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A quick lesson on the presence of chemicals in our environment: even though it’s cold in the Arctic, too cold for crops and definitely too cold for mosquitoes, scientists are still finding the insecticide DDT in the fatty tissues of penguins there.

The substance has been banned in the United States and most of the developing world since the 1970s, but it’s prone to drift and, as a persistent organic pollutant, it breaks down very slowly. So chemicals introduced into the environment decades ago find their way into glacier water, then in the fatty tissue of wildlife hundreds of miles away from the initial applications.

Agricultural pests cause very real problems for growers, and chemical pesticides are one method of curtailing their impact. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that pesticides have dangerous long-term impacts on our health and environment.

In this special report, we explore the science available on pesticides, as well as what we do and don’t know about their use in Georgia.

It can be easy to think that pesticides don’t affect us. We hope that a better understanding of this issue will lead to healthy choices for our bodies, environment, and communities.

pest_sidebar1What We Know

So far, one of the biggest agricultural stories of 2013 is the decline of beehives around the world. Pollination by bees and other insects account for about $200 billion of agricultural production every year; pollinators are responsible for 70 percent of the crops humans consume.

For years, it was normal for beekeepers to lose 5 to 10 percent of their hives per year. But in 2005, that percentage jumped to 30 percent. And last year, commercial beekeepers reported that they lost 40 to 50 percent of their hives.

There is no smoking gun, but beekeepers and some researchers now think they finally have a culprit: a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. From a March 18 New York Times article:

While most pesticides degrade after a few days, neonicotinoids persist for weeks and even months. The European Union has proposed to ban their use on crops frequented by bees. Some researchers have concluded that neonicotinoids caused exten- sive die-offs in Germany and France.

It’s not just the neonicotinoids. Different herbicides and fungicides have also been indicted in the hive die-offs. An apiculturist at the University of California Davis has found about 150 chemical residues in beehive pollen and wax.

But let’s back up. Humans have used insecticides for centuries. The earliest on record is a 2,500 B.C.- era sulfur compound used by Sumerians.

Most modern chemical pesticides arose out of World War II, when DDT was developed. It was seemingly a wonder chemical: cheap, effective against pervasive insect-borne diseases like malaria, and as far as anyone could initially tell, safe for mammals. (Dr. Paul Muller, who invented DDT, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1948.)

However, as early as 1945, some scientists began to express concern about DDT’s impact on biological ecosystems. Rachel Carson, then the editor in chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was one of them. Her seminal 1962 book “Silent Spring” linked declining bird populations to DDT use and is widely credited with facilitating a national ban on the substance a decade later.

DDT’s legacy can still be felt today. According to the President’s Cancer Panel, women exposed to DDT before puberty are five times more like to develop breast cancer in middle age. A 2011 study found that certain organochlorine pesticides, including DDT, are found in 99-100 percent of pregnant women. They’ve been linked to various cancers and neurological damage, among other acute and chronic harms.

Georgia is a particularly difficult place to control pests. Insects like subtropical humid and hot climates, so our fields are especially prone to them, and large swaths of commodity crops are a big incentive for bugs that feed on that crop to run rampant. Plus, we’re a transportation hub for the country and the world. We have interstates, international seaports, and airports, so invasive pests from all over the world can make their home here.
pest_sidebar2Three main types of pesticides are used in Georgia: insecticides, which target insects, herbicides, which target plants, and fungicides, which target fungi. And as they break down over time in the environment, the resulting metabolites can transform and combine with other pesticides into new toxic substances. Thanks to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and scientific non-profits like the Environmental Working Group, we know that pesticide residue is found on nearly all conventionally grown food we eat.

Over the last few years, a growing number of studies and medical organizations are voicing concerns about the health impacts of pesticide use:

A 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics report, as well as dozens of independent studies, link even small amounts of the insecticide chlorpyrifos to learning disabilities and developmental disorders.

  • The American Public Health Association, American Medical Association, and the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association have all come out against endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including pesticides.
  • A 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics study said “in terms of health advantages, organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease. Organic farming has been demonstrated to have less environmental impact than conventional approaches.”
  • That same report says there is “robust evidence” that pesticides are associated with cancer, especially leukemia and brain tumors, lower I.Q., autism, attention deficient disorder, and hyperactivity.
  • Neurologists at the University of California, Los Angeles found a link between Parkinson’s disease and exposure to a fungicide called benomyl, which was used for decades on a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and nuts before being discontinued in 2001.

Labels rarely list a pesticide’s inert ingredients, which almost always make up the bulk of a mixture. These can be just as harmful to humans and the environment as the active ingredients, and some are even the active ingredients in other pesticides. According to a 2000 report from the New York attorney general, more than 200 chemicals used as inert ingredients in pesticides were classified as hazardous pollutants in existing federal statutes.

The EPA has set environmental thresholds for many of these pesticides, but it does not address “the effects of chemical mixtures, synergistic effects, and health effects associated with consistent low-dose exposure.” The newest EPA regulations, released in 2012, do not account for inert ingredients.

pest_sidebar3Though data on pesticide use in the state is spotty —more on that later—some of what we do know is cause for concern. Georgia used over 15,000 pounds of the aforementioned chlorpyrifos on conventional peaches that year, according to 2009 data from the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS).

