Pesticides Increasingly Threaten Human Health

Story at-a-glance

  • Spiking rates of birth defects in Kauai, Hawaii are suspected to be due to dramatically elevated pesticide usage on genetically engineered (GE) corn
  • Dow, BASF, Syngenta, and DuPont spray 17 times more pesticide per acre in Kauai than on ordinary cornfields on the US mainland
  • A new European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) study has concluded neonicotinoid pesticides may actually pose a greater risk to bees than previously thought, and is calling for extending the EU’s ban


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Pesticides... The chemical technology industry insists we can't grow sufficient amounts of food without them, yet mounting research1,2,3 suggests they may carry a great deal of blame for the rise in human disease.

A recent article in The Guardian4 highlights a disturbing trend of spiking rates of birth defects in Kauai, Hawaii, which many suspect is due to an increase in pesticide use on genetically engineered (GE) corn.

Rates of learning disabilities are also higher in areas with heavy pesticide use.

The video above features a clip from a much longer GMO Free News interview with State House Representative Andria Tupola (R) and Tiana Laranio, a Kauai resident.

Birth Defects and Learning Disabilities on the Rise in Kauai

In one school, which is a mere 1700 feet from Syngenta's genetically engineered (GE) corn fields, 10 percent of children need special education, compared to the state average of just over six percent.

As reported in the featured article:

"In Kauai, chemical companies Dow, BASF, Syngenta, and DuPont spray 17 times more pesticide per acre (mostly herbicides, along with insecticides and fungicides) than on ordinary cornfields in the US mainland, according to the most detailed study5 of the sector...

Sidney Johnson, a pediatric surgeon at the Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children who oversees all children born in Hawaii with major birth defects... says he's been thinking about pesticides a lot lately.

The reason: he's noticed that the number of babies born here with their abdominal organs outside, a rare condition known as gastroschisis, has grown from three a year in the 1980s to about a dozen now...

So he's working with a medical student on a study of his hospital's records to determine whether the parents of the gastroschisis infants were living near fields that were being sprayed around the time of conception and early pregnancy."

Poisoning Paradise

The reason for this alarmingly elevated use of pesticides on the island of Kauai is because the companies are testing GE corn's ability to resist chemicals that normally kill other plants.

One quarter of the 12,000 acres is dedicated to "restricted use pesticides" — chemicals known for their elevated toxicity, such as chlorpyrifos, atrazine, and paraquat; the latter two of which are banned in Europe.

In 2012, 18 tons of these "restricted use" pesticides were applied in Kauai. Glyphosate, in the form of Roundup, is also used of course, and this broad-spectrum herbicide may also be far more toxic than anyone ever imagined.

Far from being harmless and biodegradable as Monsanto's PR department has maintained, glyphosate has now been reclassified as a "probable carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization (WHO).

In response to the IARC's determination, some British and German retailers have started removing Roundup from its lineup of weed killers sold to the general public, and France has announced plans to restrict its sale at garden centers.6

In a recent interview, researcher Anthony Samsel, PhD also revealed that internal Monsanto documents show they actually knew, over 30 years ago, that glyphosate caused adenomas and carcinomas in rats...

Recent follow-up research7,8 by Gilles-Éric Séralini also shows that long-term exposure to ultra-low amounts of Roundup may cause liver and kidney damage, tumors, and hemorrhagic bleeding.

The expression of more than 4,000 genes in the rats' liver and kidneys had changed in response to the herbicide, and since the dose used is "environmentally relevant in terms of human, domesticated animals, and wildlife levels of exposure," the authors suggest Roundup may have significant health implications.

"When the spraying is underway and the wind blows downhill from the fields to the town – a time no spraying should occur – residents complain of stinging eyes, headaches, and vomiting," The Guardian writes.

Unfortunately, the pesticide companies refuse to divulge exactly which chemicals are used, and in what amounts. This makes treating patients more difficult, as there's no information about what they might have been exposed to.

What's worse, these companies are also operating under a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that was grandfathered in from the days when the area was a sugar plantation. Back then, far fewer pesticides were used, but this decades-old permit still allows them to discharge chemicals into local water supplies.

