Pesticides Are Designed To Kill

by Paul Donahue
May 2002

There are really only three things you need to know about pesticides. First, pesticides are designed to kill. Second, they do not stay where you put them. Third, they do not know when to stop killing.

Pesticides are designed for just one purpose – to kill. They are designed to kill insects (insecticides), to kill rodents (rodenticides), to kill nemotodes (nematocides), to kill plants (herbicides), and to kill fungus (fungicides). However, pesticides are also hazardous to human health.

The World Health Organization conservatively estimates that pesticides are responsible annually for 20,000 deaths worldwide. They are carcinogenic (cause cancer), tetragenic (cause birth defects), mutagenic (cause genetic defects), neurotoxic (damage the nervous system), and immunotoxic (damage the immune system). More than 50 pesticides in common usage are known to be estrogenic, disrupting the hormone or endocrine system by mimicking the female hormone estrogen, and causing problems ranging from decreased sperm count to cancers of the reproductive organs. Pesticides are found contaminating both surface waters and groundwater around the country, and more than a hundred different pesticides, including 40 suspected carcinogens, have been found in the groundwater of 45 states.

Pesticides are also hazardous to our agricultural systems, creating resistant pest populations, contributing to declining crop yields, undermining local and global food security and threatening agricultural biodiversity. And they are hazardous to the environment in general, threatening biodiversity in all its forms. Yet these pervasive chemicals are aggressively promoted by multinational corporations, government agencies, and other players in this more than $35 billion a year industry. And while our use of these dangerous chemicals is out of control and growing, our ignorance of the dangers they present remains profound.

There are approximately 25,000 pesticides on the U.S. market today, with about 600 in wide use. Pesticide use in the U.S. alone amounts to 2.2 billion pounds a year, or roughly 8.8 pounds per capita. Virtually all these pesticides in use have undergone inadequate testing for safety. Most of what testing has been done has concentrated on acute toxicity and carcinogenicity, ignoring the possible endocrine-disrupting effects or damage to our immune systems.

Many people believe that we have government agencies in place, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state pesticide control boards, that safeguard us from dangerous pesticides, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even pesticides which the EPA knows to be dangerous human carcinogens, (such as the fungicide Captan, widely used on blueberries in Maine, with about 18 million pounds applied annually in the United States), have, because of industry pressure, proven impossible to remove from the market. The pesticide industry is politically and economically a very powerful one and is not hesitant to use its political muscle and money to get its way, be it with regulatory agencies, Congress, state legislatures, or in the courts. The legal bribery of our campaign finance system makes it that much easier for the pesticide corporations to prevail.

The tests that are conducted on pesticides are performed only on the "active" ingredients of the products, the ingredients designed to do the killing, not on the complete formulations. The complete formulations of most pesticides typically contain 90 to 99 percent of so-called "inert" ingredients, and any pesticide formulation may contain dozens of “inert” substances. Contrary to their misleading name, many of these “inert” ingredients are biologically and chemically active and are as toxic or more toxic to humans than the active ingredients of the pesticides.

Despite their potential danger to humans and the environment, even the identity of all but a few of these “inert” ingredients is kept from the public, protected as “trade secrets” by the Environmental Protection Agency. Some 2300 chemicals have been approved by the EPA for use as "inerts" including such dangerous substances as carbon tetrachloride, methylene chloride (the active ingredient in many paint strippers), pentachlorophenol, carbon disulfide, toluene, perchloroethylene (dry-cleaning fluid), n-hexane, xylene, and other petroleum distillates, cadmium and lead compounds. However, to find out which of these 2300 “inert” ingredients might be included in any given pesticide requires the filing of a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This can take many months, and can still be denied by the EPA. Some environmental groups have had to take the next step of filing a lawsuit against the EPA to get this information, taking many more months, and incurring great expense, with still no guarantee of receiving a complete “inert” list for a product. These FOIA requests are dealt with one pesticide at a time – and there are 25,000 pesticides out there to worry about.

A loophole in our hazardous waste recycling laws also actually allows the "recycling" of hazardous wastes as "inerts" in pesticides. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press officer Al Hire was quoted as stating that allowing recycled hazardous waste in pesticides as “inert” is "a way of disposing of hazardous materials." Some of the hazardous wastes “disposed of” in this way are chromium, mercury, thallium, zinc, naphthalene, chlorinated phenols and dioxins. These linguistically detoxified hazardous wastes then end up being sprayed onto our forests, agricultural crops, gardens, and lawns.

When the active ingredients of pesticides are tested, they are tested one at time, not in combinations. We, on the other hand, are exposed to pesticides in combinations. The EPA has found traces of 20 pesticides just on apples, and on an average trip to the supermarket we come back with traces of 60 to 80 pesticides on our food. Hormone system-disrupting pesticides that by themselves have been linked to breast cancer and male birth defects have been found to be up to 1,000 times more potent when just two of them are combined. What happens when you combine 60 or 80 of these pesticides? Small, seemingly insignificant quantities of individual chemicals can have a major cumulative impact.

If all that isn’t enough to scare you, it turns out that the majority of pesticides are contaminated with dioxins, the extremely toxic by-products of chlorine chemistry. The chlorine industry has stated that 96 percent of all synthetic organic pesticides contain chlorine or are manufactured using chlorine intermediates. As a consequence, dioxins appear to occur as by-products in the manufacture of virtually all synthetic pesticides.

Contrary to some popular misconceptions about the war on cancer being won, cancer rates in the U.S. are steadily climbing. This remains true even when the figures are age-adjusted and even if lung cancer is ignored. Childhood cancer is increasing at a rate of one percent each year. The incidence of some cancers, particularly those of the reproductive system organs affected by hormone-disrupting chemicals, has risen particularly steeply. As an example, a woman today has a 1 in 8 chance of contracting breast cancer, compared with a 1 in 20 chance fifty years ago. Statistics like that should be taken as a loud alarm call. If it is true that cancer death rates are falling, it is only because we are getting so much practice in treating the disease. It is time for our society to stop regarding these dangerous chemicals as a normal part of modern life and to start treating them like the indiscriminate killers that they are.

Recommended reading:

Living Downstream – An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment, Sandra Steingraber, 1997, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Inc.

Our Stolen Future, Theo Colburn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers, 1996, Dutton

Toxic Deception – How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health, Don Fagin, Marianne Lavelle, and the Center for Public Integrity, 1999, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine