Quantcast

Environmentally-Caused Disease Crisis? Pesticide Damage to DNA Found 'Programmed' Into Future Generations

Insights + Opinion
Incposterco / Getty Images

When Dr. Paul Winchester, a pediatrician, moved to Indiana from Colorado in 2002, he noticed something disturbing—a high number of birth defects.


"I was used to the number of birth defects I should see in a community hospital, and I saw many more in Indiana," said Winchester, who is medical director of the Neonatal and Intensive Care Unit at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis.

Winchester decided to investigate the reason for the higher numbers of birth defects. His research zeroed in on the herbicide atrazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S. and the most commonly detected pesticide in U.S. drinking water.

Winchester and several other researchers including Michael Skinner, professor of biology at Washington State University's Center for Reproductive Biology, conducted a study to see if there was a link between atrazine in drinking water and birth defects.

Studies have found that atrazine is an endocrine disruptor, a substance that can alter the human hormonal system. Atrazine was banned by the European Union because of its persistent groundwater contamination.

In their study, Winchester and his team found that concentrations of atrazine in drinking water were highest in May and June when farmers sprayed their fields with the herbicide. They also found that birth defects peaked during the same months indicating a close correlation.

"We plotted water concentrations and birth defects, and they fit like a hat," Winchester said.

Their study, which was funded by the Gerber Foundation, was published in 2017 on PLOS One.

Epigenetic Changes Programmed Into Future Generations

But the most disturbing finding was that atrazine had epigenetic effects. Epigenetics is the theory that environmental factors, such as diet, lifestyle choices and pesticides can impact the health of people who are exposed to them and also their descendants. Human DNA, according to epigenetics, is not unchangeable; it can be altered by such environmental factors. Epigenetic changes can be imprinted on the DNA of a fetus during pregnancy according to Winchester.

"If it is fixed then, it becomes inheritable and it becomes a trait that you can pass on to the next generation and the next and next."

Epigenetics is a fairly new concept that is slowly gaining acceptance.

"This is a really important concept that is difficult to teach the public, and when I say the public I include my clinical colleagues," Winchester said.

For the atrazine study, Winchester's team used Skinner's advanced technology to detect epigenetic changes—and resulting negative health impacts—over several generations of rats whose mothers were exposed to atrazine.

Common sense would seem to dictate that fewer negative health outcomes would be seen with subsequent generations. But the study found the opposite: There were more abnormalities and diseases in later generations of rats. The first generation of rats whose mother was exposed to atrazine weighed less than a group of control rats. The second generation weighed less but also had incidences of testicular disease and breast cancer. The third generation suffered the most problems, according to Winchester.

"We waited until the third generation, where no direct exposure (to atrazine) occurred, to ask if these epigenetic effects could be inherited, because there is no mechanism, no exposure, no toxicity that could explain a change in disease rates in the third generation. We found that 50 percent of offspring had multiple diseases, emotional and physical problems, hyperactivity, abnormal sperm, and premature puberty."

In an earlier study, Skinner found that the fungicide vinclozolin also caused inheritable diseases in rats. In all, he tested nearly 20 chemicals and found that all produce epigenetic effects, said Winchester.

"The most alarming (finding) to me is that almost every chemical tested including atrazine reduced fertility in the third generation of offspring."

Winchester called the discovery of the link between chemicals like pesticides and epigenetic changes leading to disease "the most important next discovery in all of medicine."

"What we are learning is that virtually every adult disease we have is going to be linked to epigenetic origins as well," he said.

More research needs to be done on the link between epigenetic effects and disease but Winchester says limited funding is available for such research.

"This is a huge thing that is going to change how we understand the origin of disease. But a big part of that is that it will change our interpretation of what chemicals are safe. In medicine I can't give a drug to somebody unless it has gone through a huge amount of testing. But all these chemicals haven't gone through anything like that. We've been experimented on for the last 70 years, and there's not one study on multigenerational effects."

