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Better Living Through Chemistry…or Not

Many of our legal team’s victories in defense of the environment or human health have lasting impacts that will be felt by future generations. But a new study from Washington State University suggests that our successful legal campaign to end the use of the dangerous agricultural fungicide vinclozolin will indeed pay dividends for years to come.

In the mid-1990s, Earthjustice began working to protect farmworkers and the general public from exposure to vinclozolin. The chemical, produced by the German mega-corporation BASF, had been researched by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency, and their published peer-reviewed studies were as scary as hell.

They found that rats fed vinclozolin in utero had feminized genitalia with malformations like vaginal pouches, undescended testicles, malformed penises, nipples, and shrunken prostate glands. But while EPA scientists were researching the chemical and as the agency publicly stated its concern, where the rubber hit the road it was business as usual. Despite the evident danger, the EPA was still allowing applications of vinclozolin in farm fields and even approving new uses.

In 1997, an Oregon farmworkers union learned that workers were spraying vinclozolin on snap beans grown in the state. Historically, the snap beans had been picked by workers, but in the 1970s Oregon growers shifted to bush snap beans that could be machine harvested. Since the machines couldn’t distinguish between beans with mold and those without, the growers began using fungicides to kill the mold. When the beans became resistant to the first generation of fungicides, the growers looked for something more potent—vinclozolin.

The growers in Oregon claimed that they faced an emergency that justified using vinclozolin even though it had not been approved by the EPA for use on snap beans. The EPA went along with the charade and approved the chemical’s “emergency” use—for 14 years in a row. We went to court to stop this clear abuse of authority and to stop EPA from approving the snap beans for sale to the public without studying the effects of vinclozolin residue remaining on the beans.

After sparring for years with EPA, finally, in 2001, the agency decided vinclozolin was too harmful to be on our food and phased out all remaining uses of the fungicide. Raspberries and onion uses were stopped that year; kiwis soon followed, and snap bean use ended in 2005.

More than 10 years later, research by epigenetics Professor Michael Skinner at Washington State University (WSU) is showing that exposure to vinclozolin is not only harmful to the individual exposed, but also to that individual’s children and grandchildren. WSU News explains the study:

The researchers…exposed gestating female rats to vinclozolin, a popular fruit and vegetable fungicide known to disrupt hormones and have effects across generations of animals. The researchers then put the rats’ third generation of offspring through a variety of behavioral tests and found they were more anxious, more sensitive to stress, and had greater activity in stress-related regions of the brain than descendants of unexposed rats.

In other words, environmental stressors on an individual—such as exposure to a harmful chemical—can alter the behavior and health of subsequent generations. Therefore, humans exposed to vinclozolin before its use ceased, are likely to pass on the ill effects of exposure to their children and grandchildren.

The story of vizclozolin is proof that citizen oversight is key to enforcing our environmental laws and protecting children from what can be untenable risks. Initially, and throughout the process, the EPA was not inclined to do the right thing and discontinue the use of a dangerous fungicide. The chemical companies and grower trade groups had the EPA’s ear and it repeatedly bent to their will. But when the EPA finally knew that it would have to defend itself to judges in the face of legal challenges, justice prevailed.

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.