Pesticides Are Prevalent and Poisonous

Preparing to spray a hazardous pesticide        Photo: USDA, Wiki CC

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Pesticides are harmful to insects and other wildlife — including humans. The first real accounting of pesticide poisoning since 1990 found that: 

The study, which was based on 170 studies from 140 countries, shows the human toll of modern pesticides worldwide. These natural and synthetic chemicals are used to control weeds, insects, and disease, but in the process pollute the air, water, and soil, compounding their harm to people. An estimated 3.5 million tons of pesticides were applied last year.

Why This Matters: We’ve been relying on old data about farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides for the past 30 years, and thus the full picture of the harmful impact of these products on people has been underappreciated. In that time, pesticide use has exploded, rising 81% worldwide (and as high as 500% in South America). Any single incident of pesticide poisoning can cause a person to be in pain and unable to work; in the long-term, it can lead to chronic disease. As Civil Eats writes, “The conclusions should alarm us all and kick policymakers into gear on long-standing commitments to crack down on the world’s most toxic pesticides.”

Limitations of U.S. pesticide monitoring 

The U.S. alone applies about half a million tons of pesticides to crops each year. But the Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration, who are tasked with keeping tabs on how safe these chemicals are, use an approach that doesn’t adequately capture the risk. It’s common for farmers to spray multiple chemicals at once, but the agencies only assess risk one at a time. Many pesticides are harmful at very low doses, but the health impacts aren’t immediately apparent, which isn’t taken into account in current risk assessments. And no part of the monitoring program accounts for the harm to workers applying and farming with the chemicals. 

Bad to worse

Under the Trump administration, harmful pesticides were reintroduced instead of regulated. One of the most shocking examples was the administration allowing chlorpyrifos, a chemical known to hinder brain development in children and harm farmworkers, to be used again. 

To Go Deeper: Read the full Civil Eats interview with the study’s authors, Wolfgang Boedeker, an epidemiologist and board member of Pesticide Action Network-Germany; and Emily Marquez, a staff scientist with the Pesticide Action Network-North America, here.

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