THE BLOG
07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Escape from the Heartland - Atrazine, Susan G. Komen, and KFC

The pesticide atrazine - with its possible links to breast cancer - is making headlines as the EPA opens a new investigation and a member of Congress calls for its outright abolition. What does the leading breast cancer advocacy organization say about atrazine? Nothing. It's busy peddling pink buckets of deep-fried chicken breasts. Really.

Silence gives consent.
- Thirteenth-century Roman Catholic canon law

In the middle of the nation sit three states all beginning with the letter I: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa. The middle of the middlemost one - central Illinois - is where I come from.

Living in the center of an entire continent was comforting when I was a child, and I was perplexed by newcomers who claimed to feel trapped here. Clearly, the compass points all extended to the cornstalk-edged horizon, the roads shot out in all four directions with equal ease, and neither oceans nor mountain ranges prevented escape. (So feel free to leave any time.)

To celebrate this remarkable middleness, our annual festival was proudly called "The Heart of Illinois Fair," which I thought a lovely name. As a girl, I confused the word heartland with heartwood and so imagined my part of the world as a beautifully grained circle in the middle of America's tree trunk.

But Illinois is the center of the center in more ominous ways as well. The U.S. Geological Survey's 2006 report on pesticides in the nation's waterways provides a graphic that shows Illinois as the bull's-eye. In a map that depicts contamination of rivers, streams, and groundwater with the weedkiller atrazine, Illinois is the state colored completely in red. Atrazine is found in all surface waters in the state and is detectable in many of its drinking water aquifers as well.

While Illinois may suffer the most intense contamination, it is hardly alone among states. Because it is water soluble, atrazine easily enters the water cycle, becoming a component of raindrops, snowflakes, and fog. It is thereby carried in the atmosphere and easily blows from cornfields to coastlines. Escape from the heartland is no problem for atrazine.

The inability to keep this wandering pesticide on the fields in which it is sprayed was the rationale for banning it in the European Union several years ago. However, on this side of the Atlantic, atrazine remains one of the most popular pesticides in agriculture. It is used in 90 percent of sugar cane production as well as in most cornfields. It is also used on backyard lawns and on golf courses.

Troubling new findings about the possible health effects of atrazine at low levels of exposure have prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - which reviewed the continued use of atrazine in 2003 and again in 2006 - to open a new investigation this month. Atrazine is a proven endocrine disruptor in multiple species and possesses the apparent power to increase estrogen levels by tinkering with gene expression. It also interferes with hormones from the pituitary gland that regulate ovulation. It can influence the timing of puberty. Emerging evidence suggests that atrazine exposure can trigger sex changes in tadpoles. Human studies find worrisome suggestions of a link between atrazine exposure and cancers of the ovary and lymph systems.

Last month, a number of water utilities in the three heartland I states (Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa), together with their counterparts in Ohio, Kansas, and Missouri, filed a federal lawsuit against the manufacturers of atrazine that seeks reimbursement for the costs of filtering this pesticide out of tap water. This suit was given renewed urgency earlier this month when an analysis of drinking water conducted by the Chicago Tribune found atrazine in the drinking water of sixty Illinois communities where a total of more than a million people live. And just last week, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota introduced legislation to ban atrazine altogether.

So with a backdrop of exigency like this, you might expect the nation's leading breast cancer organization to take a strong stand on atrazine. Especially since, in laboratory animals, early-life exposure to atrazine can alter development of the mammary gland in ways that can predispose for breast cancer. Especially since atrazine has been linked in lab animals to early puberty (and early puberty is itself a risk factor for breast cancer). Especially since recent studies report that atrazine-exposed rodents have trouble producing sufficient milk for their pups (and breastfeeding is known to be protective against breast cancer).

Especially since the nation's leading breast cancer organization is named after a woman from central Illinois who succumbed to breast cancer.

That woman would be Susan G. Komen, who died in 1980 after extracting from her sister, Nancy Brinker, a promise to do everything possible to end breast cancer forever. All three of us, Nancy, Susan, and I, drank water from the Sankoty Aquifer as girls and grew up within the bull's-eye on the national atrazine map.

So I took a look at the website for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The word atrazine appears nowhere. What does appear is a big promotional announcement called the Buckets for the Cure campaign in which KFC donates 50 cents to Susan G. Komen for the Cure for every bucket of chicken sold. That would be the same KFC that agreed, in 2007, in response to a lawsuit by the California attorney general, to warn its customers that its potatoes contain a suspected carcinogen called acrylamide, which forms during frying and baking.

Several thoughtful critics have already pointed out the irony of marketing highly processed, cancer-promoting fast food in the name of fighting a disease with demonstrated links to obesity (see, for example, Christina Pirello, "Susan G. and KFC: An Unholy Alliance," Huffington Post, April 26, 2010). Breast Cancer Action, the self-styled watchdog of the breast cancer movement, has launched a letter-writing campaign against the KFC-Komen for the Cure partnership on the grounds that buying buckets of deep-fried meat - hey, want some gravy with that? - to cure a disease that kills women is preposterous. (See www.bcaction.org. Full disclosure: I am a science adviser for BCA.)

Unless the intention here is to raise "awareness" of breast cancer by promoting the exact sort of diet that makes a breast cancer diagnosis more likely, the absurdity of Buckets for the Cure is so self-evident it hardly requires analysis. So I'll just add this thought to the growing chorus condemning Susan G. Komen for its cynical hypocrisy:

When you are peddling fried chicken breasts in the name of addressing breast cancer, you are not only ignoring the role of diet in the breast cancer epidemic, you are distracting us from an ongoing battle about the use of a chemical possibly linked to breast cancer - atrazine - in the creation of that food.

Chickens are fed corn, and corn is sprayed with atrazine, and atrazine is a chemical that may be linked to breast cancer risk. Atrazine runs in the rivers and streams of Illinois and other states, falls in the rain over North America, and courses through the bloodstreams of children living in agricultural regions. We need to have a conversation about this. Don't sell us fried fat and gravy. Come back to Peoria, Illinois, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and talk about atrazine.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, newly published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a weekly series by Sandra exploring how the environment is within us. www.steingraber.com / www.livingdownstream.com