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Devastating health problems linked to U.S. agrochemicals in Argentina

Argentine farmworker Fabian Tomasi wasn’t trained to use protective gear as he pumped pesticides into crop dusters. Now at 47, he’s a living skeleton.

Schoolteacher Andrea Druetta lives in a town where it’s illegal to spray agrochemicals within 500 meters (550 yards) of homes, and yet soy is planted just 30 meters (33 yards) from her back door. Recently, her boys were showered in chemicals while swimming in their backyard pool.

Sofia Gatica’s search for answers after losing her newborn to kidney failure led to Argentina’s first criminal convictions for illegal spraying last year. But 80 percent of her neighbors’ children surveyed carry pesticides in their blood.

American biotechnology has turned Argentina into the world’s third-largest soy producer, but the chemicals powering the boom aren’t confined to soy and cotton and corn fields. The Associated Press documented dozens of cases where these poisons are used in ways specifically banned by existing law.

Now doctors are warning that uncontrolled pesticide use could be the cause of growing health problems among the 12 million people who live in the South American nation’s vast farm belt.

In Santa Fe province, the heart of Argentina’s soy industry, cancer rates are two times to four times higher than the national average. In Chaco, the nation’s poorest province, children became four times more likely to be born with devastating birth defects in the decade since biotechnology dramatically expanded industrial agriculture.

“The change in how agriculture is produced has brought, frankly, a change in the profile of diseases,” says Dr. Medardo Avila Vazquez, a pediatrician who co-founded Doctors of Fumigated Towns. “We’ve gone from a pretty healthy population to one with a high rate of cancer, birth defects, and illnesses seldom seen before.”

Once known for its grass-fed beef, Argentina has undergone a remarkable transformation since 1996, when the St. Louis-based Monsanto Company marketed a promising new model of higher crop yields and fewer pesticides through its patented seeds and chemicals.

Today, all of Argentina’s soy and nearly all its corn, wheat and cotton are genetically modified. Soy farming tripled to 47 million acres (19 million hectares), and just like in the U.S., cattle are now fattened in feedlots on corn and soy.

But as weeds and insects became resistant, farmers increased the chemical burden ninefold, from 9 million gallons (34 million liters) in 1990 to more than 84 million gallons (317 million liters) today. Overall, Argentine farmers apply an estimated 4.3 pounds of agrochemical concentrate per acre, more than twice what U.S. farmers use, according to an AP analysis of government and pesticide industry data.

Monsanto’s “Roundup” pesticides use glyphosate, one of the world’s most widely applied and least toxic weed killers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and many others have declared it to be safe if applied properly. In May, the EPA even increased allowable glyphosate residues on foods.

Despite the wholesale adoption of Monsanto’s model, safety rules vary.

Some of Argentina’s 23 provinces ban spraying within 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of populated areas; others say farmers can spray as close as 50 meters (55 yards). About one-third set no limits, and rule-breakers are very rarely punished.

A federal law requires toxic chemical applicators to suspend activities that threaten public health, “even when the link has not been scientifically proven,” and “no matter the costs or consequences,” but it has never been applied to farming, the Auditor General found last year.

In response to soaring complaints, President Cristina Fernandez ordered a commission in 2009 to study the impact of agrochemical spraying on human health. Its initial report called for “systematic controls over concentrations of herbicides and their compounds … such as exhaustive laboratory and field studies involving formulations containing glyphosate as well as its interactions with other agrochemicals as they are actually used in our country.”

But the commission hasn’t met since 2010, the auditor general found.

Agriculture Secretary Lorenzo Basso said people are being misinformed.

“I’ve seen countless documents, surveys, videos, articles in the news and in universities, and really our citizens who read all this end up dizzy and confused,” he said. “Our model as an exporting nation has been called into question. We need to defend our model.”

In a written statement, Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher said the company “does not condone the misuse of pesticides or the violation of any pesticide law, regulation, or court ruling.”

“Monsanto takes the stewardship of products seriously and we communicate regularly with our customers regarding proper use of our products,” Helscher said.

Argentina was among the earliest adopters of the “no-till” method U.S. agribusinesses promoted. Instead of turning the topsoil, spraying pesticides, and then waiting until the poison dissipates before planting, farmers sow seeds and spray afterward without harming “Roundup Ready” crops genetically modified to tolerate specific poisons. Farmers can now harvest multiple crops each year on land that wasn’t profitable before.

