Environmentally-Caused Disease Crisis? Pesticide Damage to DNA Found 'Programmed' Into Future Generations
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."
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With more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus, physicians face unprecedented challenges in their efforts to keep Americans safe.
They also encounter what some call an "infodemic," an outbreak of misinformation that's making it more difficult to treat patients.
When Leaders and Doctors Spread Misinformation<p>When people in charge of towns, cities, states, and countries spread misinformation, the potential for belief in misinformation to result in policies can have harmful effects.</p><p><a href="https://www.northwell.edu/find-care/find-a-doctor?q=Bruce+E.+Hirsch%2C+MD&insurance=&location=&query_type=provider&physician_partners=false&default_view=list&gender=&language=&sort=relevancy" target="_blank">Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch</a>, attending physician and assistant professor in the infectious disease division of Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York, says an example of this is when President Trump informed the public he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure.</p><p>"To approach this enormous challenge, we need some intellectual honesty and clarity, and to disregard expertise and to make decisions and model decisions based on hunches is inviting us to handle challenges on the basis of rumor and uninformed opinion. The magnitude of that error is epic," Hirsch told Healthline.</p><p>Stukus agrees, noting that the harm of this proclamation is documented.</p><p>"Early on when the president touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, people started to hoard this medicine, and state boards had to shut it down because they were getting so many prescriptions for this unproven therapy that it was not available for those who truly needed it, such as those who have lupus and autoimmune conditions," Stukus said.</p><p>He adds that calls to poison control centers increased after the president suggested using disinfectant to prevent contracting the new coronavirus.</p>
Listen to Science, Even When it Changes<p>When recommendations change or evidence flip-flops, skepticism may arise. However, Stukus says change is the beauty of science.</p><p>"That shows us that we can evolve, and if the evidence shows that our prior thoughts were incorrect, we need to be able to change our recommendations and advice based upon the best quality of evidence at the time," he said.</p><p>Pierre agrees.</p><p>"Science is an iterative process, whereby we arrive at facts and truth through repeated and controlled observations. That means that it's inherently self-correcting as we revise conclusions based on ongoing research. Scientific facts aren't immutable dogma chiseled on a tablet. They change based on the best available evidence we have at a given point in time," he said.</p><p>Because research of COVID-19 has only been underway for 6 months, information is evolving rapidly, and new information may contradict old.</p><p>"There's still much we don't know about exactly how [COVID-19] spreads, what effects it has on the body, or how to best treat it. That means that the best available evidence is preliminary, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore it or turn to other sources of information or opinion as if they're just as valid," Pierre said.</p><p>He explains that conspiracy theories based on mistrust lead to vulnerability to misinformation.</p><p>If people mistrust science because it sometimes "changes its mind," Pierre said, "that shouldn't be used to embrace other opinions based on no evidence at all, which are typically selected based on confirmation bias: what we want to believe rather than what the objective evidence supports."</p>
Where to Find the Best Information<p>Stukus says to start with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html" target="_blank">CDC</a> and <a href="https://www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus" target="_blank">NIH</a>. Then check with your local health officials, because COVID-19 guidelines may vary depending on where you live.</p><p>If you can't find information you need or have questions specifically related to you, call your primary care doctor.</p><p>"Your personal doctor should always be a resource for individual specific questions because they know best how to apply all the nuances retaining to your health, and how to incorporate all the other general [COVID-19] recommendations," Stukus said.</p><p><a href="https://www.eehealth.org/find-a-doctor/b/boyd-laura-b/" target="_blank">Dr. Laura Boyd</a>, primary care physician at Edward-Elmhurst Health Center in Elmhurst, Illinois, says her clinic receives a lot of calls about COVID-19.</p><p>"Most doctors' offices are receiving calls and answering questions, and doing phone or video visits to help clarify and/or order testing over the phone based on patients' symptoms. It is always best to call your doctor's office first instead of worrying about symptoms and waiting too long to seek treatment," she told Healthline.</p><p>If your primary care doctor has limited testing, she suggests looking on your state's public health website for available testing sites.</p><p>With a lot of unknowns related to this virus and disease, Boyd says many patients are feeling overwhelmed and anxious for a treatment.</p><p>"Unfortunately, there is no specific medication recommended for COVID for outpatient. There are a lot of ongoing studies with various drugs going on within the hospital setting. Patients should always contact their doctors about their specific symptoms as they can treat the symptoms that go along with COVID, but there is no cure," Boyd said.</p><p>While we wait for treatment and a vaccine, Hirsch, who treats patients hospitalized for COVID-19 complications on a daily basis, says everyone can do their part by washing hands, wearing a mask, and staying 6 feet apart.</p><p>"As an infectious disease doctor working in the hospital, I see the damage of the pandemic and the worst cases of what's happening. We are trying to get the best possible outcome and confronting this overwhelming biologic reality of this terrible epidemic the best we can," Hirsch said.</p><p>Everyone at home can help in the fight too, he adds.</p><p>"Follow information that is science- and evidence-based, and avoid that which is not," he said.</p>
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