WAIMEA — More than 300 people gathered at Waimea Canyon Middle School Sunday afternoon for a presentation about the effects of Atrazine, a herbicide used in agricultural fields near Waimea — a town described by Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte as the “central battle ground” in a fight against biotech companies and genetically modified organisms.
One of the world’s most widely used and controversial herbicides, Atrazine — which is manufactured by Syngenta — has been banned in Europe since 2004 due to groundwater contamination risks. Studies have also suggested the chemical is associated with a number of health problems, including birth defects, low-birth weight and reproductive issues.
The event on Kaua‘i’s Westside featured keynote speaker Tyrone Hayes, an expert on Atrazine and a biology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Other presenters included Ritte and Dr. Lorrin Pang, Maui District Health Officer for the state Department of Health.
“When I tell you what Atrazine does to frogs, you should remember that our hormones are so similar to frog hormones that our pregnancy hormone will make this frog lay eggs,” Hayes said. “So, if I tell you what Atrazine does to reproductive capabilities in this frog, you should be thinking, ‘What about me?’”
Hayes said Atrazine, first introduced in 1958 in the U.S., is used particularly on GMO and experimental corn, and historically on sugarcane in Hawai‘i and Florida. Each year, the U.S. uses 80 million pounds of Atrazine, he said.
For the last 15 years, he has been studying the effects of Atrazine on the African clawed frog. As part of his study, Hayes proposed that Atrazine turns on Aromatase, an enzyme which turns testosterone, a male hormone, into estrogen, a female hormone.
“If you are a male exposed to Atrazine, your testosterone goes away, so you’re demasculinized, or chemically castrated,” he said. “And you’re also feminized because you’re making estrogen, which you should not be doing as a male.”
Hayes said he discovered when frogs that have been injected with minimal amounts of Atrazine grow up, up to 10 percent of the males turn completely into females. He said those effects are produced when introducing the equivalent of 1/1,000 of a grain of salt in a gallon.
Hayes said a typical farmer often applies the chemical at levels that are 290 million times higher than what he uses in the laboratory.
“Men who apply Atrazine (in the field) have 24,000 times the Atrazine in their urine than we use in our laboratory to chemically castrate frogs and fish,” he said. “Think about that. One of these guys could pee in a bucket, I could dilute their urine 24,000 times and I could use the Atrazine in their urine to chemically castrate and make hermaphrodites out of 24,000 buckets of 30 tadpoles each.”
In a 2003 study, Hayes said Shauna Swan found that men who could not get their wives pregnant and had low sperm counts had significantly higher levels of Atrazine in their urine, a correlation he said can’t be ignored.
“We know that the sperm goes away when you give a fish Atrazine, when you give a frog Atrazine, when you give a reptile Atrazine, when you give a bird Atrazine, when you give a rat Atrazine,” he said. “Testosterone goes down and the sperm goes away and now this correlation says there’s an association in humans as well.”
Hayes said his frogs trapped in a contaminated aquarium are no different than a human fetus trapped in a contaminated amniotic fluid inside the placenta.
“The placenta was not designed to keep out the 80,000 chemicals that we’ve invented, and studies now show that we are exposed to over 300 chemicals before we leave the womb,” he said.
And the Atrazine legacy apparently carries on for generations, according to Hayes.
He said studies with rats have shown that Atrazine causes prostate and mammary cancer, immune failure, neural damage in offspring, abortions, prostate disease in pups, impaired mammary development and impaired growth and development.
“This rat was never exposed to Atrazine; this rat was affected by Atrazine that its grandmother was exposed to,” he said. “This means that my daughter, that all of your daughters, that their granddaughters could be impacted by chemicals that we’re using today. This is not about you and me … We’re talking about using chemicals today that your grandchildren’s grandchildren may be impacted by.”
Pang focused on the dangers of combining chemicals, which he said occurs regularly on biotech farms on Kaua‘i’s Westside.
“I knew (the companies) were using combinations, but until the lawyers came on board … I didn’t know they were using so many in combination,” he said. “When you combine (drugs), it’s considered a new drug until proven otherwise … Same with pesticides.”
Pang said some of the chemicals the companies are using might stay in the environment five days, but could remain in the human body for six months.
“So if they spray pesticide A today, and B two weeks from now, … I think they’re there together,” he said.
Pang said the problem with chemicals like Atrazine is the potentiation (to enhance the effect of a drug or chemical), which has not been studied.
“It’s worrisome to have Atrazine in your water, but what about the 50 (other) chemicals?” he asked. “Will they potentiate Atrazine? Will they potentiate each other?”
Pang said the margin of safety with chemicals like Atrazine means nothing without knowledge of the potentiation.
“I don’t care what you think these 50 chemicals do or don’t do, you’ve got to prove it by doing a little experiment, not telling me what you think,” he said.
Westside vs. Pioneer
Honolulu-based attorney Gerard Jervis is representing the Westside community in a lawsuit against a seed company.
“As you know, Waimea residents have filed a lawsuit against … Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.,” Jervis said at the meeting. “This meeting today is not about that lawsuit … This is an informational meeting that is intended to educate the community about what’s going on here. We believe that education is a powerful thing.”
The location of Sunday’s event seemed an appropriate fit, as Jervis said the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested the water in Waimea for Atrazine and “found positive results at this very middle school in the drinking fountains.”
Ritte said he came from Moloka‘i to support the Waimea community against biotech companies and GMOs. Waimea, he said, is the only community in the state that has taken legal action in the GMO issue.
“You are in a position now to become leaders in this state in this whole GMO battle,” he said. “You guys are in the middle of it.”
Ritte encouraged everyone in attendance to join him and North Shore resident Dustin Barca March 9 in Po‘ipu for the “March in March” event, starting at noon. Protesters will meet on Maha‘ulepu Road in front of the Grand Hyatt and walk to Po‘ipu Beach Park. A GMO-free potluck will follow.
• Chris D’Angelo, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.