Pesticides: A Form of Eco(nomic) Terrorism

September 21st, 2010

The New York Times reported a horrendous crime perpetrated upon young girls and their teachers in Afghanistan over a period of years, in the form of poisoning. Compounds commonly found in pesticides known as organophosphates (or “OP’s”) were applied to school buildings housing female students and mass illnesses occurred, while village authorities relegated the ailments to symptoms of mass hysteria. In a country where girls attending school is an affront to an influential religious faction, there was good reason to be suspicious. Still, this serious problem was dismissed for not being as visible as acid thrown on students or fires set in buildings. Fortunately, the World Health Organization recognized the possibilities and tested the children. But don’t nod your head in approval and consider this a victory over third world ignorance. The same thing is happening here at home in the US. Your home. Your child’s school. Your office. Why didn’t you know it?

My own history of disabling pesticide exposures in a school—my former workplace–is no different for having taken place in our nation instead of a war-torn country. Misinterpreting (or misrepresenting) agricultural chemicals as having equivalent value and efficacy for indoor control of pests, industry has been pouring these same chemicals into our homes, offices, schools and public areas for two generations. The amounts applied are prescribed for efficacy rather with respect for the health of human occupants, also subject to the ‘knockdown‘ effect so valued in pesticides. The cosmetic relief of pests returning to their hidden nests after spraying belies the fact that they haven’t been eradicated and survivors will merely breed a generation of chemically resistant descendants. DDT and chlordane would likely not have been banned despite their hazards had not the insects for which they were used become resistant. In that case, industrial interests worked in concert with those of citizens.

Even as we slogged through the mind-numbing—and expensive—process of eliminating a few of the obviously damaging pesticides, we left their sister chemicals alive and well in the marketplace. Today’s pyrethroids are similar in action to DDT (banned in the 60s), mainly differing in their shorter span of environmental persistence. Residues of DDT are finally diminishing nationally, but break-down products (DDE) are found in small amounts everywhere you test. Lindane and other organochlorines remain on the market, despite the ban placed upon chlordane in the eighties. Most intriguing is the fact that chlordane was banned for agricultural uses first while withdrawal from residential uses followed about five years later. It has yet to break down after all these years and millions of people remain exposed to its deleterious effects upon our central nervous and immune systems. Building upon old agricultural sites where this was employed may lead to intrusions of chlordane into the home much as radon enters via foundations. Unfortunately, ventilation won’t erase it’s effects. Dursban and Diazanon were banned in 2002 for most uses and there is an upcoming ban on aldicarb pesticide after thirty years of expressed ‘concerns’ about it. A large number of other pesticides in that same class of organophosphate chemicals are still available for use. . . and harm.

Huge industries such as the manufacturers of pesticides and chemicals, such as pyrethroids and formaldehyde, have arranged to make the distribution of their products so wide that exposure is unavoidable to the general population. Those who are not primary consumers purchasing them for personal use, are second and third hand consumers by inhalation, skin absorption or ingestion through hand/food contamination. Walls, floors and ceilings offer an imaginary privacy but are no barrier to the migration of gaseous emissions from chemicals ‘next door’.

We live in a ‘show-me’ world, which works well for businesses who can slap cosmetic facades upon cheap goods and ‘sell the sizzle’. The comic phrase, “It is better to look good than to feel good-”, is taken quite literally among our often shallow culture. Unfortunately, the same theme sells in the world of medicine. We spend ages seeing ailments, which defy explanation, until we take the plunge and look at the invisible forces around us. First came Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope and others like Lister, who endured ridicule and censure to save millions from death by germs lurking in unhygienic medical practices. It prevented minor wounds from developing fatal infections, improved surgical outcomes and reduced childbed fever, which had turned pregnancy into a life-threatening condition.

How long will we wait before existing, and safe technology, overcomes that Madison Avenue fable of ‘better living through chemistry’? Probably not until the sick have easier and independent access to tests which reveal their sources of injury and inflammation so we can begin to improve the health of future generations. For now, as long as we continue to ignore that which is not visible, we will be held hostage to the chemical companies and the ignorance of consumers who support them through the purchase of their outmoded, though still profitable, products.

Today, gas chromatography reveals the presence of many invisible, yet toxic, chemicals present in air, absorbed by objects and invading our bodily fluids and tissues. Unfortunately, such testing is costly – another depends upon sharp doctors taking environmental histories from patients with unusual or multi-systemic ailments. We’ve finally realized the toxic effects of inhaling tobacco smoke in our proximity and proven the long-term contamination caused by smoke in indoor areas (called third-hand smoking). Yet the effects of absorbing other forms of poisons which are less visible, but intentionally applied in order to poison nerve cells and interrupt other bodily functions, go undiagnosed.

Hysteria, depression, anxiety and somatoform disorder is a frequent assumption or default diagnosis when women and children are ill without obvious cause. Certainly such things as poisoning are not possible in the world of psychologists like Simon Wessely and Herman Staudenmayer. These individuals have raised the age-old practice of pinning psychiatric diagnoses on patients to an art form. Instead of ruling out organic problems, patients are asked to prove to clinicians that their illnesses may have an organic basis. Otherwise, the default condition of psycho-pathologically disordered patients goes into effect. It is almost amusing to see the lengths they go in order to make the search for knowledge and peer support. When any novel or puzzling constellation of illness is publicized, as with Gulf War Syndrome, support groups for those patients are labeled (or ‘libeled”) a means of spreading hysteria instead of knowledge via shared experience with the problem. We will next be informed that groups like the Compassionate Friends, lead bereaved parents further into depressive states. We are told social isolation is unhealthy, but now gatherings for mutual support and study are suddenly ill advised. No matter what affective presentation a patient offers, someone will determine it to be pathological. How is one supposed to respond to tragic events? Perhaps the pathology is more likely to be found among those who fear facing such facts among friends and loved one. It certainly appears to be an opportunity for profit in some quarters.

