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Stop Pesticides: Bugs Are Better

by james huff


You may ask yourself, are pesticides safe? You may further ask yourself, are chemicals safe? After all, pesticides are chemicals. And pesticides are one of the few classes of chemicals that are designed, synthesized, produced, and sold to kill. Sold to make lots of money too, and to kill living organisms. Even the name "pesticides" was coined to indicate death to "pests". Now it would be wonderful if pesticides only killed "pests", or at least what sellers and users define as "pests", but this is far from true. Pesticides — insecticides, herbicides, biocides, fungicides, nematicides —"destroy plant, fungal, or animal pests", according to most dictionaries. Indeed, because animals are mammals, and because humans are mammals, pesticides are also dangerous and lethal to humans. And pesticides can cause not only toxic effects to humans, but chemical sensitivity syndrome and cancer as well. Our children and pets are equally or perhaps more vulnerable to pesticide exposures. Indiscriminately, then, pesticides exhibit no partiality in exerting their toxic effects. So, the question may be, how do we best utilize pesticides as safely as feasible in our modern and industrialized society? The answer may be, use less pesticides, use the "least hazardous" ones, and use them more sparingly and more safely, while treating and handling them with due care and appropriate fear. Unfortunately we more often seem to use pesticides carelessly, perhaps mesmerized by familiarity and the purposeful glamorous and unlimited advertising.

Pesticides are harmful

Synthetic pesticides are designed specifically to kill organisms, organisms considered by many farmers and the pesticide industry as anathema to better and abundant farming. Unfortunately, pesticides have also been shown to cause varied toxicologic effects as well as cancers in laboratory animals and humans; about one-third of those commercially available pesticides tested by the National Toxicology Program have induced cancers in laboratory animals. And we know from experience that chemicals causing cancer in animals are more then likely to be carcinogenic to humans as well.

Conversely, "natural pesticides", evolutionarily in plants, developed to taste bad or to make the marauding organism sick, thus imprinting the message in the memory of the "attacker" to either "leave that plant alone" or "not to try eating that plant again". Further, isn't it a bit silly to think, as some do, that plants would conjure up "biochemicals" necessary for their survival that would cause "long term" toxic or carcinogenic effects in their attackers? Obviously by the time that debilitation occurred, all the plants in a particular species would be gone; long since eaten. Also, only few "natural" pesticides have been considered economically feasible to market. One of the few exceptions is pyrethrins, obtained from chrysanthemums. The agricultural and industrial emphasis has and continues to be on synthetic chemical pesticides. Obviously, these are patentable, unlike their naturally occurring counterparts, and make lots of money for the chemical industry.

Amounts of pesticides

Synthetic pesticides have become essential for our way of life in modern society. According to the United States International Trade Commission, somewhat over 1,325,000,000 pounds of pesticides and related products are produced annually in our country. As generally used, the term pesticides includes herbicides (880 million pounds), fungicides (130 million pounds), insecticides (185 million pounds), and nematicides (100 million pounds). Production of pesticides since 1986 has increased from under one billion pounds to nearly 1.4 billion pounds in 1996, an annual increase of 3% during this decade. Annual sales of pesticides exceed $5 billion.

To put these figures in some perspective, the amount of pesticides produced annually in the US allows for use or exposure to 5.3 pounds for every man, woman, and child. If only farmers and farm workers were allocated the total pesticides cache, then each would use or be exposed to 125-150 pounds.

The upsurge of organic chemical production in the US is a modern phenomenon: in the year 1940 about 1,300,000,000 pounds of all synthetic chemicals were produced; in 1950 this increased 38-fold to 49 billion pounds; in 1960 the amount doubled to 97 billion; in 1970 production more than doubled to 233 billion; in 1980 the volume hit 320 billion; and in 1990 the combined production of all synthetic organic chemicals and primary products from petroleum and natural gas amounted to nearly 400 billion pounds, with sales of 217 billion valued at close to $100,000,000,000. Thus, in less than 50 years the production of organic chemicals has jumped close to 310 times, and continues to increase. Pesticides have likewise enjoyed similar and perhaps more spectacular growth.

