Sylvia Knight: Toxic fields — time for action on PFAS and pesticides

Farm fields in spring in Addison County. Photo by Crea Lintilhac.

This commentary is by Sylvia Knight of Burlington, an Earth community advocate.

So what was the strange, deadened look on the wide-open farm fields of Addison County in May at a time when new spring growth was awakening and reviving our spirits? Ever so slowly, small shoots of corn are somehow making their way through yearly-compacted, chemically-drenched soils, while we are all looking for ways to put Covid-19 behind us and to seek some kind of “normalcy.”

But I believe that “normal” is not what we need. This is time to look deeply at the paradigms, the ways of thinking that bring us to this point. 

Commodification of land, water and life has brought pollution, illness and economic inequity. 

Seventeenth-century Europeans came to this continent viewing land, water, plants and wildlife as commodities for the benefit of Europeans, to the extreme detriment of First Peoples. The legacy is industrial agriculture in our day, which treats the land as a commodity, something to buy and sell, a lifeless thing upon which one pours substances, some toxic, to force seeds — commodities also — to grow into a crop as part of a competitive marketing process without regard for consequences to the larger community of life. 

Regenerative agriculture is an alternative, in which humans cooperate with the land as a living entity, respecting its biological processes and limits, a proper scale of animals and people to land, and build a just, compassionate, cooperative economy to provide healthy food for all. 

While the practice of planting cover crops to prevent erosion of topsoil and add organic matter and nutrients to the soil is helpful, its benefits may be canceled out by applying glyphosate-based herbicides to kill the cover crop. GBHs damage soil biota, add excess phosphorus, pollute surface waters and contribute to cyanobacteria blooms. GBHs in food or water residues are toxic to our stomach biota and undermine our immune system. 

Other herbicides, such as acetochlor, atrazine or metolachlor, may follow to control more weeds, which are becoming resistant to GBHs. Atrazine and metolachlor are found in Lake Champlain and male fish show up in Missisquoi Bay with ovaries and eggs. These herbicides are all endocrine-disrupting compounds, a danger to healthy life for all. 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS contaminate some pesticides used in mosquito control in Massachusetts and permitted in Vermont. These chemicals never fully break down in the environment, are very soluble in water and bio-accumulate in organisms, including humans. They interfere with hormonal systems (endocrine disruption) at parts per trillion, and are linked to growth, learning and behavioral problems in infants and children, fertility and pregnancy problems, including pre-eclampsia.

Other effects include increased cholesterol, immune system problems, and interference with liver, thyroid, and pancreatic function. PFAS have been linked to increases in testicular and kidney cancer in human adults.  What is even more troubling is that PFAS can interfere with the immune system and undermine effectiveness of vaccines, especially troubling as we try to end the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The dose makes the poison” is an old concept that is no longer valid for our day. See the discussion of endocrine disruption below. 

In the late 1980s, biologists and medical professionals learned about endocrine disruption as they witnessed developmental abnormalities in wildlife and in humans — such as female features in male fish, and extra legs on frogs — without seeing exposures to large amounts of chemicals. They found indications in wildlife and humans that chemicals at extremely low doses could interfere with hormonal processes to effect adverse, abnormal biological development. This interference could occur at tiny amounts, parts per trillion, way below the amounts at which the chemicals may have been toxic or could be detected in laboratories. The same chemical could have a much different effect at higher doses. The term “endocrine disruption” came into use to describe this phenomenon. Newer pesticides tend to be less acutely toxic but tend to work in ways that are not yet understood and don’t behave according to traditional toxicology. 

Humans developed to react to emergencies like fires or floods rather than to invisible ongoing threats. 

We don’t deal effectively with factors causing chronic adverse outcomes such as diabetes, cancers, birth defects and learning disabilities. We must adjust the water quality standards of herbicides used by the ton and capable of causing endocrine disruption. Monitoring and enforcement must accompany regulatory measures. Do our health agencies understand the challenges presented by endocrine-disrupting compounds? Can we adjust and be responsive to new realities? 

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility identified PFAS compounds at significant levels in insecticides for mosquito control used in Massachusetts and permitted in Vermont. Clarke Company claims the source of PFAS to be the lining of the large plastic barrels in which the pesticides are stored and transported. However, other pesticides contaminated with PFAS are stored in metal drums. So where did the PFAS come from? Scientists in Europe have reviewed the range of PFAS chemicals, their many forms and uses, and indicate that PFAS are used in pesticide products and in pesticide adjuvants as well as in many other household products such as clothing, cookware and cosmetics.

PFAS have shown up in drinking water and surface water around the state of Vermont: Bennington groundwater, 2016; Winooski River, March 2020; Lake Memphramagog, June 2021. In Montpelier and Newport, PFAS were found leaving the wastewater treatment facilities in 20209 Some PFAS detections were above Vermont standards.

“Dilution is not the solution to pollution.” Given PFAS “forever compounds” and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our midst, concepts of dilution and assimilative capacity must be re-examined in water quality regulations. Water is the source of life, but it must be clean and free of toxins. Fresh water is limited, part of Earth’s hydrological cycle, to be protected and shared by all and future generations. 

Protecting “confidential business information” regarding unidentified toxic ingredients in pesticides is dangerous to us all. It allows chemical companies to put dangerous chemicals in their pesticide products but prevents us and our agencies from identifying toxins in our midst, banning them, or finding ways to protect ourselves from them. 

EPA has not set health standards for PFAS in water, nor prevented PFAS use in consumer products; nor required disclosure of their presence in products. We cannot wait for them to act on this present danger, as they are too close to the chemical industry. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets must take actions to protect our health and environment, now and for the future.

Thanks to the Conservation Law Foundation for working with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on this serious issue and urging both the Agency of Natural Resources and the agriculture agency to use their authority and take bold action to guard the health of Vermonters and the land and waters upon which we depend for life. 

We urge you to require disclosure of PFAS and other possible toxins used as unidentified ingredients in pesticides, and to challenge the policy of “confidential business information,” which benefits corporations at our peril. If we are the conscious, creative, and compassionate beings we are intended to be, we must deal decisively, now, to limit and stop the hidden toxins that threaten life now and into the seventh generation. 


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