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We need a couple of dozen Carl Sagans

Fri, Apr 28th, 2006
Posted in Commentary

The Thursday before Earth Day, the 20th, PBS had a National Geographic special featuring Dr. Tyrone Hayes. Hayes, a Harvard trained PhD researcher at the University of California, held an audience at Eagle Bluff Learning Center spellbound for over an hour earlier this month. I hope the PBS program is rerun often.As I watched the PBS program it occurred to me it illustrated some of the problems associated with the interplay between scientists, science, and politicians. This was especially true when held in juxtaposition with recent state and local events.You may remember Dr. Hayes as the scientist uninvited by Commissioner of the MPCA, Sheryl Corrigan. He had the word Atrazine in the title of his talk. Even though Atrazine is made by a Swiss Company and has been banned for use in Switzerland and all of the European Union for some time it would be politically incorrect to link it to problems in the agricultural Midwest.Dr. Hayes did testify before the House Ag Committee chaired by our own Greg Davids. I listened to the testimony on the internet. One member of the committee was determined to marginalize the science by insisting caffeine in coffee might be causing the problems with frogs. The idea that this xanthine derivative caused any effect akin to Atrazine was idiotic and it was painful to believe Minnesotans elected someone who would seriously propose such. I hear the voice of an industry lobbyist here.Greg Davids was quoted later in local papers that it was important to hear the bill (a ban on the use of Atrazine). People got all worked up when they heard it, and it failed on a 13-0 vote. The frogs had a fungus. They were not deformed from Atrazine.Dr. Hayes research did not claim Atrazine was responsible for deformities in frogs. His research found Atrazine caused male frogs to become hermaphrodites and form eggs in their testicles rather than sperm. It caused immune deficiencies that made the frogs more susceptible to fungal and bacterial infections (causing deformities). It caused neurologic development problems resulting in adult frogs being crippled and unable to protect themselves normally from predators. These effects have also been found in fish, salamanders, and mammals. It may have similar effects in humans. Fungal and protozoan infections have been known to cause deformities in frogs for decades.Davids and his committee apparently missed the point entirely. This is not about just deformities or frogs. Frogs are just a surrogate for the canary the miners took into the mine to tell them when the air becomes poisonous.There are multiple studies showing the decrease in sperm production in the North American male. The PBS special has a segment on a University of Missouri researcher who has several studies published showing rural males with increased pesticide exposure have the greatest loss of sperm quality and quantity. Davids and his committee remind me of a medical doctor who gets all of his pharmacologic information from the drug detail person and prescribe every new pill that is currently in vogue whether it has any advantages over a more established drug or not. They get all of their information from lobbyists. Lobbyists have a function. They can educate. Good ones probably do. It would be best to remember where their loyalties are and take some things with a grain of salt (especially if someone whispers caffeine may be an endocrine disruptor).Davids committee is like the medical doctor who will try out a TV advertised medication when a patient asks for one, even if its not indicated, just to please the patient. Its easier than taking time to educate the patient and risk losing him/her to another doctor. In an agricultural community its politically hazardous to be a leader and protect people from insecticides they are firmly convinced is the only thing keeping them from bankruptcy and risk losing their vote.Policymakers need politically unbiased scientific advice devoid of scientific jargon. A state funded panel akin to the federal General Accountability Office would be helpful for the media and the citizenry as well.The several Senate hearings I saw personally, and the two hour Ag hearing chaired by Davids, has convinced me these hearings are for show only. It is obvious the committee members have made up their minds before the meetings start and are not there to learn any new and possibly troubling information. All politicians dealing with science based decisions should be required to read The Demon Haunted World, by Carl Sagan. The Atrazine question should be reexamined.

Dr. Sauer lives in Preston.

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