But pests quickly develop resistance to the same chemicals applied to identical crops on a vast scale, forcing farmers to mix in more toxic poisons, such as 2,4,D, used in “Agent Orange” to defoliate Vietnam’s jungles. Some Argentine regulators called for labels warning that these mixtures should be limited to “farm areas far from homes and population centers,” but they were ignored, the auditor found.

“Glyphosate is even less toxic than the repellent you put on your children’s skin,” said Pablo Vaquero, Monsanto’s spokesman in Buenos Aires. “That said, there has to be a responsible and good use of these products, because in no way would you put repellent in the mouths of children and no environmental applicator should spray fields with a tractor or a crop-duster without taking into account the environmental conditions and threats that stem from the use of the product.”

Out in the fields, Tomasi was routinely exposed.

“I prepared millions of liters of poison without any kind of protection, no gloves, masks or special clothing. I didn’t know anything” he said.

Teachers in Entre Rios began to file police complaints this year. They said sprayers failed to respect 50-meter (55-yard) limits at 18 schools, dousing 11 during class.

In Santa Fe, Druetta also filed complaints, saying her students fainted when pesticides drifted into their classrooms and that her school lacks safe drinking water.

A house-to-house epidemiological study of 65,000 people in Santa Fe, led by Dr. Damian Verzenassi at the National University of Rosario, found cancer rates two times to four times higher than the national average, as well as thyroid disorders, respiratory illnesses and other afflictions seldom seen before.

“It could be linked to agrochemicals,” Verzenassi said. “They do all sorts of analysis for toxicity of the first ingredient, but they have never studied the interactions between all the chemicals they’re applying.”

Hospital records show birth defects quadrupled in Chaco, from 19.1 per 10,000 to 85.3 per 10,000, in the decade after genetically modified crops were approved. A medical team then surveyed 2,051 people in six towns, finding more disease wherever people are surrounded by farms.

In the farming village of Avia Terai, 31 percent said a family member had cancer, compared with 3 percent in the ranching village of Charadai. They also documented children with malformed skulls, exposed spinal cords, blindness and deafness, neurological damage and strange skin problems.

It may be impossible to prove a specific chemical caused an individual’s illness. But doctors increasingly are calling for broader, longer-term and more independent research, saying governments should make the industry prove that the accumulated agricultural burden isn’t making people sick.

“That’s why we do epidemiological studies for heart disease and smoking and all kinds of things,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a former EPA regulator now with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If you have the weight of evidence pointing to serious health problems, you don’t wait until there’s absolute proof in order to do something.”

With flu season ahead, vaccine brands promise extra protection

Flu vaccination is no longer merely a choice between a jab in the arm or a squirt in the nose.

This fall, some brands promise a little extra protection.

For the first time, certain vaccines will guard against four strains of flu rather than the usual three. Called quadrivalent vaccines, these brands may prove more popular for children than their parents. That’s because kids tend to catch the newly added strain more often.

These four-in-one vaccines are so new that they’ll make up only a fraction of the nation’s supply of flu vaccine, so if you want a dose, better start looking early.

But that’s only one of an unprecedented number of flu vaccine options available this year.

Allergic to eggs? Egg-free shots are hitting the market, too.

Plus there’s growing interest in shots brewed just for the 65-and-older crowd, and a brand that targets the needle-phobic with just a skin-deep prick.

“We’re moving away from the one-size-fits-all to choosing the best possible vaccine for an individual’s age and condition,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic.

“The flip side of that,” he said, is that “this will be a confusing year” as doctors and consumers alike try to choose.

Federal health officials recommend a yearly flu vaccine for nearly everyone, starting at 6 months of age. On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some questions and answers about the different vaccine varieties to choose from:

Q: What’s the difference between those new four-strain vaccines and the regular kind?

A: For more than 30 years, the vaccine has offered protection against three influenza strains – two common Type A strains called H1N1 and H3N2, and one strain of Type B. Flu strains continually evolve, and the recipe for each year’s vaccine includes the subtypes of those strains that experts consider most likely to cause illness that winter.

Type A flu causes more serious disease and deaths, especially the H3N2 form that made last year such a nasty flu season. But the milder Type B flu does sicken people every year as well, and can kill. Two distinct Type B families circulate the globe, making it difficult to know which to include in each year’s vaccine. Adding both solves the guesswork, and a CDC model estimates it could prevent as many as 485 deaths a year depending on how much Type B flu is spreading.

