Paediatrician who led the study calls for shift away from GM to organic production; says Argentina must learn from French and Dutch farming experts. Claire Robinson reports
The final report of an epidemiological study by the University of Cordoba in the Argentine town of Monte Maiz, where there is a high concentration of grain and pesticide stores, determined that cancer incidence is five times higher than average. Roundup is the most commonly sprayed chemical in the area.
Preliminary results of this report were released a few days after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans" and there is "limited evidence" that it causes cancer in laboratory animal tests. Originally classified as "possibly carcinogenic to humans", glyphosate was reassessed in 1991 in another North American study which concluded otherwise.
The new survey was carried out in Monte Maiz, a town located 300 kilometers from the capital of Cordoba. It was carried out in October 2014 by a university team that conducted a health survey in which they studied the clinical history of 594 people out of a population of 8000. The pediatrician Vazquez Medardo Avila, a member of the Network of Doctors of Sprayed People and an author of the new study, said the team also surveyed the geospatial conditions within the area and found that “there was intense air pollution around grain stores in the centre of town, pesticide contamination in the streets, pesticide deposits between the houses of the villagers and spraying of the urban margins within a few meters of housing”.
Avila Vazquez continued, “Preliminary results were alarming: the town of Monte Maiz has five times more cancer cases than WHO estimates, 25 percent more asthma-like breathing problems and almost five times more spontaneous abortions.” The specialist also said that, “the population also had twice as many cases of type II diabetes and hypothyroidism than statistical averages, and an almost three times higher frequency of collagenopathies (inflammatory diseases of the autoimmune type).”
Avila Vázquez said that local people had complained for many years of high rates of cancer in areas where GM soy and maize are planted.
In 2007, alerted by the number of cancer cases, residents of Monte Maiz conducted a preliminary survey, but didn’t have anyone to help them in analyzing the data. Sergio Linares, member of the Network for Environmental Prevention and Health of Monte Maiz, said, "About 75 people from the town worked from house to house, and we had all that data, but we were unable to tabulate it. Yet we knew, for example, that there were 15 cases of lupus in a population of 8000 inhabitants."
From that study, Linares knew he had three types of chemicals in his blood, while one woman had up to ten types. Dealing daily with the illnesses of family, friends, and acquaintances, and with the smell from the spraying on the doorsteps of their houses, the group of residents followed up until in 2014 a newspaper published a map showing the incidence of cancer in the Cordoba population. "We saw that Monte Maiz was the most affected population. We began working with the city council and the mayor, Luis María Trotte, and contacted the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Córdoba,” said Linares.
Linares continued, ”When they came to do the survey, they were amazed at things that were familiar to us. For example, they could not believe how many children there were with mental health problems.” This is stated in the report, for which samples were processed in the laboratory of the National University of La Plata.
The epidemiological report from Monte Maiz comes a week after IARC’s report was published. "What the IARC says specifically is that glyphosate, the main herbicide sprayed there [in Monte Maiz], is categorized as Group 2A, which are pesticides for which there is a ‘probability’ that they cause cancer," said Avila Vázquez. "And this 'probability' is based on already existing epidemiological studies like ours and laboratory studies on how glyphosate impacts cancer development.”
Avila Vázquez added, “This is a great tool against claims by companies that pesticides are harmless. From now on, there will be no spraying within 500 or 1000 meters of any population, at least.”
Avila Vázquez also recommended not allowing “mosquito” spraying machines into residential areas, banning aerial spraying, and developing “programmes to encourage producers to abandon the use of agrochemicals and GMOs and shift to organic production methods”. He said advice should be obtained from experts in countries like France and Holland, which enjoy higher crop production without GM.