Today, we are more concerned with our environment than ever before. Similarly, it is my belief that we are more knowledgeable about our earth’s environment than did previous generations. I do not believe it would be an understatement to say that the planet earth is in serious jeopardy–from the shrinking rain forests, to the polluting of the oceans and land, to the ozone layer problem. Nevertheless, for purposes of this discussion, it is my intent to focus on pesticides as one particularly rampant source of environmental problems. I particularly favor this subject, because I know that we as Americans can do much to prevent the deleterious impact which pesticides are having upon our environment. This is not some abstract notion that many people have regarding the ozone layer. For example, in one’s own backyard or garden, there is much one can do in this respect. Opposition by environmentalists to pesticide use in general and to certain groups of compounds in particular has grown in recent years, based on the contention that pesticides present a threat to the environment and to health. First aroused by the book “Silent Spring” (1952) by Rachel Carson, the anti-pesticide movement has had a substantial influence both in the U.S. Congress and in several state legislatures.
As a result, severely restrictive legislation has banned the use of many pesticides and restricted use of several others. Also, costly and complicated legislation requirements have been imposed on new compounds. Pesticide legislation has significantly hampered research and development in the field. The average cost and lead-time needed to recover, research and market a new pesticide has increased from $2 million dollars and four years in the 1950’s to nearly $20 million dollars and ten years in the 1970’s. In recent years, more new pesticides have been banned than have had continued effective use, and there has been a reduction in the number of chemistry companies producing pesticides since the restrictions took effect. Environmentalists, scientists, and workers in the pesticide industry have also contented that some pesticide compounds are hazardous to human health. Workers in factories that produce some of these compounds have, in the process of bringing legal suits against some manufacturers, received financial compensation for illnesses allegedly caused by exposure to these chemicals.
Agricultural workers have also brought suits, claiming that they have suffered physical damage as a result of pesticide exposure. Some pesticide chemicals — recently DBCP, which effects the production of sperm– have had their manufacturing severely restricted. Long range potential dangers of pesticides in the body are also beginning to concern experts. In 1989, controversy arose over safe pesticide levels for children. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that the U.S. food supplies were safe, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) produced a study claiming that the safety standards used by the EPA were based on adult diet and physiologies. Some other problems have been attracting public attention. Certain pesticides are lethal to bees, and it is estimated that heavy pesticide use, especially in areas that depend on bees to pollinate crops, have caused substantial reduction in local hive populations.
Finally, it has been suggested that the build up of non-degradable pesticides in the soil and in food chain may be more hazardous, in the long run, than these immediate problems. At this point, however, even the claims made against DDT — which was banned in the United States because of its supposed deleterious effects and its bioconcentration in the food chain — are still denied by many experts. (Baker, pp. 11-13) Frankly, I am more concerned about the solutions than I am with the causes. Clearly exposure to limits of pesticides in food, and in particular, produce, needs to be given further attention. It was not so long ago when President Clinton and Al Gore first took office, and they both voiced their commitment to the environment. Unfortunately, fruits and vegetables, especially throughout the United States and in particular, California, are exposed to heavy concentrations of pesticides, which inevitably ends up in the food chain, and as well things which people themselves ingest.
It seems as if every where you look, there they are: stirring about in your kitchen, hanging in the hallway, and confronted again and again with the sight of nature’s nastiest, we grab the nearest can of bug-me-no-more and blast the little pests into oblivion. You certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so — or the last: pesticides are a weapon of choice for most bug-hating Americans; as a nation, we are the world’s largest user of pesticides, consuming 2 billion pounds each year — half of world wide usage. In fact, we may be a little too zealous in our spraying frenzy. The next time you reach for the bug juice, you may want to consider this: “Pesticides are poisons; they are produced as a toxic chemical to kill,” says Jay Flednan, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP). “The question is whether those chemicals are posing hazards to human health and the environment.” (Wiltz, p. 24)
The author indicates that there exist other non-toxic methods one can use in order to get rid of all the pests in your home. For example, window screens, fly traps, and fly swatters, are items that one can try as an alternative to pesticides. Carefully vacuuming your home and combing your pet with a flea comb may solve your flea problem. Most of these common sense items can be purchased at a hardware store. Another question that is often asked has to do with our drinking water. There exists a direct connection between our drinking water and pesticides. The company or municipal authority that supplies it is required by federal law to give you an analysis and disclosure regarding any violation of health standards. But even if you can trust the company, the report will not tell you what happens in the water in the dank recesses of your plumbing system. If you are dissatisfied with your municipal water supply, you can always buy bottled water. But it is not always free of contaminants either (even Perrier had that little problem with the chemical benzene).
