Hundreds of millions of pounds of herbicides and pesticides are used on farms every year. How much ends up on your food?
Just after sunrise, men dressed in red from head to toe move through the field, hovering over small plants, giving each a burst of solution from the wands connected to their backpacks. As the morning temperatures rise, it becomes unbearably hot inside their oversized suits and boots. The men sweat profusely, the masks of their respirators fogging under their labored breathing. But the masks have to stay on-inhaling the chemical vapor could be deadly. Their chemical-resistant gloves are bulky, too big for their hands, but they dare not take them off either, as the poison can be absorbed through skin. One by one the young plants receive their treatment-hundreds of thousands of plants across hundreds of acres, killing the pests that may or may not be hiding there.
This isn’t a scene from a science fiction film – it’s how most fruits and vegetables are grown in the United States. Each year, nearly 857 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides are unleashed on U.S. farms to control insects, weeds and fungi – 80 percent of the entire U.S. stock of pesticides. There are more than one thousand individual ingredients registered for use as pesticides and more than 16,000 products marketed as such, using various combinations of the registered poisons.
Of the 800 million pounds applied, roughly 95% never reach their target pest, contaminating soil and air, leaching into groundwater, or running off into streams, lakes, rivers and oceans. Termed “pesticide drift”, the unintended consequences include the complete collapse of biological ecosystems in the fields where they’re used, contamination of drinking water, poisoning of wild life and marine life and ecological upset in waterways.
“Scientists [for the US Geological Service ] have been working to determine why so many male smallmouth bass in the Potomac River basin have immature female egg cells in their testes (known as testicular oocytes or “TO”).
A high incidence…occurs… where farming is most intense and where human population density is highest. The greatest prevalence of this form of [TO] occurs in the spring, just before and during the spawning season. [TO] …has been associated with known or suspected endocrine disrupting compounds in wastewater and in runoff from farming operations. These compounds can include estrogen from birth control pills and hormone replacements, pesticides and fertilizers used on crops, and hormones from livestock operations.” – US Geological Service, February, 2008
Of the five percent of the pesticide that actually acts on the fruit or vegetable to which it is applied, a small percentage remains on the food that you bring home from the supermarket. That small percentage combined with other small percentages can become a toxic cocktail in your body. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates use of pesticides and periodically re-evaluates their use to determine if they pose a substantial risk to human health or the environment. EPA has established tolerances (maximum legally permissible levels) for each pesticide, which defines the amount of pesticide residue an item of food can legally carry to your table.
The price for living at the top of the food chain
Each year, the US Department of Agriculture conducts the Pesticide Data Program, which monitors the amount of residue in random samples of produce. This is where the non-profit Environmental Working Group pulls the data for its famous “Dirty Dozen” list every year. In their 2011 Dirty Dozen, EWG states that apples, celery, strawberries and peaches contain very significant pesticide residue, while from the same report, the USDA finds no produce exceeding their minimum thresholds. Whose statistics should we believe?
“Environmental exposure to pesticides can occur through the consumption of pesticide‐contaminated water, ingestion of pesticide residues in food, inhalation of airborne drift, exposure to pesticides applied in the home, school or community, or from exposure to improperly disposed hazardous waste.
Because the chemistry of pesticides is highly diverse, they are capable of causing a wide range of adverse health effects…including acute and chronic injury to the nervous system, lung damage, injury to the reproductive organs, dysfunction of the immune and endocrine systems, birth defects, and cancer; these effects can manifest as acutely toxic effects, delayed effects, or chronic effects…. multiple pesticides may have an additive or even synergistic effect.” Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center
Pesticide residue is not only found on fruits and vegetables, but in fish, poultry, beef, pork, even a mother’s breast milk. Since pesticides are used to grow just about anything that livestock graze on, the residue in the forage (plant leaves and stems) is stored in their fatty tissues. Pesticide drift and runoff into waterways is consumed by aquatic life and stored in the fatty tissues of fish. As humans are at the top of the food chain, we consume the chemical residues stored in all of them. This process of amplification is called Bioaccumulation.
In a PBS Report in 2001, reporter Bill Moyers had his blood and urine tested by the Mount Sinai School Of Medicine in New York. What they found was startling: 84 distinct chemicals, including the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in the U.S. since 1972. The EPA banned DDT because it was shown to interfere with the reproductive systems of fish and birds and decimated the populations of certain species.
Why the EPA is hamstrung
When the EPA evaluates a new chemical for agricultural use, if evaluated at all, it studies the immediate, observable effects that chemical may have on human health. It cannot test for the toxic effects of that chemical when absorbed by the body and combined with other chemicals. As each person in the population is exposed to vastly different combinations of chemicals, predicting interactions is virtually impossible. Typically, it’s only after decades of use and a disastrous example of environmental or human poisoning that a ban is enacted.
“At [a concentration of 0.1 parts per billion] Atrazine (an endocrine disruptor pesticide banned in Europe but still one of the most widely used elsewhere) castrates adult male frogs and has irreversible effects on the reproductive capacity of larval amphibians. The effects on amphibian hormonal systems warn of similar effects in humans and may explain associations between low fertility and reproductive cancers in humans.
“Humans share common biological mechanisms with other species which makes us vulnerable to the same substances.” - Health & Environment Alliance, Europe, citing a 2006 study on Endocrine disruptors.
Pesticides are a persistent and consistent threat in our environment. The only way to reduce the chemical cocktail in your fatty tissues is to avoid contact with pesticide treated foods, products, plants, and anything in your day-to-day environment which may have been treated.
If you’re not inclined to grow your own food in an organic garden, then frequent the organic aisle in your supermarket. But don’t be fooled by the “all natural” label that some manufacturers are slapping on their products. That is strictly a marketing gimmick meant to blur the line between organic and conventional foods. The only foods that can lawfully use the word “organic” on their label are those grown according to guidelines established by the US Department Of Agriculture.
(Thanks to Kim Leval @ Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides for the additional research