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By GERALD WINEGRAD
Pesticide use has greatly expanded and become ubiquitous in our world. Pesticides are in our blood and tissues, in mother’s milk, in our food and land and waters, and in our wildlife. About $15 billion is spent annually on pesticides in the U.S., a five-fold increase since 1960, adjusting for inflation. More than one billion pounds of pesticides are sold – 90% used in agriculture. Globally, 5.6 billion pounds are used.
More than 34,000 pesticides that are derived from about 600 basic chemicals are registered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Most are designed to kill, disrupting vital biological processes such as blocking photosynthesis in plants or blood clotting in mammals. Others repel target species. They can be divided into groups based on the organisms they target: Herbicides for weeds and plants; (herbicides—the largest use); insecticides for insects; rodenticides for mice and rats; and fungicides for fungus.
The use of modern pesticides presents the rare case in which the deliberate release of toxic chemicals into the environment is legally authorized. No pesticide is “safe;” they are all designed to kill or repel something. As noted by the EPA: “By their very nature, most pesticides create some risk of harm. Pesticides can cause harm to humans, animals, or the environment because they are designed to kill or otherwise adversely affect living organisms.”
Repeated and widespread use has led to species developing pesticide resistance, causing greater dosages of pesticides and the development of more lethal chemicals. In the 1940s, U.S. farmers lost 7% of their crops to pests but since the 1980s, that loss has increased to 13% even with more sophisticated and deadly pesticides being used. Intensive farming also has led to increased pesticide use.
Since 1947, all pesticides have been regulated in the U.S. under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, with enforcement authority and implementation shared with the states. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, exposed the weaknesses in pesticide regulation and the hazards of the widely used pesticide DDT and other organochlorines. DDT was considered the most powerful pesticide the world had ever known, capable of killing hundreds of different kinds of insects at once, not just a target species.
Even with Carson’s seminal book and solid documentation of DDT’s devastating impacts, it took until 1972 for the EPA to ban DDT’s agricultural use, followed by a worldwide ban on such use in 2004. DDT still has limited use in mosquito control in some countries. The ban on DDT was a major factor in the comeback of the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon from near-extinction and the restoration of ospreys.
Spurred by “Silent Spring” and its aftermath, Congress enacted major revisions to its pesticide regulations in 1972, shifting implementation from the Department of Agriculture to the Environmental Protection Agency. Unfortunately, in most states (including Maryland), local control of pesticides remains in agriculture departments that have built-in conflicts preventing proper controls and inspections.
All pesticides must be registered by EPA for specific uses under federal law, and the applicant must show that use of the pesticide according to its specifications “will not generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment’’ so that there is “no unreasonable risk to humans or the environment, taking into account the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of the use of the pesticide or a human dietary risk from residues in or on any food.”
Since it is up to the chemical manufacturers to submit the data necessary for registration, many pesticides have not been properly vetted. Once registered, it is very difficult to revoke registration or restrict uses. There are 72 pesticides banned or being phased out in the European Union that are used in U.S. agriculture today. And it is not just farm use that presents a problem: There is widespread overuse of lawn chemicals on the huge acreage of turf grass.
To be clear, synthetic pesticides have been used successfully to fight insect vectors causing serious human diseases and also to prevent crop and livestock and turf grass and ornamental plant losses. DDT was initially used with great effect to combat malaria, typhus, and other insect-borne human diseases. It also was effective for insect control in crop and livestock production.
Yet like most organochlorines, the environmental effects were severe with probable cancerous and reproductive damage in humans, including on embryonic development, endocrine disorders, poor infant neuromuscular and cognitive development, as well as reproductive impact on birds and liver tumors in wildlife. As a result, alternative treatment methods for disease vectors and insect pests have been deployed.
The corporate chemical giants always race to invent new pesticides and next up were organophosphates, developed by the Germans as highly toxic chemical warfare nerve agents in World War II. By the late 1970s, organophosphates and carbamates had, for the most part, replaced the more persistent organochlorines as insecticides of choice. When serious human and ecological impacts were noted, triazines were developed, and now, perhaps most dangerous of all, neonicotinoid pesticides have come into widespread use.
We are left facing the legacy of old pesticides, some of which stay with us for many decades, while new pesticides are being introduced annually. For example, chlordane widely used to kill termites, was banned in 1988. It is still commonly found in some form in the fat of fish, birds, mammals, and almost all humans. In Chesapeake Bay waters, chlordane continues to pollute, along with other long-banned organochlorine pesticides including DDT and its breakdown component, DDE, and dieldrin, which was banned in 1987.
Agricultural pesticides kill at least 72 million birds a year, including bald eagles. Besides humans, other non-target species such as fish and other aquatic life and pollinators are being affected by pesticides. A rigorous global scientific review found that 41% of global insect species have declined over the past decade including 53% of butterflies and 46% of bees. The lead author concluded “80% of the biomass of insects has disappeared in 25-30 years … If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind.”
Why? Such a significant decline threatens the entire food chain, the web of life, and other critters. About 75% of crop plants depend on pollinators, mostly insects – bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, and even flies. One-third of all food we consume depends on pollinators. Ninety percent of all flowering plants also are dependent on pollinators.
Black Swallowtail Butterfly on coneflower in Carol’s pesticide free garden. (Carol Swan)
Pesticides are no doubt one of the causative factors in this crash, particularly the dangerous newer neonicotinoid insecticides, now the most widely used pesticides on Earth and known to cause die-offs of honeybees. U.S. agriculture is now 40 times more toxic to insects, largely due to use of neonics. Designed to replace organophosphates, they are also so deadly to birds that a single neonic-coated seed can kill a songbird. Half the U.S. human population above 3 years old are exposed to neonics on a regular basis with particular concern for long-term neurological damage to children.
American Bird Conservancy and Harvard School of Public Health scientists tested 66 food samples from congressional cafeterias in 2015 and found 91% contain neonicotinoid insecticides. These pesticides are readily available on store shelves, used on everything from produce to pets.
In 2016, the Maryland legislature finally passed the Pollinator Protection Act, which limited the use of neonicotinoids to only farmers and certified pesticide applicators such as lawn care companies. This still allows widespread use on farms and turf accounting for more than 90% of use. Maryland became the second state to do so.
In June, 38 Congressmen introduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (H.R. 4079), which would suspend use of neonicotinoids and establish a Pollinator Protection Board to improve monitoring of pollinator populations. The neonicotinoid manufacturers, Farm Bureau, agribusiness and agricultural departments vigorously oppose such legislation.
The lack of proper regulation and use of pesticides is having catastrophic results. We must find alternatives and end this prolific release of toxic chemicals into our environment. My next column will follow up on this problem.
Gerald Winegrad represented the greater Annapolis area in the Legislature for 16 years, where he championed efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay. He served on the tri-State Chesapeake Bay Commission and taught graduate courses in bay restoration and wildlife management he authored. Contact him at email@example.com.