A number of attempts have been made to restrict the growing of GE crops and curb the undisclosed use of pesticides on the island chain of Hawaii, but none have been completely successful as of yet.

In Maui County, a ballot initiative calling for a moratorium on all GE farming was successfully passed, despite Monsanto and its allies spending $7.2 million to defeat it.

But, the industry sued and a federal judge overturned the law saying the Maui County initiative was preempted by federal law. That and a few other rulings in favor of the chemical technology industry are still under appeal.

Pesticides Pose Greater Risk to Pollinators Than Previously Thought

In related news, a new European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) study has concluded that neonicotinoid pesticides may actually pose a greater risk to bees than previously thought, and is calling for extending the EU's ban on neonicotinoids.

According to The Guardian:9

"Already proscribed for seed treatments and soil applications, the Efsa analysis says that clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam also pose a 'high risk' to bees when sprayed on leaves.

The UK is currently facing a legal challenge to an emergency exemption it granted, allowing use of two of the substances... But far from supporting the British case, the advisory expert assessment will add to pressure for an extension of the ban to apply to fruit orchards after blooming, and crops grown in greenhouses..."

Syngenta, which manufactures thiamethoxam, has historically not garnered the same horrible reputation as Monsanto. But in this case, Syngenta showed it operates according to the same ruthless rulebook when it threatened to sue EFSA officials involved with the creation of the original risk assessment two years ago.10

Speaking of Syngenta, Monsanto's bid to buy the company has fallen through after Syngenta rejected the latest offer of $47 billion.11 One by one, pesticides are eventually found to be profoundly harmful — at least that appears to be the trend.

So to keep one step ahead, companies need to continue creating new ones, which is likely why Monsanto sought to acquire Syngenta in the first place, In addition to changing their brand name, which has been associated by many with evil incarnate, the purchase would have added mammoth holdings and power to Monsanto's GMO arsenal.

With Roundup's patent expiring a few years ago, I believe it's only a matter of time before regulators will have to curb (if not ban) the use of Roundup due to its toxicity, which means Monsanto undoubtedly needs to find something to replace its best-selling flagship product.

Next-Generation Weed and Pest Killers

Disturbingly, Monsanto is reportedly working on a whole new breed of pesticides — sprays that employ RNA interference technology rather than toxic chemicals to kill insects and weeds. In a nutshell, such a product kills its target by way of silencing certain genes that are crucial to the target's survival. As reported by Mother Jones:12

"RNAi, as it's known, is an emerging science; the two US researchers who discovered it brought home a Nobel Prize in 2006. Regalado describes the process like this:

'The cells of plants and animals carry their instructions in the form of DNA. To make a protein, the sequence of genetic letters in each gene gets copied into matching strands of RNA, which then float out of the nucleus to guide the protein-making machinery of the cell. RNA interference, or gene silencing, is a way to destroy specific RNA messages so that a particular protein is not made.'

If you can nix RNA messages that exist to generate crucial genes, you've got yourself an effective bug or weed killer...

The first obstacle is technological — the problem of 'how to get a large, electrically charged molecule like RNA to move through a plant's waxy cuticle and into its cells,' Regalado writes. That's crucial, because the technology works like this: A targeted bug... chomps on a leaf that's been sprayed by RNA solution and then, fatally, gets critical genes turned off. To make that happen, you have to get the RNA material into the leaf."

An obvious question here is: how may this RNA material in the plant affect animals and humans that eat it? RNAi sounds reminiscent of the experimental GE wheat created two years ago, which employed a gene silencing technique to alter the wheat's carbohydrate content.

At the time, University of Canterbury Professor Jack Heinemann released results from genetic research he conducted on the wheat, which showed the gene silencing molecules created in the wheat could potentially silence human genes as well. University Professor Judy Carman agreed with Heinemann's analysis, stating that children in whom that specific enzyme does not work tend to die by the age of five.13 So, if you ask me, the health risks may reach brand new heights if this kind of gene silencing technology takes over the pesticide industry.

