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Enduring Concerns about Pesticide Food Contamination

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety on May 27, 2018

It is one of the foundations of the organic food movement – the concerns over pesticides and food safety. There exists a great deal of concern over whether pesticides are poison, and if they are the basis for certain health issues in the United States today.

What the United States Federal Government has to Say About Pesticides

The EPA is the police force when it comes to pesticides according to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. This agency regulates pesticides under two legal acts – which were amended by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. In the United States, pesticides must be registered with the EPA prior to use. According to the EPA’s website, companies who register pesticides must apply for approval with:

  • the ingredients of the pesticide;
  • the particular site or crop where it is to be used;
  • the amount, frequency, and timing of its use; and
  • storage and disposal practices.

But is Registration Enough?

Some do not think so. In 2011, two Greek scientists, Christos A. Damalas and Ilias G. Eleftherohorinos, examined this idea of regulating pesticides and safety:

“Although pesticides are developed through very strict regulation processes to function with reasonable certainty and minimal impact on human health and the environment, serious concerns have been raised about health risks resulting from occupational exposure and from residues in food and drinking water.”

Their conclusion was vague, but bold, calling for more analytics and examination:

“Several indicators have been used to assess the potential risk of pesticides to human health and the environment. However, their use indicated reduced certainty, suggesting the need for development of alternative indicators that should increase the accuracy and reliability of pesticide risk assessment and thus contribute to reduction of the possible adverse effects of pesticides on human health and the environment.”

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also engage in regulation of pesticides. With the EPA, these agencies:

  • set standards for the level of pesticide residue that is allowed on or in crops;
  • examine and analyze what the potential human health is when exposed to pesticides; and
  • determine what environmental effects might be associated with the use of pesticides.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over one billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States annually. Globally, that number is closer to 5.6 billion pounds per year. EPA data also reveals that of the common types of pesticides available, herbicides (or weed killers such as Monsanto’s Round-Up) are most frequently purchased and applied. In the year 2012 alone, twenty five million dollars were spent globally on just herbicides.

Pesticides At Home

But pesticides are not just in commercial farms.

Pesticides are sold to three main sectors—(1) industrial, commercial, and governmental, (2) home and garden, and (3) agricultural. The largest buying group is agricultural; however, the numbers for lawn and garden pesticide use are fairly staggering. The non-profit organization Beyond Pesticides reports that “78 million households in the U.S. use home and garden pesticides” and that “[suburban lawns and gardens receive more pesticide applications per acre (3.2-9.8 pounds) than agriculture (2.7 pounds per acre on average).”

What Are Pesticides?

Pesticides come in different formulations such as liquid, chalk, pellets, granules, baits, etc. Pesticide products are also sold in different concentrations and in different types of packaging. Fine powders and volatile pesticides are more easily inhaled. Higher concentrated products are more dangerous to handle and bright colored baits have been ingested by toddlers and pets.

Given the amount of pesticides being purchased and applied, perhaps it should come as no surprise that pesticides are also being consumed, directly or indirectly. Recently aired internal FDA emails revealed that the agency has discovered elevated levels of glyphosate, the main ingredient in weed killer, in a host of food items including corn meal, wheat crackers and honey. These statistics only cause the concerns to continue to grow.

What is Being Done?

In 2015, the California passed a Pesticide Contamination Prevention Act aiming at redressing this environmental and health issue. To date, no other states have followed suit with similar legislation. Only time will tell if others jump on the bandwagon.

Can Consumers Help Themselves?

This leaves consumers on their own as they try and navigate which foods may be unsafe do to pesticide contamination. The National Pesticide Information Center recommends some basic steps, such as washing, drying and peeling fruits and vegetables and eating a variety of foods to limit exposure to one particular chemical. But is this enough?

The problem of pesticide contamination runs deep and is far reaching, literally. Pesticides applied to plants leak into the soil and poison groundwater. Sprayed pesticides may drift, carried by the wind. Pesticides may also volatize into the air. In their work monitoring ground and surface water, the US Geological Survey (USGS) recently found that 90% of streams and 50% of wells tested were positive for at least one pesticide.

What Are the Health Issues?

The side effects of long term indirect pesticide exposure has been not been clearly reported to the public. Though groups, such as the World Health Organization, have declared it a global health problem, the FDA email illustrates how little consumers really know about the amount of pesticides they are taking in, directly via food or water or indirectly via environmental exposure. And the public has a lot to lose because of information that is being under-examined or under-reported.

Exposure to pesticides has been linked to increased incidence of leukemia, asthma, and miscarriage. Low level chronic pesticides exposure can also adversely impact neurodevelopment and function.  Studies suggest that low level chronic exposure can also impair the body’s immune system. Certain pesticides may also act as endocrine disrupters which may alter reproduction and cause birth defects.

Moving Forward

Action needs to be taken on the multiple levels in order to reduce pesticide contamination of food and general pesticide exposure. On the local level, cosmetic use of pesticides should be avoided as should regularly schedule pesticide applications. Integrative Pest Management, which limits use of chemicals, is more environmentally sound. On the national level, the accessibility to pesticides should be limited. Further education is needed to inform the public of the risks associated with the products they may unthinkingly select at a big box store.

Greater surveillance of pesticide related health concerns are also imperative. As Beyond Pesticides notes, “Pesticide testing protocol was developed before science fully understood the human immune and hormonal system. EPA still does not evaluate data for several neurological effects or disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system.” Better scientific understanding is needed of the true effects of pesticides. Rooting out potential human toxins needs to be a national–and global–public health priority.

By: Kate Delany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)