Pesticides and Penises

Commentary, Environment, Rolf Penner (historic), Uncategorized

After failing time and time again to prove that the cosmetic use of lawn-care products causes any number of ailments, including cancer, anti-chemical crusaders are now trying to scare the pants off us. But the latest allegation, that these substances could shrink the male genitalia, also comes up flaccid.

According to Florida zoologist Louis Guillette, using products from the corner hardware store to rid your lawn of annoying weeds like dandelions, thistles and clover will result in the diminishment of one’s manhood. As a consequence of his “findings,” he personally refuses to apply them to his own lawn. “Just because you can go buy them at the local stores doesn’t mean that is appropriate use,” he says.

Guillette, who last month lectured at the University of Western Ontario on the subject, maintains he has hard evidence to back up this claim, in the form of… alligator penises. How one convinces these beasts of the scientific necessity of measuring their equipment, or who would fund such an endeavour, are questions best left unanswered. But apparently the measurement of reptilian genitalia, particularly gator gonads, is one of the good professor’s specialties. And he doesn’t like what he sees. In his estimation, some of the boys just don’t measure up, particularly the ones in Florida’s polluted Lake Apopka.

He finds other evidence in two studies. One in 2005 found that genital anomalies in humans increased from 7 per 1000 in 1988 to 8.3 per 1000 in 2000. Another from the Netherlands found “higher than expected” rates of genital deformities in some regions of that country. Guillette points out, “This is important because it is not just an alligator story. It is not just a lake story. We know there has been a dramatic increase in penile and genital abnormalities in baby boys.”

Do we know that? Apart from the fact that the epidemiological studies cited fall into the category of statistical insignificance, have numerous confounding factors and that such studies by their very nature are incapable of showing cause and effect, numerous other studies have found no increase in the decrease of manliness, please excuse the phrasing. Studies like one in 2004 from Scotland published in the British Medical Journal, one from California that went on for 13 years, and others from Washington State, Finland and New York, all show no such increase… decrease… you get the picture.

That brings us to Lake Apopka, home of the not-so-well-endowed alligators. It’s not your average, everyday, run-of-the-mill lake. It’s the most polluted lake in the sunshine state because in 1980 it received an unintentional, yet rather large, spill of industrial pesticides into its waters from the Tower Chemical Company. High concentrations of DDT, its metabolites and sulphuric acid were dumped into the lake.

While it is true that exposure to high concentrations of certain specific pesticides over long periods of time can lead to the kind of penile problems to which Guillette refers, it is quite a leap to suggest that this is the case for all pesticides, at all levels of exposure. In fact, it is down right unscientific. The most basic and fundamental rule of toxicology is that “the dose makes the poison.” Implicit in this rule is the notion that such poisons are actually there in the first place. Lawn-care products do not and probably never did contain DDT, sulphuric acid or, for that matter, DBCP, another chemical found to cause sterility at high doses.

In all of the mad, modern rush to scare people away from lawn-care products, Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine’s scientific correspondent, raises a good public policy question about foggy, obscure studies like Guillette’s. “How much time and resources do we (government, industry and consumers) want to spend in chasing what have so often turned out to be phantom risks?” he asks.

Despite the deprivation suffered by lady alligators in Lake Apopka, the rest of the world does not share their fate. The evidence indicates that today’s men are well, as manly as they’ve ever been. Even the ones who spray dandelions on the weekends.

This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press June 11, 2006.