Thursday, August 14, 2008

Silencing Spring: WWRD

First Pulished September 2008 in the Montague Reporter

In her 1962 publication, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote about a spring in the near future potentially silenced by “indiscriminate use of pesticides,” with names like DDT, lindane, aldrin and mirex. What she didn’t write about back then, are the now infamous perfluorinated chemicals used in nonstick and waterproof surfaces, the polybrominated flame retardants that are infused into textiles and plastics, or the triclosan and triclocarban antibacterials in soaps, toothpastes and a range of consumer goods. Back then, no one knew that these chemicals used primarily in consumer products, would eventually find their way into not only you, but also your neighbor, and your neighbor’s neighbor, and, depending on the chemical possibly their uncle in Alaska and definitely the polar bear that just roamed through your neighbor’s neighbor’s uncle’s town.

Instead, Carson chronicled what in retrospect seems obvious now, but clearly wasn't back then. That spraying long-lasting (and by long - I mean decades) chlorinated chemicals like DDT, which accumulate in the fat and are designed to be toxic, on farms, suburbs, even cities just wasn’t smart. But if her expose seems obvious now, then why almost fifty years later are scientists finding, in addition to the remnants of chlorinated pesticides banned years ago, industrial fluorinated and brominated chemicals in water, sediments, wildlife and in humans? And why is one of the “next generation,” shorter lived, barely-bioaccumulative pesticides, atrazine, turning up in surface and groundwater supplies across the nation?

There is no doubt that the publication of Silent Spring wakened the American public to the very real consequences of “better living through chemistry.”

“I was in 8th or 9th grade,” recalls my neighbor Jeff, “and learned about it from the mainstream media. It had a pretty big impact – it started to frame the way you looked at things. I remember kayaking down the Connecticut. It was disgusting. But,” he conceded, “none of us were really sure what to do about these things.”

Barely a year old at the time of publication, and not cognizant of books except maybe as suitable teething material, I don’t recall its publication or the impact it had on my suburban life, although I do recall tanker trucks trundling along our road, spraying for mosquitoes and gypsy moths; the shelf in the garage full of bottles and spray cans that my father used to combat whatever ailed his beloved trees and shrubs; and, befitting my current occupation, I recall mixing up my own toxic potions – from cleaning materials stashed under the sink or in the laundry room, and testing them out on the earwigs and carpenter ants that raced along our swing set. Unlike Jeff, I was clueless.

Thankfully, there were plenty of folks who were neither clueless, nor baffled about what could be done to avert the impending environmental disaster described so elegantly by Ms. Carson. Eight years after Silent Spring, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the primary body responsible for registration, release and management of chemicals was born.

Of the December 2, 1970 launch of the agency Jack Lewis, writing for EPA Journal noted, “…Surely no factor was more pivotal in the birth of EPA than decades of rampant and highly visible pollution. But pollution alone does not an agency make. Ideas are needed--better yet a whole world view--and many environmental ideas first crystallized in 1962. That year saw the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring….In fact, EPA today may be said without exaggeration to be the extended shadow of Rachel Carson. The influence of her book has brought together over 14,000 scientists, lawyers, managers, and other employees across the country to fight the good fight for "environmental protection."”

That’s an impressive legacy. But sometimes, I wonder what Ms. Carson would think of her legacy today?

Reading Silent Spring for the first time (I am ashamed to admit), it’s unsettling that nearly fifty years later, albeit on a different scale, Carson’s writing is still relevant. I don’t mean the the details – I think for anyone who didn’t live through those times – or who doesn’t live near farms where aerial spaying is still used – the events Carson described are hard to imagine. It’s been over thirty years since DDT fell from the sky like snow, and “housewives” swept pellets from their front steps or washed the stuff out of their kids’ hair, and the death of so many songbirds suggested a bleak future.

No doubt, we are all better off thanks to the EPA’s slew of chemical regulations and policies, but on a different scale, pesticides and industrial chemicals continue to contaminate water, consumer products, wildlife and us. And scientists, rather than focusing on lethality and reproductive success are now measuring more subtle changes in wildlife like altered reproductive function and development. The perfluorinated and polybrominated chemicals provide examples of history repeating itself – even with regulations in place. Sometimes chemicals slip by because scientists haven’t figured out how to measure them in the environment. Sometimes they slip by because no one expected them to be there, and sometimes they slip by because the industry that produced and released them didn’t provide all the relevant data. But thanks to greater collective environmental awareness ( by consumers, activists, scientists, policy makers and even industry), unlike DDT, it won’t take over a decade to phase-out fluorinated and brominated chemicals – phase-outs for these chemicals are already in progress.

But then there’s Atrazine. The top selling herbicide in the United States, banned by the European Union in 2003, atrazine is an example of a “new and improved” pesticide gone awry. Applied primarily to corn, with minor uses including lawns and golf courses, the EPA estimates that roughly 73 million of pounds of atrazine are applied to crops each year. Compared with the longevity of the chlorinated pesticides like DDT atrazine lasts for merely a blink in time with a half-life 146 days or so (although in these more enlightened days even that’s considered long-lived.) Unfortunately once Atrazine works its way into ground water it may last for years. The result? In the midwest, Atrazine is one of the most commonly detected contaminants in surface and groundwater, additionally it’s been detected although to a lesser extent in groundwater in the Northeast, including Massachusetts. Though detected concentrations often fall well below EPA’s 3 part-per-billion drinking water standards, there are a growing number of studies suggesting that other species, particularly amphibians may be susceptible to much lower concentrations.

University of California, Berkely researcher Tyrone Hayes reported back in 2003 that exquisitely low concentrations of atrazine, as low as 0.1 ppb, altered the steroid hormone balance in frogs, feminizing male frogs and resulting in hermaphrodism and demasculization of the vocal cords. And just recently, Krista McCoy and others, publishing in Environmental Health Perspectives, reported a link between hectares of farmland and feminization in local frogs. Although the authors didn’t measure specific pesticides, among the suspects is atrazine. All this got me wondering – where’s our EPA? Atrazine was recently up for reregistration, an opportunity for EPA to review data accrued over the years since a pesticide is first registered. For atrazine that was 1958. This was well before scientists were clued in to subtle reproductive and developmental impacts caused by small concentrations of chemicals. Nor was consideration given back then, and only rarely now, to the reality that seldom are individuals or wildlife exposed to single chemicals. We are all exposed to complex mixtures of contaminants released by industry, agriculture and from consumer products like soaps, sunscreens and pharmaceuticals.

Surely, I thought, given the pervasive groundwater contamination and the recent data on frogs, atrazine’s registration if not revoked would at least be restricted. At the very least maybe the allowable environmental concentrations (the “chronic criterion”) would be reduced below those found to impact amphibians? Unable to find the appropriate numbers on EPA’s website, I emailed EPA. “We anticipate this chronic criterion, when finalized later next year, will fall within the range of 10 to 20 ug/l [ppb]” wrote Frank Gostomski of EPA’s Health and Ecological Criteria Division. I asked if Hayes’ studies had been included. Yes, was the answer. But if Hayes’ studies hold up to scientific scrutiny –and there seems to be a growing body of literature that suggests that they do - then EPA’s concentrations are way higher than those found to feminize male frogs.

Though hard to imagine in our own backyard where spring peepers and cluckers keep us awake, is it possible that some day thanks once again to “indiscriminate use of pesticides” spring could still be silenced?