Psychiatrist Dr. Frances Allen, headed up the last group effort to update the DSM ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). He has widely criticized an insistence upon pathologizing normal human experience with diagnoses of mental illness. There are no objective medical criteria. The new committee to create a fifth edition of the manual is proposing to reduce the length of time a patient experiencing sadness and related symptoms from six months in order to qualify for a diagnosis of depression to a mere two weeks. Frankly, such a brief period of intense mourning for a loved one would indicate an absence of any depth of feeling—an affective disorder—essential to strong relationships, unless one qualifies for an affective or personality disorder. This means profound grief comes at the end of them, a heavy but worthwhile price to pay for years of sustained joy in human interactions. Why are we so afraid of facing the physiological damage inflicted by a chemically complex modern world? Why are we afraid to become responsible consumers and learn about the products chosen for us, if not by us? Dr. Peter Breggin heads an advocacy group for the use of safer psychoactive medications than the current ones and only then, for a far more limited group of patients. A return to the provision of short-term, supportive counseling should be adequate in many situations.  True pathology is simply not as prevalent as claimed and lacks any supporting medical evidence.

There is a firm movement to stigmatize and dismiss patients seeking relief from acute and chronic conditions that are hard to diagnose. Our economy relies upon an ‘honor system’ for the sale of food, clothing and dwellings essential to life, along with the non-essential toys we choose to enhance our life-styles. Vendors are not required—and may not even know—what goes into their merchandise. From Chinese drywall to melamine laced baby foods to diacetyl in our flavored popcorn, many illnesses are generated through bad decisions in manufacturing processes. Lack of labeling keeps physicians and patients from being able to associate various products with human illness until huge numbers of severe outcomes results in an investigation. Industries willing to reap economic gains via unethical means, rather than modernizing their products and services. This is likely because profit margins may be reduced. Perhaps a few more home-owners will choose to conduct their own pest control activities. Nonetheless, poisons placed unnecessarily in our living and working spaces are a human rights violation. Instead of religious fanaticism, we see a financial fanaticism in which any form of profit is wildly applauded in the mistaken belief it may lead to more jobs being provided.

We don’t owe any industry unearned profits. If the technology of the past is no longer desirable, we have the right to choose vendors supplying more appropriate options. You wouldn’t go to a Ford dealer and ask to buy an Edsel, would you? Or a car without seat belts? The majority of pest control problems, including bed bugs, can be handled with less toxic methods than currently used. It may not be as fast or as easy as we’d like to believe it should be, but life is never that simple. Less toxic choices are actually recommended by the EPA. They note that residences have been rendered uninhabitable after treatments with pesticides intended for outdoor use. Pest control services are more important than ever before, but companies must diversify in their methodologies to truly serve their purpose of improving our lives.

We need to stop pretending that pesticides are regulated in any fashion which is meaningful to the average citizen. Lisa Jackson, the newly appointed administrator of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), is highly concerned about toxics in the environment but is handicapped by precedents, and the enormous conflict of interests reflected in the oversight of major industries involved in agribusiness. As with any elected or appointed official, Ms. Jackson’s interests cannot turn into effectiveness without public support and participation. A declaration of full disclosure for use of pesticides is at minimum required to fulfill the requirements of FIFRA and to monitor the costs in human health for the marketing of products which have yet to be fully evaluated. Provisions for the bio-monitoring of pesticides in the population needs to be as widespread as the products if we are going to market them as an experiment prior to safety testing.

The harm these chemicals do is measurable whether or not exposed individuals are openly symptomatic. This is rarely understood because people are both fearful and under-informed of the meaning of the word, “poison” . Poisoning isn’t an event restricted to spies carrying cyanide pills or a Lucretia Borgia-type character emptying the deep well of her ring into a victim’s drink. Poisoning doesn’t usually result in the immediate paralytic and knock-down effect we expect insects to experience. It consists of any degree of interference with bodily functions, as with the suppression of enzymes or alteration of hormone levels which act as catalysts for other physiological events. Insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes are now well documented as consequences of exposures to persistent organic pollutants and herbicides such as Agent Orange. Blood sugar regulation is key in many disease processes and has recently been linked to Alzheimer’s as well. Failure by industry to diversify towards safer methods of pest control and landscaping for non-agricultural purposes in a timely manner, unrelated to regulation or litigation, is a form of Eco-Terrorism. This term no should no longer refer to vandalism of construction sites by a few over-zealous, eco-logically minded activists, but to the huge violence done to humans (Terrorism) in the name of Eco-nomics.

Related posts: Testimony Before the NH Legislature on Pesticides and Schools, A Nation of Patients, Getting the Bugs Out

Categories: Articles, NY Times

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  1. Chris Browne

    Minor point, but the microscope was invented by dutch spectacle makers Zacharias Jansen and his father Hans (http://www.history-of-the-microscope.org/history-of-the-microscope-who-invented-the-microscope.php). Anton van Leeuwenhoek (also Dutch) made very significant contributions to the development of the microscope, but did not invent it :-). http://www.history-of-the-microscope.org/anton-van-leeuwenhoek-microscope-history.php

  2. agasaya

    Thank you for the correction! Hope all readers check out the interesting link :-)

    Barbara Rubin

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