Glyphosate Levels in Mothers Linked to Shorter Pregnancies

Winchester also co-authored a study published recently in Environmental Health that found detectable levels of glyphosate in the urine of 93 percent of a group of pregnant women in Central Indiana. The levels of glyphosate detected correlated with shorter pregnancies.

Again, the study raises concerns of possible epigenetic effects leading to disease in later generations.

"We are the first researchers in the U.S. to report that virtually every pregnant mother has glyphosate in her body at the time that she is creating fetal (epigenetic) imprints in her baby," Winchester said.

Winchester and his team focused on atrazine and glyphosate because they are the most heavily used pesticides in the U.S.

"That's the only reason they were chosen. We looked to see how commonly they are found in pregnant women, and we were mortified."

Winchester has been surprised by the lack of reaction to the glyphosate study.

"A chemical (glyphosate) that didn't come onto the scene until the 1970s has now managed to find its way into every single pregnant woman in the U.S, except seven percent of them. We thought that should be news. But in the current paradigm, which is definitely pro-business, the only thing companies have to prove is that it doesn't kill you if you drink it or take a big dose of it."

He sees a potentially catastrophic outcome resulting from the epigenetic damage caused by pesticides.

"Every one of the chemicals tested so far produces infertility, and the industrial world has reached the lowest level of fertility on record. We are below replacement levels in most industrialized countries including the U.S.This is looking at your own species extinction."

Winchester lays the blame at the feet of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which doesn't consider epigenetic or generational effects of chemicals, and the pesticide and chemical manufacturers like Monsanto.

"They can sell all the Roundup they want, but if it's in me they are going to have to pay for that. Every molecule that I find is on them … What I want to know is: has my fetus had altered DNA imprinting because of this chemical? I have a right to know that. If we are going to have to wait 75 years to find out if my grandchildren are going to be affected by it, I think somebody has to pay. They better put a fund together. I want somebody's head to roll. I don't think that the EPA and Monsanto get to walk away."

Winchester connects an ancient expression to a modern health crisis.

"Even in the Bible, there is the saying, 'the sins of the father are visited upon his offspring.' Well, it turns out that they are."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

MStudioImages / E+ / Getty Images

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

Backpacking is an exciting way to explore the wilderness or travel to foreign countries on a budget.

Read More Show Less
Tim P. Whitby / 21st Century Fox / Getty Images

The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.

Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.

The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A protest march against the Line 3 pipeline in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 18, 2018. Fibonacci Blue / CC BY 2.0

By Collin Rees

We know that people power can stop dangerous fossil fuel projects like the proposed Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline in Minnesota, because we've proved it over and over again — and recently we've had two more big wins.

Read More Show Less
Scientists released a study showing that a million species are at risk for extinction, but it was largely ignored by the corporate news media. Danny Perez Photography / Flickr / CC

By Julia Conley

Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.

Read More Show Less
DoneGood

By Cullen Schwarz

Ethical shopping is a somewhat new phenomenon. We're far more familiar with the "tried and tested" methods of doing good, like donating our money or time.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Pixabay

Summer is fast approaching, which means it's time to stock up on sunscreen to ward off the harmful effects of sun exposure. Not all sunscreens are created equally, however.

Read More Show Less
Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

The climate crisis is a major concern for American voters with nearly 40 percent reporting the issue will help determine how they cast their ballots in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to a report compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed on global warming, climate and energy policies, as well as personal and collective action, 38 percent said that a candidate's position on climate change is "very important" when it comes to determining who will win their vote. Overall, democratic candidates are under more pressure to provide green solutions as part of their campaign promises with 64 percent of Democrat voters saying they prioritize the issue compared with just 34 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans.

Read More Show Less
Flooding in Winfield, Missouri this month. Jonathan Rehg / Getty Images

President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill that will help Americans still recovering from the flooding, hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated parts of the country in the past two years. Senate Republicans said they struck a deal with the president to approve the measure, despite the fact that it did not include the funding he wanted for the U.S.-Mexican border, CNN reported.

"The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!" the president tweeted Thursday.

Read More Show Less