Pesticide Use Near Schools Raise Concerns

Pesticides pose risks in two ways. One is via contaminated foods — and GE foods in particular, as they're more heavily treated than conventional varieties. The other is via the pesticide application itself. Gardeners, farm workers, and those living near farms are at greatest risk. Concerns over pesticide application near schools, playgrounds, and churches have also been raised.

For example, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released a report14 showing that Roundup is being sprayed in fields next to 12,000 churches, which might put thousands of Christians in harm's way.15

In Ventura County, the Board of Supervisors recently demanded to know why the California Department of Pesticide Regulation allowed strawberry farmers to use "unusually high" levels of 1,3-Dichloropropene — a known carcinogen via inhalation or ingestion — on fields surrounding the Rio Mesa high school. A Reveal News article16 discussing this case notes that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation responded to community concerns "with statements that contradict the findings of their own scientists."

According to the article:

"By carving out a loophole for Dow AgroSciences and growers, the department allowed heavy amounts of the pesticide to be used near schools, homes, and businesses in Ventura County, and across the state. In all, the investigation found, more than 100 communities were put at greater risk of cancer... The department was effectively letting growers use as much 1,3-D as they wanted, despite the possible health concerns..."

Conflicts of Interest Place Citizens at Risk

The situation in Ventura County has become typical. Again and again, we see regulators bowing to the will of the chemical industry and growers who aren't wise to less toxic alternatives. The end result is an increasingly toxic food supply, and an increasingly toxic environment. How long are we going to allow the food industry to be one of the greatest sources of pollution and toxic exposure in this world? It's really madness when you stop and think about it.

It really makes one wonder just how bad the situation needs to get before money ceases to have more value than ecological and human life... When it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticides, conflicts of interest seem to have had a particularly strong influence.

In February, the California-based activist group US Right to Know filed a request under Washington's freedom-of-information law (FOIA) to obtain correspondence between 40 researchers at US public universities and 36 different companies, trade groups, and PR firms. The purpose of the FOIA requests was to determine whether or not academics and researchers are coordinating their messaging with the industry, and/or receiving undisclosed remuneration for spreading positive messages about GMO's.

According to the journal Nature,17 obtained documentation included "roughly 4,600 pages of emails and other records from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a well-known advocate of GM organisms. The records... reveal his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto... and other biotechnology-industry interests."

The Case of Kevin Folta

Kevin Folta is one of the scientists answering questions on the industry website GMO Answers, which is managed by the biotechnology PR firm Ketchum.  Folta claimed he never accepted any honoraria for any of his pro-GMO outreach work. According to GMO Watch, a couple of months ago he even declared18 he had "nothing to do with Monsanto." Yet the FOIA documentation shows he received an "unrestricted grant" of $25,000 from Monsanto in 2014 — monies he never disclosed receiving.

According to Gary Ruskin, executive director of US Right to Know:

"I think it's important for professors who take money from industry to disclose it. And if they're not disclosing it, that's a problem. And if they say they aren't taking money, and they are, then that's a problem."

To quell growing criticism, Folta's employer now wants the grant money Folta received to be donated to a food pantry.19 A recent article by GMO Watch20 points out how Folta is now playing the victim after playing the public as fools, and is claiming to have received "implied threats." But according to GMO Watch, this may be nothing more than "a flimsy attempt to distract from the real issue – his own apparent dishonesty – while vilifying his critics..." noting a number of non-GMO advocates and anti-GMO scientists who have received very real death threats.

"[I]t has to be said that neither Folta playing the victim nor the reallocation of Monsanto's money does anything to address the driving force behind all the criticism," GMO Watch writes. "People are angry with Folta not about the Monsanto money per se, but about Folta not being straight about it or about his wider relationship with the biotech industry. And nothing Folta has done since the news came out has done anything to repair that yawning integrity gap."

Academics Increasingly Used as Public Relations Pawns

The now-routine "third-party approach" of enlisting academics and "independent" researchers like Folta to push an industry agenda is also discussed in a recent New York Times article,21 which includes a rather damning quote from Folta to an Monsanto executive. In response to the approval of the $25,000 grant in August last year, Folta wrote back saying: "I am grateful for this opportunity and promise a solid return on the investment."

