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#247 - The False Promise Of Pesticides, 20-Aug-1991

For nearly 50 years, mainstream American science has told us that
modern life would be impossible without chemical pesticides. A tight
alliance of chemical (petroleum) companies and government researchers
has repeated the litany over and over: pesticides are essential to a
low-cost supply of food, and pesticides have brought many human
diseases under control. Believing the promises of the agro-chemical
industry, the taxpaying public has supported a phalanx of researchers
for 40 years at the nation's agricultural colleges. Armed with the
research results, chemical companies have marketed new bug killers and
weed killers, reaping enormous profits while the world's environment
absorbed the toxic damage, most of which has been purposefully not
studied by mainstream science.

Now it is clear that the promise of chemical pesticides has never been
realized: a writer in SCIENCE magazine recently summed it up this way:
[1] "Efforts to control crop damage solely with pesticides have by and
large failed and, in developing countries, insect-borne diseases remain
as serious a threat as ever." Annual crop losses to insects in the U.S.
were 7% in 1940 but rose to 13% in the 1980s, despite an enormous
increase in the amount and toxicity of chemical pesticides.
Furthermore, the scientists who asked us to put our faith in chemical
poisons simply overlooked the real Achilles heel of pesticides: pests
develop resistance to chemicals in just a few years, so even the
deadliest chemicals become ineffective against their targets rather
quickly. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 447 different
species of insects, ticks and mites are now resistant to some or all
pesticides.

The extent of the problem is "rather startling" says Robert Metcalf of
the University of Illinois. "It makes you think we're doing something
wrong."

Something wrong indeed. It isn't merely that the nation wastes billions
of dollars paying petrochemical firms to produce ineffective products.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers, somewhere
between 97% and 99% of all pesticides never reach their intended
targets. But those pesticides go SOMEWHERE, and they are toxic.

Researchers at a federal government laboratory have recently offered an
unusually candid appraisal of the dark truth about pesticides:[2]
"Numerous and myriad adverse health effects in humans, livestock, and
wildlife have been documented as being associated with pesticide
exposure. Typically, they involve both acute and delayed manifestations
of toxicity to the nervous and reproductive systems. Because pesticides
are designed and selected for their biologic--that is toxicologic--
activity, exposure and toxicity to non-target species are inevitable
and remain significant problems. Pesticides have been shown capable of
disrupting virtually every major organ system. These adverse effects
include altered immune system function, mutagenic and teratogenic
responses, embryo toxicity and reproductive failure, and an array of
neurologic effects."

Despite the growing recognition that we might all be better off without
chemical pesticides, in 1988, more than one billion pounds of
pesticides and related products were used in the U.S.: 660 million
pounds of herbicides (weed-killers), 132 million pounds of fungicides
(fungus killers), 268 million pounds of insecticides, and 70 million
pounds of related chemicals. That's roughly four pounds for every man,
woman and child in America.

One sector of the pesticide business is growing particularly rapidly:
lawn care. Companies with a dubious record are pushing into the lawn
care business where profits are booming. Americans spent about $700
million in 1987 purchasing some 67 million pounds of toxins for their
lawns. The industry is reportedly growing about 9% per year, thus
doubling in size every 8 years.

The business is largely unregulated because U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) has responsibility for curtailing illegal
activities in the lawn care industry, and the agency has shown little
interest in fulfilling its responsibilities.

A recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO),[3] an arm
of Congress, found that, "The lawn care industry is making claims that
its products are safe or nontoxic." GAO staff, posing as private
homeowners, phoned lawn care companies to ask for information on the
toxicity of chemicals. They reported that lawn care representatives
said things like:

** "Our products are practically nontoxic; no one gets sick."

** "The only way to be affected by [the pesticide] 2,4-D would be to
lay [sic] in it for a few days."

** "The safety issue has been blown out of proportion. Such a small
amount of chemicals are put directly on plants.... [They do] not affect
animals or people."

** "All chemicals [used] are nontoxic."

GAO looked at printed advertisements by lawn care companies and found
the following kinds of claims:

** "Non-Toxic: Completely safe for humans, the environment, and
beneficial insects."

** "End use lawn care material is classified as practically non- toxic
to humans, pets, and the environment."

** "...is safe to use. It won't harm flowers, foliage or fruit. There's
no danger to honeybees or other beneficial insects. And [this product]
is safe to applicators...."

GAO asked EPA officials what they thought of these kinds of claims and
EPA officials said they were false and misleading. Under the federal
pesticide law [FIFRA--Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, Rodenticide Act],
EPA can crack down on false advertising with civil penalties up to
$5,000, criminal penalties up to $50,000, and up to a year's jail term.
However, GAO studied EPA's pesticide enforcement prior to 1986 and
pointed out in 1986 that EPA was doing a poor job. GAO reported in 1990
that since 1986, EPA's enforcement job has gotten even worse.

In 1978, Congress required EPA to take a fresh look at all pesticides.
Of the 34 major lawn-care chemicals now in use, not one of them has yet
been fully reassessed by EPA.

However a private organization[4] has testified before Congress that
these 34 chemicals have many undesirable effects: 35% of them have been
detected in groundwater, 32% are toxic to birds, 62% are toxic to fish,
and 35% are toxic to bees. Across the country bees are declining in
number and farmers are wondering, if bees were to disappear, where
would they get the free pollination services bees now provide?

The 34 common lawn chemicals have other problems: 29% of them cause
cancer, 35% cause birth defects, 21% interfere with reproduction, 59%
are toxic to the nervous system, 38% cause kidney or liver damage, and
85% are sensitizers--they cause some people to develop an allergic-type
reaction to the chemical. In extreme cases, people become entirely
disabled by exposure to a sensitizing chemical.[5]

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Constance Holdren, "Entomologists Wane as Insects Wax," SCIENCE
Vol. 246 (Nov. 10, 1989), pgs. 754-756.

[2] James Huff and Joseph K. Haseman, "Exposure to Certain Pesticides
May Pose Real Carcinogenic Risk," JOURNAL OF PESTICIDE REFORM Vol. 11,
No. 2 (Summer, 1991), pgs. 10-14; this is a reprint of an article that
first appeared in CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS (Jan. 7, 1991). The
authors are with the Division of Biometry and Risk Assessment of the
National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, P.O. Box 12233,
Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27709.

[3] Richard L. Hembra and others, LAWN CARE PESTICIDES: RISKS REMAIN
UNCERTAIN WHILE PROHIBITED SAFETY CLAIMS CONTINUE [GAO/RCED-90-134]
(Gaithersburg, MD: U.S. general Accounting Office [P.O. Box 6015,
Gaithersburg. MD 20877; phone (202) 275-6241], 1990. Free upon request;
phone orders accepted.

[4] "Statement of Jay Feldman, National Coordinator, National Coalition
Against the Misuse of Pesticides [NCAMP] Before the Subcommittee on
Toxic Substances, Environmental Oversight, Research and Development,
Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate, May 9, 1991."
Available from NCAMP, 701 E St., SE, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20003;
phone (202) 543-5450.

[5] Marion Moses, "Pesticide-Related Health Problems and Farmworkers,"
AAOHN [American Association of Occupational Health Nurses] JOURNAL Vol.
37, No. 3 (March, 1989), pgs. [115-130.]115-130.

Descriptor terms: usda; pesticides; chemical industry; wildlife;
livestock; health; toxicity; herbicides; fungicides; insecticides; epa;
gao; fifra; cancer; carcinogens;