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Why This Project?

By: Science Team Members Bruce Lanphear, Phil Landrigan, and Paul Winchester

While there are many pressing problems facing our nation, the health and well-being of our kids should always be a priority.

We applaud the Children’s Environmental Health Network for starting this project to study the reproductive and children’s health impacts of rising herbicide use in the Midwest.

There is no shortage of pressing public health issues facing Americans. Indeed, the short-list is long and worrisome. Some are more serious in rural America, like opioid abuse, and others are rooted in our food and farming systems — obesity and diabetes, antibiotic resistant bacteria, reproductive problems, impaired neurological development and lower IQ, mental health problems (autism, ADHD, Parkinson’s disease), and cancer.

This project is vital to prevent a potential increase in the frequency and severity of herbicide-driven, adverse birth outcomes among women and families living in the nation’s agricultural Heartland over the next generation.

We hope this project sharpens and directs the attention of the scientific and pediatric communities, as well as regulators and policy makers, on the need to take actions now to prevent the emergence of another serious, but avoidable, public health threat.

Here’s why systematic attention and effort is so critically needed.

Herbicide use on corn and soybean crops will rise markedly over the next 5-10 years, as farmers struggle to deal with the spread of weeds resistant to glyphosate herbicide (Roundup).

Corn, shown on the left, and soybeans (right) make up more than 50% of the land area in the Midwest and thousands of families live in these heavily sprayed areas.

In many Midwestern counties, corn and soybean fields account for over 50% of the land area, and millions of homes are surrounded by thousands of acres of heavily sprayed farmland.

Weeds resistant to glyphosate now infest around 130 million acres nationwide. At least two out of every three acres planted to corn and soybeans in the Midwest in 2017 will be infested with one or more glyphosate-resistant weeds, forcing farmers to spray additional herbicides, more often, and at higher rates.

Genetically engineered varieties of corn and soybeans that are resistant to multiple herbicides have recently been approved by the EPA, and new herbicide-resistant traits are being rapidly incorporated in the nation’s seed supply. The key, new traits in second-generation, herbicide-resistant crops allow corn and soybean plants to survive otherwise lethal applications of 2,4-D and dicamba herbicides.

Over 40 million acres of corn and soybeans will be planted to 2,4-D or dicamba-resistant seeds in 2017.

The seed-biotechnology industry has reported to government agencies they intend to produce and sell seed sufficient to plant over 120 million acres with next-generation corn and soybean varieties by 2020. At least two-thirds of the cropland in many counties in the Midwest will be planted with these seeds and sprayed one to three times with glyphosate and one to four times with either 2,4-D or dicamba.

Both 2,4-D and dicamba are relatively high-risk herbicides known to be a risk factor for reproductive problems, birth and developmental effects, and a long list of diseases.

The failure of the EPA to update outdated toxicology studies that are the basis for current pesticide safety regulations is one institutional failure we highlight on this site.

Most of the science base supporting EPA’s establishment of “acceptable” levels of daily exposure to glyphosate, 2,4-D, and dicamba arose from toxicology studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. The agency lacks the tools, mandate, and increasingly, the resources needed to sharpen the accuracy of pesticide risks assessments that are, in some key respects, a half-century old, despite the remarkable progress made in the underlying sciences.

We are convinced there is more than ample science to raise serious concerns over rising herbicide use and exposure, yet not nearly enough is being done to either dismiss such concerns or study them in a meaningful way. Hence, the need for this project.

Action now will almost surely pay big dividends later. We hope our work will help identify pragmatic and cost-effective steps that will collectively prevent a possibly sharp increase in adverse birth outcomes. The motivation needed to put such steps in place will pose another, possibly even more daunting set of challenges as the scope of the problem becomes clearer.

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