Q: How can I tell if I’m getting the four-strain vaccine?

A: All of the nasal spray version sold in the U.S. this year will be this new variety, called FluMist Quadrivalent. The catch is that the nasal vaccine is only for healthy people ages 2 to 49 who aren’t pregnant.

If you prefer a flu shot, ask the doctor or pharmacist if the four-strain kind is available. Younger children, older adults, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions all can use flu shots. Four-strain versions are sold under the names Fluzone Quadrivalent, Fluarix Quadrivalent and FluLaval Quadrivalent.

Manufacturers anticipate producing between 135 million and 139 million doses of flu vaccine this year. Only about 30 million doses will offer the four-strain protection.

Q: Who should seek it?

A: Type B flu tends to strike children more than the middle-aged, Poland noted. And he said it’s not a bad idea for seniors, who are more vulnerable to influenza in general. But the CDC doesn’t recommend one vaccine variety over another, and the American Academy of Pediatrics said either kind is fine – just get vaccinated.

Q: How are these new vaccines different from the high-dose flu shot for seniors?

A: Fluzone High-Dose protects against the traditional three strains of flu, but it quadruples the standard vaccine dose in an effort to rev up age-weakened immune systems don’t respond as actively to regular flu shots.

The government calls the high-dose shot an option for seniors, not one that’s proved better. Last week, Sanofi Pasteur said initial results from a study of 30,000 seniors vaccinated over the past two flu seasons suggest the high-dose shot is about 24 percent more effective. Federal health officials will have to review the full study results to see if they agree.

Q: What if I’m allergic to eggs?

A: Traditional flu vaccine is made from viruses grown in eggs, and specialists say it’s usually not a problem unless someone has a serious egg allergy. But the new FluBlok vaccine eliminates that concern because it is made with cell technology, like many other nonflu vaccines. So far, it’s only for use in people ages 18 to 49.

Q: What if I’m scared of needles?

A: If you don’t qualify for the ouchless nasal spray vaccine, there is one shot made with a teeny-tiny needle that pricks the skin instead of muscle. Called Fluzone Intradermal, it’s available for 18- to 64-year-olds, and protects against the usual three strains.

Q: How soon should I be vaccinated?

A: Early fall is ideal, as it’s impossible to predict when flu will start spreading and it takes about two weeks for protection to kick in. But later isn’t too late; flu season typically peaks in January or February.

Q: How much does flu vaccine cost?

A: The vaccine is covered by insurance, and Medicare and some plans don’t require a copay. Drugstore vaccination programs tend to charge about $30; expect the quadrivalent versions to be slightly more expensive.

Severe season: Milwaukee health dept. encourages flu shots

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting widespread flu activity across much of the country, including in Wisconsin. In response, the Milwaukee Health Department is reminding all residents to help prevent the spread of influenza.

“This season’s influenza appears to be more severe than seasons past,” stated Commissioner of Health Bevan K. Baker. “The single best way to protect yourself and your family is to get a flu shot. I urge all city residents to get their vaccination if you haven’t already and to take steps to protect your health and the health of your families.”

Influenza – the flu – is among the most common respiratory illnesses in the United States, affecting millions of people each year. The virus is spread through the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes, or speaks. Symptoms of the seasonal flu include fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, muscle or body aches and fatigue. Though common, the flu can be serious, and it often leads to hospitalization and sometimes death in the most vulnerable populations including very young children, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.

“The good news is that the available flu vaccine appears to be good match for the circulating strain,” said Paul Biedrzycki, director of disease control and environmental health. “Vaccination along with antiviral medications when prescribed by health care providers is the best way to prevent or mitigate severe illness and complications from seasonal influenza.”

The vaccine is recommended for all individuals over six months of age, especially those at greatest risk for serious complications, including adults 65 and older, children younger than five and pregnant women. While not 100 percent effective, the vaccine can also reduce the severity of symptoms.

In addition to vaccination, the health department encourages all city residents to help reduce the spread of flu by:

• Washing hands often with soap and water.

• Covering your nose and mouth with your sleeve when you cough or sneeze.

• Staying home or from school or work when experiencing symptoms.

Those experiencing flu-like symptoms should also get rest and drink plenty of fluids. Contact a health care provider if symptoms are severe and/or worsen after six to seven days.

Further more information, go to www.milwaukee.gov/health.