Widespread Herbicide Use Turns Males into Females (Frogs, that is, but Still…)

Ever heard of atrazine? Probably not, but it’s one of the most abundant herbicides used in modern agriculture. In fact, 80 million pounds of atrazine are used every year on crops like corn and sugar cane, and it’s also used to treat residential areas like parks and golf courses. But like most chemical herbicides, atrazine has some pretty scary health effects.

Atrazine is a potent hormone disruptor, which means it interferes with the production of certain hormones in the body like estrogen and testosterone—and that’s not good news for some tiny amphibians. Remember hearing about the hermaphroditic frogs (both male and female) from back in 2002? Yep, that was atrazine. And even more alarming is that those frogs were exposed to very low levels of atrazine—about 30 times below safe drinking water levels!  

Now current research tells us that 75 percent of adult male frogs are essentially sterile—devoid of testosterone and unable to reproduce in the wild. But, the interesting part is that frog populations haven’t declined drastically yet because one in ten male frogs actually functions as a female, sexually reproducing and laying fertile eggs. However, all of the offspring are male, since both parents are genetically male, so it’s only a matter of time before the males overtake the females and frog populations as a whole begin to plummet.

And now you’re probably wondering, “What does all this have to do with humans?” Well, on the one hand, studies in animals illustrate how the environment is adversely affected by our modern way of life. In other words, dangerous chemicals are everywhere and we need to pay attention! Think about it, if atrazine exposure has such a strong effect on frogs, doesn’t it make sense that it might not be good for other animals? Not to mention humans?? The answer is yes. In fact, atrazine’s adverse effects have been seen in other amphibians, as well as fish, birds, reptiles, rodents, and even in human cells, where exposure in utero has been linked to birth defects in babies. 

Atrazine is one of the most common contaminants in America today. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently reviewing its safety, and the European Union has already banned its use. But I wonder, how many studies does it take?!

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