Drinking Water as a Pro-Life Issue

August 27, 2009 at 11:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Commentators have been raising questions lately about the commitment, or lack thereof, of American religious leaders–and particularly the American Catholic bishops–to the current effort to reform American health care. Frances Kissling finds the bishops’ preoccupation with abortion, rather than with wider aspects of health care, troubling.

Readers will have their own thoughts about whether “abortion neutrality,” as the bishops phrase it, should be a health-care-reform deal-breaker. But the bishops may need to be reminded that  there’s nothing simple or uncomplicated about being “pro-life,” as a recent New York Times  article, “Debating Just How Much Week Killer is Safe in Your Water Glass,” illustrates.

According to author Charles Duhigg, research in recent years has suggested that the weed killer atrazine, used widely by farmers, lawn care workers, and gardeners, is dangerous at much lower concentrations than has been previously believed. And levels of atrazine have been found to be spiking in drinking water supplies around the country.

What exactly is the problem with this? As Duhigg reports, 

“In recent years, five epidemiological studies published in peer-reviewed journals have found evidence suggesting that small amounts of atrazine in drinking water, including levels considered safe by federal standards, may be associated with birth defects, including including skull and facial deformations and misshapen limbs–as well as low birth weights in newborns and premature births.”

And defects and premature births, Duhigg goes on to say, “are leading causes of infant deaths.” Moreover, as the concentration of atrazine in the water rises, the incidence of birth defects are believed to grow.

But despite these studies, the Environmental Protection Agency has denied that Americans are being exposed to unsafe levels of atrazine, and that regulations concerning  atrazine are adequate to protect human health. A study of the EPA by the Pew Charitable trusts argues, however, that the EPA has been working with weak laws and that needed research at the agency is seriously underfunded; another problem is “institutional inertia” against change. In the meantime, an estimated thirty-three million Americans have been exposed to atrazine in their tap water. And those who would argue that the research is not conclusive–since testing pesticides on pregnant women is unethical–need to know that atrazine is already banned in the European Union.

Nowhere does the Times article directly connect the increase in fetus-harming, infant-killing atrazine in US tapwater and the policies of the previous administration, but it’s not hard for the reader to make that connection. Stephen A. Owens, the recently confirmed new assistant EPA administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances has said that atrazine is one of the substances the agency will now be taking a hard look at.

This brings us back to the bishops.  When they oppose the Obama administration for its position on “life,”–when my own bishop here in Brooklyn tells members of the diocese they can’t be faithful Catholics and support President Obama–precisely which fetuses do they think they’re protecting?

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