“Tens of thousands of more pounds have been used on peanuts, corn, and onions in recent years,” said Paul Towers, the Organizing and Media Director for Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). “[Chlorpyrifos] is also a volatile chemical that becomes airborne and is prone to drift.” PANNA is calling on the EPA to suspend its use.

According to 2011 NASS data, 24,600 pounds of malathion, an insecticide that affects the nervous system and is a possible carcinogen and water contaminant, were applied to our state’s conventional blueberries.

The herbicide atrazine is classified as a carcinogen and water contaminant by PANNA, and according to a 2007 EPA report it’s the second most-used pesticide in U.S. agriculture.

What We Don’t Know

Pesticide data available on the NASS database is limited, and federal reporting is scattershot, so we don’t know the true scale of what is used in Georgia. (The only state in the country with a comprehensive pesticide-use reporting program is California, which requires that all monthly agricultural pesticide use be reported to county agricultural commissioners since 1990.)

There isn’t any recorded information about applications of many of the pesticides listed in the NASS database. Instead, the majority of columns contain (D), which stands for “Withheld to avoid disclosing data for individual operations.” The EPA and Georgia’s Department of Agriculture (GDA) register and license pesticides, but Kelly Products, the firm that assists the GDA with pesticide data tracking, only tracks what products are registered for sale within the state. Though some states require pesticide sales information, Georgia does not, so there is no definite way to gauge which pesticides are purchased and used the most on our crops.

Pesticide manufacturers claim that in the correct quantities their products are safe for humans and the environment. And even though we’re still discovering the full long-term impact of these chemicals, emerging science suggests that they affect everything from our bodies to our environment to the soil that provides livelihoods for farmers across the state.

“It’s soil versus chemicals,” says Georgia Organics Executive Director Alice Rolls, “Whereas a sustain- able farmer might spend years building up her soil, in conventional agriculture chemicals are applied before pests even show up. By definition, pesticides are applied prevention, and that prevention has a price.”

What Should We Do?

“A hungry pest can decimate a farm’s bottom line,” says Georgia Organics Farmers Services Coordinator Donn Cooper. “Obviously farmers don’t apply chemicals to hurt their families or their customers, but at some point in time, most farmers in the state—conventional or organic—will reach for an insecticide.”

Sometimes organic farming methods may not be enough in the face of an extreme eruption of new and invasive species, according to Julia Gaskin, the Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator at the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences and a Georgia Organics board member.

“Biodiversity, crop rotation, cover crops, and healthy soil are all necessary for good yields,” she said. “But in some circumstances, they are not sufficient and growers need tools to deal with outbreaks. This is becoming ever more apparent as we seemingly get a new invasive species that has no natural predators or controls every year—see the Kudzu bug that is creating havoc for organic soybeans, or Asian spotted wing drosophila, which is a new threat to all our berry crops.”

As one of the largest vegetable producing states in the country, Georgia has tremendous potential to advance the important work of making our food and environment safer.

In a speech at the 2013 Georgia Organics conference, Beyond Pesticides‘ Jay Feldman noted that Silent Spring “really does lay out guiding principles for us.” Carson writes: “We must make wider use of alternative methods that are now known, and we must devote our ingenuity and resources to developing others.”

“So she basically told us 50 years ago that we really needed to work on alternatives, and while she didn’t use the word organic per se, what she describes, in terms of attention to complex biological systems, goes directly to the point,” Feldman said.

Growing food organically and supporting farms that do is also a part of the solution. In a March 2008 report called “Simplifying the Pesticide Risk Equation: The Organic Option,” the Organic Center reported that if all fruits and vegetables in the country were grown organically, then the risks of dietary exposure to pesticides would be reduced by 97 percent.

We have to encourage responsible policy in addition to making healthy choices for our own families. Sign up for the Beyond Pesticides and PANNA alerts. Support anti-GMO measures. (As Feldman noted, “genetically engineered crops are wholly dependent on increasing herbicide use.”) Share this article with a friend.

There is reason for hope. The last few years have seen an unprecedented increase in consumers who want clean food for their families and communities, as well as farmers who want to grow that food.

It wasn’t so long ago that the world banned lead paint, and the Food and Drug Administration’s stance against using the toxic chemical BPA in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups is proof that public awareness, followed by public outcry, can influence policy shifts that make us all safer.

As Carson wrote 50 years ago, “The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road— the one less traveled by—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

DIG DEEPER

  • Beyond Pesticides is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization comprised of experienced scientists, conservationists, and activists. They provide the public with useful information on pesticides and alternatives to their use.
  • WWW.WHATSONMYFOOD.ORG This PAN project links up the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program results with all the information on pesticides that PAN has compiled over many years. The data and search functionality here allow you to see what levels of pesticide residues are on your food, in what combinations, and with what associated health risks.
  • Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) works to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound and socially just alternatives.
  • The Environmental Working Group is the nation’s leading environmental health research and advocacy organization.