The manufacture of pesticides is an ideal business: once a nation's
farmers start using toxic chemicals for pest control, the need for new
chemical pesticides is endless. Nature requires growers to constantly
increase their use of chemicals and it requires chemists to develop new
poisons continuously. Here's how it works:
Pests (whether they be insects, bacteria or other forms of life), like
all living things, undergo random genetic mutations. Each generation of
new pests contains a few members with new characteristics. The vast
majority of these new characteristics are not beneficial and the odd
creatures usually die out. But once in a while an odd one is born with
beneficial characteristics, such as the ability to withstand a killer
chemical. This creature has what's known as "resistance"--it resists
damage from Toxaphene or Temik, or any of the other 50,000 pesticides
now in use.
The resistant creatures grow and thrive. They produce offspring, some
of whom who are also resistant, and within a decade or two (or less),
huge numbers of resistant creatures have developed. The grower has to
apply more and more chemical, with less and less success. Eventually
that pesticide is no longer effective against those pests, so chemists
have to develop a new killer chemical to attack that particular
species. For a time the new chemical may be effective, but then
"natural selection" will produce a breed of pests resistant to the new
chemical, so chemists have to produce a new killer chemical, and on and
on. There can never be an end to this vicious circle, so long as the
nation's growers refuse to try to get along without killer chemicals.
There are 1500 toxic "active ingredients" registered for use in
pesticides. These are mixed in different proportions with "inert
ingredients," giving us 50,000 different individual chemical
pesticides. The U.S. General Accounting Office (the investigative arm
of Congress) reported in 1986 that none of the 1500 active ingredients
have been adequately tested for health effects and environmental
effects. EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), which has
responsibility for protecting the public from pesticides, estimates
that we will reach the 21st century before they have assessed the
health and environmental effects of today's pesticides.
Today about 1.25 billion pounds of pesticides are intentionally spread
into the environment each year by Americans (75% of it by growers, the
remainder by commercial institutions, governments, and householders).
Between 1964 and 1985, pesticide use on American farms increased 170%.
In 1984, 63% of pesticides were herbicides, 10% were fungicides, and
the remainder (27%) were insecticides. Growers spent $5 billion on
pesticides in 1984.
The National Academy of Sciences during 1985 and 1986 looked at
pesticide use on U.S. food crops, trying to get a handle on some of the
health risks. A total of 289 active ingredients are used on food crops
and, of these, the EPA has identified 53 as oncogenic (they cause
tumors in animals or humans). (This does not mean only 53 of 289 were
oncogenic; the EPA has not collected adequate oncogenicity data on 88
chemicals registered before 1980.)
The Academy reported that 62% of all herbicides now in use are
oncogenic; 90% of all fungicides in use are oncogenic. The Academy did
not report a comparable figure for insecticides but said it was "low."
The Academy then estimated that about 20,000 cancers per year are
caused by exposure of Americans to pesticides on food. The Academy did
not try to estimate other health damage caused by exposure to
pesticides, nor did they concern themselves with environmental effects
(contamination and loss of fish, birds, molluscs, or other living
Most U.S. pesticide use (85% of herbicides, 70% of insecticides) occurs
on four crops: corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat. Ironically, these
crops are produced in much larger quantities than needed. For example,
in 1986, U.S. farmers planted 40% more corn than needed and 30% more
wheat than needed; the government bought these crops and put them into
Dr. Barry Commoner and associates have carried out full-scale farming
experiments, demonstrating that dramatic reduction in the use of farm
chemicals is entirely possible, without loss in productivity. As with
so much else in our economy, American farming seems hooked on hazardous
chemicals in ways that are destructive, irrational, and not necessary.
For further information, contact: Dr. Barry Commoner, Center for the
Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, Flushing, NY 11367; phone
(718) 670-4182. Information in this article from: William Reilly and
others. STATE OF THE ENVIRONMENT: A VIEW TOWARD THE NINETIES
(Washington, DC: Conservation Foundation [1250 24th St., NW,
Washington, DC 20037; phone: (202) 293-4800], 1987; $19.95 per copy;
and from: Ray Thornton and others, REGULATING PESTICIDES IN FOOD,
(Washington, DC: National Academy Press [2101 Constitution Ave., NW,
Washington, DC 20418; phone (202) 334-2665], 1987; $19.95 per copy.
MOTHERS EATING GREAT LAKES FISH BEAR INFANTS SHOWING PCB EFFECTS
A study of 313 infants born in Michigan hospitals reveals that mothers
eating fish from the Great Lakes have a shortened gestation period and
produce babies that are shorter, weigh less, have smaller heads, and
suffer from behavioral disorders in their reflexes at birth. Women in
the "high exposure" category ate about 14 pounds of Great Lakes fish
per year for six years or more. (Average fish consumption in the U.S.
is 17 pounds per person per year.)
The culprit in the Great Lakes is PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls,
which contaminate all fish in the Great Lakes (and, indeed, in many
other bodies of water, such as the coastal oceans). PCBs enter the
Great Lakes principally as air pollution. Historically, PCBs have been
poured on the ground and left to evaporate slowly into the atmosphere.
Later, they are brought back to earth by rain.
The study of Michigan women and their babies is: Greta Fein and others,
INTRAUTERINE EXPOSURE OF HUMANS TO PCBS; NEWBORN EFFECTS (Duluth, MN:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Research
Laboratory, 1984); available for $13.95 from: National Technical
Information Service (NTIS), Springfield, VA 22161; phone (703) 487-
4600. Ask for publication No. PB8418-888-7.
Descriptor terms: pcbs; death; death statistics; fish; great lakes;
birth defects; developmental disorders; mi; water contamination; water;
health; health statistics; epa; studies; findings; regulation; health;
investigations; pesticides; chemical production; farms; agriculture;
farmers; herbicides; toxaphene; temik; toxicity; studies; congress;
gao; health statistics; health; epa; fungicides; national academy of
sciences; carcinogens; cancer; disease; disease statistics; food; barry
commoner; william reilly; ray thornton;