Recently, I went to “Silent Spring to Silent Night,” a lecture by Professor Tyrone Hayes of UC Berkeley on the adverse health effects of atrazine, a common agricultural pesticide. Hayes’ presentation was not only engaging and interesting, but also left his audience empowered and informed. He left the audience reflecting on how various spheres of life interact to form complex problems. The issues surrounding the use of atrazine reflects the intersection of chemistry and public health, as well as environmental, political and economic issues.
Atrazine use has unfortunately come to be a typical chemical issue. It is used in mass quantities on produce. Work like that of Hayes has provided concrete evidence showing the negative consequences of atrazine exposure, especially concerning sex hormones. Hayes’ research on frogs demonstrated the growth of ovaries in male testes. Atrazine already contaminates many water sources, particularly in the Western world. Europe already has banned the use of this substance due to its provably damaging effects on wildlife and potential harm to humans. Most scientists and studies conclude that the cons of atrazine use far outweigh the benefits.
Hayes believes that responses in humans will not necessarily be as extreme as those in frogs. The effects are extreme and dangerous, but most people don’t have to currently worry considering only a small human population is exposed to atrazine.Yet, for workers who regularly spend extended periods of time in atrazine-contaminated water — disproportionately marginalized people, blacks and Hispanics specifically — there is a legitimate health concern. The concentration of atrazine levels used in Hayes’ research was comically low relative to the amounts polluting water sources. Herein lies another issue of social justice and racism.
At this point, the issue of atrazine, and, in a larger sense, chemical contamination and other environmental concerns, are festering into one big mess anyway. And some level of mess in government-led clean-up is inevitable. Before trying to find an elegant solution that will work well with existing infrastructures, the impetus should simply be on starting.
The crux of the problem is not how will we handle all of these converging topics, but what subject we will let be the circumstances. There is a very clear imperative that society has chosen to ignore too many times: health should take precedence in all situations, health of humans and health of the Earth. Take, for instance, the movement to switch to cleaner, greener energy. Time and time again, data has been given supporting a large investment with a long-term payoff far exceeding any initial cost. Yes, spending millions to make the massive overhaul of fossil fuels is nothing to scoff at, but making decisions based so heavily on economics is choosing to gloss over the surface without fixing the systemic problem.
Thinking of the future — because the goal of resolving most environmental issues is to ensure we have a future — calls into question the choice to make the protection of the economy the top priority. Atrazine is kept in circulation because it is cost effective. Cars running on fossil fuels are still on roads because it is convenient, because we already have gas stations sprinkled across the nation and because it seems easier to perpetuate the established oil business. Making efforts to protect the infrastructures and livelihoods of people will be in vain when Earth is polluted to the point where people are too sick to work or have no viable workplace at all.
Money dictates our lives on so many levels. Quality of life essentially boils down to if you can afford to live well and access opportunity. Comfortable shelter, aesthetically pleasing environment, nutritional foods and even education are all determined by cost. Higher education, for all its efforts to change, is still very much reflective of socioeconomic privilege. It is no secret that privilege, especially in terms of education, accumulates. If you go to the right schools, live in the right areas, can afford the right preparation for acronymic standardized tests, opportunities will build on themselves. You meet the right people, learn to talk the right way, present yourself in a way that others can perceive as learned and sophisticated, even if it is only partially true. It is about learning to work the system.
The legitimacy of global climate change is another topic for another time, but the detriment to the environment that humans continue to inflict while being fully informed of the repercussions as well as having viable alternatives is shameful. How can the continued use of atrazine be justified when it is a known contagion that tampers with reproductive sex hormones?
There is the argument that such changes will initially hurt society. Green energy is not yet ubiquitous enough to truly be affordable and the shift away from fossil fuels will cause people in that industry to lose their jobs. But with enough perseverance there will be new markets created and society will recover. I am not the first to say that the switch has innumerable benefits and that the sooner it happens, the better. The U.N. has just now set a definitive goal: eliminate all carbon emissions by 2100. This is a start, but the snowball effect of something like divestment could further stimulate and accelerate a general movement towards a more sustainable future. Money is power, but change is power too. We should let our health and concern over the existence of a future determine our lives. Money cannot buy back clean air, healthy organs or a secure future for all of humanity. It cannot talk, it is just paper, a product of the earth, a product of a social construct giving it power.