That doesn't sound like a comment from an impartial party, does it? In another email22 from Folta to a Monsanto executive released by US Right to Know, Folta wrote: "I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like."

Moreover, while the initial Nature23 article made it seem as though Folta had ignored the pre-written answers provided for him by the biotech PR firm Ketchum, along with the questions they sent to be answered for the GMO Answers website, the New York Times claims Folta often did use the canned answers nearly verbatim, noting he now says doing so was "a mistake," and "absolutely not the right thing." This is yet another lie Folta's been caught in, according to the latest US Right to Know update on its investigation24 — lies that the New York Times did not address.

What's more, since the $25,000 Folta received was given as a SHARE contribution, it's not subject to IDC and not publicly noted. In other words, it's a way for donations to be made without having to disclose the contribution and the potential influence of the donor, while still being able to claim full transparency.  

"Corporations have poured money into universities to fund research for decades, but now, the debate over bioengineered foods has escalated into a billion-dollar food industry war," the New York Times writes. "Companies like Monsanto are squaring off against major organic firms like Stonyfield Farm, the yogurt company, and both sides have aggressively recruited academic researchers, emails obtained through open records laws show.

The emails provide a rare view into the strategy and tactics of a lobbying campaign that has transformed ivory tower elites into powerful players. The use by both sides of third-party scientists, and their supposedly unbiased research, helps explain why the American public is often confused as it processes the conflicting information... There is no evidence that academic work was compromised, but the emails show how academics have shifted from researchers to actors in lobbying and corporate public relations campaigns." [Emphasis mine]

Another Trend: Retracting Articles Unfavorable to Industry

The FOIA requests issued by US Right to Know also received support in an article25 published in PLOS Biology Community Blog, written by Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife. Monsanto and the biotech industry at large has developed a pattern of demanding retractions of unfavorable articles, so it was no great surprise to find that Thacker and Seife's article (which argued in favor of using FOIA requests to scrutinize scientists' behavior and potentially undisclosed industry ties) was promptly removed from the PLOS website.

According to PLOS,26,27 the article "was not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines." It's become quite clear that not only is the industry trying to monopolize science — allowing only favorable research to see the light of day — they're also trying to protect the system of conflicts of interest. The end goal is to keep consumers in the dark about what's really going on. And about what's in their food. Why else would they pour tens of millions of dollars into lobbying against transparency?

Chemical, Agricultural, and Food Industries All Spend Big Bucks Lobbying for Less Transparency

According to Civil Eats,28 food and beverage companies have spent $51.6 million on a series of efforts to defeat GMO labeling laws, including lobbing for HR 1599, which would bar states from implementing their own GMO labeling laws. As of July 21 Monsanto alone had spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress.29

The food industry has also spent $54.2 million lobbying for the removal of country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements for beef, chicken, and pork (HR 2393).30

In a similar vein, in 2013 and 2014, agribusinesses, agricultural organizations, and trade associations spent more than $11 million lobbying for an early version of S1500,31 which eliminates the need for permits to discharge pesticides into rivers, lakes, streams, and other bodies of water regulated under the Clean Water Act. Who does that benefit? Certainly not the environment or people living near bodies of water!

International trade agreements also threaten to restrict transparency about food — how it's produced, and where it comes from. In addition to hampering GMO labeling efforts in the US, provisions in both the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would also effectively force participating nations to eliminate country of origin from their food labels or run the risk of being sued for harming trade.

It seems the reason why these industries are spending so much money and going to such great lengths to eliminate transparency about toxic exposures and potentially harmful substances in our food supply is because they too can see that the jig is almost up. The situation is simply unsustainable. It's only a matter of time before the human lifespan begins to dwindle in response to excessive toxic exposures — people's health is already being compromised at an ever-earlier age.

These industries are really just grasping for straws right now, trying to hang on for as long as they can, until the whole system falls apart — as it must, eventually. But just because the opposition is great, that doesn't mean we quit fighting to turn the system around. On the contrary, now is the time to press on with greater resolve. I believe we can still avoid a lot of hardship and misery by standing up for what's right, and right now, that includes pressing our US Senators to reject HR 1599.


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