Pesticides and Birth Defects 

Researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine and the Institute of the Study of Health, University of Cincinnati, conducted a new study that compares the number of birth defects of babies that were conceived from April to July and the high level of pesticides in drinking water in those months.

Though the research doesn't prove that pesticides caused the birth defects, it does illustrate a possible correlation.

One of the researchers heading up the study is Dr. Paul Winchester, director of neonatology and a professor at the Indiana School of Medicine. He can be found at St. Francis Hospital of Indianapolis' women and children's services taking care of premature babies.

"You can see what I do for a living," Winchester says, pointing toward the neonatal intensive care unit. "I take care of those babies."

Three babies currently reside in the hospital's intensive care unit, but that number has been between five and 20 lately. Winchester started his research into birth defects in 2001, after seeing several cases in what is a rather small hospital.

Winchester began to ask questions about what he was seeing and began to wonder if Indiana was at risk for birth defects.

"This is typical for me as a clinician," Winchester says. "I'm just seeing things and asking questions about those things. So I went to the state Health Department and looked at my colleagues and I said, 'Does Indiana have more birth defects than the rest of the country?' Now that's a reasonable question to ask because it's the single largest category of causes of infant death. It's the No. 1 cause of infant death in America. You could argue that infant death is the No. 1 health outcome that we should care about because it's the outcome of pregnancy. Meaning the human race, if it can't reproduce successfully, it's going to go extinct. It's the most important thing that a society should be measuring."

When he asked this question to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, they told him that Indiana didn't count birth defects and neither did 12 other states.

"The richest country in the world wasn't counting birth defects," Winchester says. "This is probably the first moment that I realized that there's something else besides science involved here. This is unbelievable to me ... to think that we do count how many linoleum floors we have, how many guns we own and how many cigarettes we buy, but we don't count our babies?"

High levels of pesticides

The CDC has since changed their policy, but it got Winchester thinking about what other things weren't being measured.

Every spring in Indiana, pesticides and herbicides are added to fields to ensure a good crop. This is also the time when heavy rain showers occur and these compounds are then washed into streams, ensuring high levels of pesticides and herbicides in Indiana drinking water. One such herbicide widely used in America is atrazine.

"There's a guy from Berkeley whose name is Tyrone Hayes and he's a disarmingly very intelligent Harvard zoology graduate, who has a lab at Berkeley," Winchester says. "He found something very extraordinary with atrazine. He found that at levels as low as a tenth of a part per billion, which is the equivalent to one drop in a swimming pool, he could show characteristic changes in a male frog's internal anatomy. They were being changed into hermaphrodites. What was important about this is that it was occurring at levels 30 times lower than levels the EPA [Environmental Protection Act] said were safe to drink."

But Winchester says that frogs aren't the only organism affected. The allowable levels of pesticides in the White River is exceeded each year in June and it just so happens that birth defects, such as spina bifida, malformed genitals and many more disorders, occur more often in babies conceived in June.

"What most people don't realize is that the genitals of all babies are completely determined by the presence or absence of testosterone. In the absence of testosterone or the absence of the receptors for testosterone all babies would be female."

Winchester says that under federal law the water companies have to measure the water for pesticides only four times a year as enforced by the EPA. Meaning that the companies don't even have to measure the drinking water in June when it's most contaminated with pesticides.

The U.S. Geological Survey, however, measures the water monthly, and Wincheser used this information in his study along with information given to him by the CDC.

"We just got nominated to be the best state in the country to do business in," Winchester says. "So if we are the worst state for public health, public awareness and public health outcomes, what is that saying business is looking for? I'm not anti-business. I'm not anti-farm. I lived on a farm. I'm still guilty of using all the things that everybody else did. We all thought it was good ... I'm more concerned about the fact that the exposure that our fetuses get, we can't reverse."

A priority problem

Winchester thinks back to the ecological research on cholera. People didn't just discover where it came from by chance. They drew a map of who was sick and found the connecting factor.

"We are in the top 10 in every single bad health outcome," Winchester says. "That's our source of pride. We have the third leading source of industrial pollution in the country and the greatest number of fish advisories, which is a measure of health of our streams and rivers."

These two factors, high number of birth defects and the correlation with the high levels of pesticides in water, is what prompted Winchester to research the matter.

"Very small quantities of containments exposed to a developing fetus can lead to a host of adult diseases, so you don't even see it until you get to that age."

Numerous adult disorders, such as obesity, depression and low sperm count, are believed to be affects of fetal imprinting of pesticides in drinking water.

"We have a priority problem," Winchester says. "We are not counting babies and we're not testing water."

This study was recently published in the medical journal for pediatric research Acto Paediatrica and can be accessed online. For more information and to hear Winchester talk on this matter, tune in to Sound Medicine on WFYI-FM radio, 90.1, Sunday, May 31 at 2 p.m. when he will be a guest on the show.

A public awareness event on the topic of how agriculture and waste affects Indiana health and drinking water will be presented by the non-profit organization Improving Kids' Environment at the Second Indiana Environmental Health Summit May 15. The event will include speakers from health, government and education backgrounds to talk to attendees about the challenges that Indiana water faces. At press time, this free event could no longer take any new registrants.

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