ranging from headaches to death."  In an article entitled "The Hazards of Treating Head Lice"a mother shares the heartbreaking story of losing her son to leukemia and the association she believes exists between head lice treatment and his condition.

No, these are not pleasant stories. They are hard to think about and hard for me to write about. But surely these stories teach us something. They teach us that the issue of chemical toxicity is not just an academic one, but one with real-life consequences that can be larger than we might imagine. Most of us don't handle agricultural chemicals regularly, but it's common to use other types of pesticides without much thought. Do you immediately grab a can of bug spray when you see a bug in the house?  Do you use "weed and feed" type products on your lawn to discourage dandelions?  If so, I urge you to rethink those practices, if not for yourself, then for the children who might come in contact with the chemicals. A fact sheet on Weed and Feed notes that children are especially at risk from lawn chemical dangers because they play on lawns, put their hands into their mouths, and take in more chemicals in proportion to their body weight than adults do.

We can't change the tragic events that killed the children in India, Peru, and elsewhere, but we can do our part to make the world safer from chemical toxins. Let's not just read the headlines and move on. Let's pause, pray, and put into practice what we know.