Moreover, the numbers of pesticides and the amounts of pesticides usage, together with the virtual avalanche of multiple formulations and myriad chemical structural varieties, have increased enormously since their introduction in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, with chemical innovations and formulations continuing at even higher pace today. Unfortunately, according to the National Academy of Sciences, only proportionately few of these natural, synthetic, or extracted "natural" chemicals have been adequately studied and evaluated for toxicologic potential. Further, in most pesticide formulations there are myriad "inert" ingredients that are not specifically identified or that have been evaluated for untoward effects.

Safe at any cost? The absolute certainty with which those who proclaim the faultless safety of pesticides is astounding. The recent surfeit of editorials and articles extinguishing pesticides from any human health hazards - especially cancers - is premature at best. And seriously wrong. Yet these same writers uniformly agree that "diet" represents upwards of 30% of human cancer risks. Here too the data are very flimsy, frequently contradictory and confusing, and likewise a bit impulsive. Surely we must remember that the "diet" we enjoy contains, and is typically contaminated with, synthetic pesticides [among other myriad chemicals added intentionally to our foods]. In the 6 March 1998 Science magazine, worries have been expressed that pesticides are killing enormous numbers of pollinating bees and other species; thus reducing the national capability to pollinate crops and natural flowering species. This lack of species pollinators is nearing criticality.

Ironically, the extent of crop "damage" and losses due to pests has actually increased with increasing pesticide usage. As with the dilemma of antibiotics and overuse, pesticides have allowed and stimulated pesticides-resistant mutants of pests to become rampant and ubiquitous. Where is the uncontested proof that pesticides are indeed beneficial? The answer: very little is available, given that more crops are lost to pests than ever before, and pesticides-associated illness among farm workers is typically ignored and uncontrolled. Similarly, toxic responses, injury, and death among farm workers have increased significantly worldwide. This problem is especially severe for farm workers in developing countries, where safety and health regulations are absent, minimal, immature, or not enforced. In fact, pesticides banned in the United States are often manufactured here and then shipped for sale and use in other countries. One might compare this to the current trend in the marketing of tobacco products. Money talks, and concerns for the public health are neglected or ignored.

Lastly, numerous published articles have reported associations between occupational exposures [and farming in general] as well as home use of pesticides and human cancers. Unfortunately, farmers do have higher occupational risks for leukemias, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and for cancers of the lung, pancreas, brain, lip, skin, and testis. Household pets and young children seem to be particularly sensitive to the harmful effects of pesticides, largely because both stay close to the floors where pesticides are applied, and children have incomplete defense mechanisms.

Although exposures to a carcinogenic pesticide, or to any carcinogenic chemical, are most often lower than the exposures used to identify carcinogenic activity in laboratory animals, can not and should not be taken to mean that these lower exposures would eliminate the chemicals' carcinogenic potential, or make that chemical a noncarcinogen. Especially since we are exposed to so many chemical carcinogens, including pesticides, virtually all the time. Regardless of the known hazards, or lack of current information associating carcinogenic hazards to exposure, the right thing to do is to reduce all exposures to chemicals and in particular to chemicals shown to cause cancer in animals or in humans. To cavalierly dismiss the real and potential hazards of pesticides exposures using incomplete information does not bode well for either public or occupational health.

What to do

When will we ever learn that chemicals and thus pesticides are indeed harmful? And take proper precautions? Obviously manufacturers place warning labels on their products, primarily because the regulatory agencies insist on it. However, we don't seem to either read these warnings or don't wish to adhere to them. Much of this laissez faire attitude comes from the drumbeat from the chemical industry proclaiming the harmlessness, value, and essentiality of their chemicals. Clearly, we have become dependent on [addicted to?] chemical usage in our industrialized and chemical-driven society. Perhaps now is the season to wean ourselves from such dependency, or at least it is now time to reduce our often unnecessary and abundant use of harmful chemicals. Chemicals indeed have become essential to our fashioned life-styles; chemicals have made our lives better in many respects; chemicals may even play some role in our increased longevity; yet chemicals are also toxic and carcinogenic, especially when misused and abused. Let's continue to seek ways to better our environment and at the same time reduce our use of chemicals per se, and pesticides in particular. We owe this to our children and to subsequent generations.

  james huff is a parent, runner, poet, and scientist. He can be contacted at 209 Longwood Drive, Chapel Hill, NC 27514; 919 541 3780; fax: 919 541 5002; <huff1@niehs.nih.gov>  

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