Look for a seal of approval from NSF International an Ann Arbor, Michigan, company that certifies bottled water as safe. Unfortunately, NSF does not analyze all brands. Another option is to buy one of the many filters or other water purifying devices on the market. Be sure to choose one that specifically removes the toxins turning up in your water. Carbon filters, for example, are good at purging organic compounds such as pesticides and solvents, but they will not remove minerals or most heavy materials, and one of the more elaborate devices, a distiller, is excellent at taking away heavy metals but is not effective against chloroform and benzene. In hopes of possibly reducing the amount of pesticides that are used, the idea of “making” a crop have preferable characteristics has lead to a new breed of farming. Scientists have been talking about producing better foods through genetic engineering ever since the technology first became available, more than 20 years ago. By mixing and matching bits of DNA — cutting a gene from one kind of organism and placing it into another — they hope to make new, improved plants and animals.
Over the years they have put corn’s genes in rice, trout genes in catfish, chicken genes in potatoes, even firefly genes in tobacco (yielding a plant that actually glowed in the dark). A few years ago, the Department of Agriculture researchers tried to produce leaner pork by splicing a human gene into a pig embryo. What they got was a cross-eyed poker with crippling arthritis and a strangely wrinkled face. Now, after decade of biotech setbacks and controversy, consumers finally have something they can sink their teeth into. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) endorsed the most genetically altered food to be sold to consumers — a tomato called the Flavr Savr and billed as offering “Summer time taste” all year long. The biotech industry immediately hailed the government’s decision as the break through it had been waiting for.
The gene splicers have shown no shortage of imagination. Products in the pipeline include chickens that grow faster on less feed, snap peas that stay sweeter longer, bell peppers with fewer seeds and longer shelf life, pineapples that ripen more uniformly, squash and cucumbers that need less water, corn that requires fewer pesticides and herbicides, and grains that have more protein, vegetables oils that are low in saturated fat, coffee beans that have less caffeine, french fries that absorb less cooking oil, and kidney beans that don’t cause flatulence. (Elmer, De Witt, p. A7) Many consumers have not reacted with great enthusiasm, particularly regarding another innovation of recent, and that is radiated food. There are many on one side of the fence who feel that this will give the consumer an advantage in terms of a longer shelf life; while the consumers are automatically frightened of the very idea of eating something which has been radiated.
This new breed of genetic farming is still far from being perfect, but in the future it may greatly reduce the dependence of pesticides. It is my opinion that you, the schools, the entire community, and myself can do much in the way of reversing the damage that pesticides have caused, and through our example, the same may be implemented throughout the rest of the United States. Think carefully before doing something that has just become a habit, and understand the many consequences that may result. As history has shown, chemicals can be a wonderful life saving tool (medicines), or when used carelessly, a damaging blow to the already suffering environment (pesticides).
Baker, Ralph R., Dunne, Peter, “New Directions In Biological Control: Alternatives For Suppressing Agricultural Pests and Diseases,” pub. 1990; repr. Bureau Development Inc., Parsippany, NJ Elmer De Witt, Philip, “Fried Gene Tomatoes,” Time Magazine March, 30, 1984 Wiltz, Theresa, “Bugging Out: Before You Spray The Bug Juice, Here’s What You Need To Know About Pesticide Safety,” Vol. 25, Essence, 1, June 1994