Peak & Prairie

Rocky Mountain Chapter's
Online Newsletter
June / July 1998


The Politics of Pesticides: A Few Points
by Pesticide Committee Members

A month ago, Bruce Babbitt announced the federal government is joining the War on Weeds. By Colorado law, we must stop our "Alien Invaders" or local government is authorized to step in and stop them for us. Although the federal government stresses that pesticides (of which herbicides are a subset) are only one tool in the Integrated Pest Management toolbox, pesticides take the least thought and are for that and other reasons (state funding for herbicides, for one) attractive to some busy land managers.

Let's take a brief look at a few of the potential problems with this approach. More and more land managers are discovering that herbicides are not the silver bullet they had hoped for. From l973-l983 the use of pesticides increased tenfold, while pests increased twenty-five fold. Herbicides have to be applied continuously or the weeds can spring back, more resistant than ever. And pesticides can exceed the value of the land on which the weeds grow. This may account for the increased popularity of alternatives, known collectively as Integrated Pest Management.

One of the chief reasons the pubic is growing more and more suspicious of herbicides is greater knowledge of the potential health hazards involved. "We are determined to...make sure families will never be the victims of toxic ignorance," Vice President Al Gore said recently. The following information is widely available, but can be found readily in the Journal of Pesticide Reform, a publication replete with footnotes from sources such as the EPA, USDA, Dow Agrosciences, Weed Science Society of America, Fundamental of Applied Toxicology, Proceedings of the Western Society of Weed Science, Journal of Range Management, Journal of Environmental Quality, Cancer Research, etc.

Because of the ubiquity of pesticides in our lives and the usually long dormancy period before signs of illness are evident, it is hard to quantify one-to-one the health risks and ensuing costs from long-term exposure. Nevertheless, there is enough scientific research to name pesticides as causal factors in cancer, significant immunological, neurological, reproductive, digestive, and hormonal damage, memory loss, headaches, nausea, emotional problems, birth defects, pregnancy impairment, vision, organ, bone, blood, skin and joint damage in humans and animals and toxic to various terrestrial and aquatic species.

Although many tests have been done already, it is also important to note that what we don't know is greater than what we do know. In a recent Rocky Mountain News article, "under threat of new federal regulations, United States chemical makers step up their testing of chemicals for harmful health effects." However, at the same time, under the legal umbrella of "Experimental Use Pesticides," they can experimentally apply pesticides in an area contra-indicated by the pesticides' own warning labels in hopes that their research will show little negative effect in that area and the warning on the labels can then be changed.

It is illegal to claim that any pesticide is safe, according to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, FIFRA. Why? Pesticides are registered on a cost-benefit basis, not on absolute safety. In other words, if the social and environmental costs, as measured in economic terms, outweigh the economic benefit of the herbicide, it is an unfavorable cost-benefit ratio. For example, if more people have to go on disability, more kids need special treatment, more land has to be cleaned up than the herbicide pulls in through sales, that's an unfavorable cost-benefit ratio.

But by the time the herbicide cost-benefit ratio comes to this point, it has already compromised the environment and all us critters in it to an unacceptable extent... "DDT is as safe as aspirin" claimed ads several decades ago. Oops!

Contrary to popular belief, the Environmental Protection Agency does no testing of pesticides, the manufacturer does. Sometimes manufacturers hire out their products to professional consulting labs. Craven Labs was one of two major pesticide-testing companies in the country found to have falsified testing results for an impressive list of herbicides. Craven's president received a jail term and the company was fined almost two million dollars.

The Ecological Effects Branch and the Environmental Fate and Groundwater Branch of the EPA may recommend against re-registration of a given pesticide, but the Re-registration Branch may re-certify it all the same. If that doesn't seem to make sense, consider that the registration process is cumbersome and the over-burdened EPA is way behind schedule in its pesticide reviews. Pesticides are registered while important health and safety data are still being generated and re-evaluations of pesticides that were grandfathered in under the new FIFRA are incomplete. Pesticides may continue to be used after evidence of their hazards is given to the EPA and they may never be required to be tested for certain kinds of hazards.

Which brings us to inerts. According to FIFRA, an inert is "any ingredient in a pesticide product which is not the active ingredient." Active ingredients play the lead roles in pesticides, inerts the supporting roles. Inerts are generally the largest percentage ingredient, as they form the solution, dust, or granule in which the active ingredient is mixed. Some inerts actually play the active role in other pesticides. "Inert" does not mean "inactive." But inerts are not included in toxicity testing of the overall pesticide. Many do not have to be listed on labels.

Seventy percent of all inerts used in pesticides are on EPA's List 3, "Inerts of Unknown Toxicity," although some are actually known to cause brain damage, convulsions, and death in children, asthma, bronchopneumonia, and death in adults, per OSHA's list of hazardous substances. List 1 is Inerts of Toxicological Concern and List 2 is Inerts of Potential Toxicological Concern. There is also the challenge of metabolites--what the pesticide breaks down into in a body, be it plant, animal, or human. Not all metabolites can be detected by pesticide testing. Some metabolites are less harmful than the original pesticide, but many are as or more harmful. And some pesticides/metabolites can be far more toxic in combination with other pesticides/metabolites found in the environment than each is alone.

Short-term damage reporting is maintained by the EPA Pesticide Incident Monitoring System, which is voluntary--people whose lives have been adversely affected do the reporting. Corporations which sell pesticides are required to report, but not all incidents by any means reach the EPA. Writes Elizabeth Graham of pesticide contamination of her Vermont farm: "In the months and years that followed the spraying, we and our animals were plagued with a seemingly endless array of illnesses: skin rashes, respiratory and digestive problems, chronic headaches and general debilitating weakness. Many of our smaller animals died: sheep, ducks, geese, cats. By the following spring, our livestock began to develop severe birth defects in their offspring. Cattle, sheep, ducks and geese were born blind or with heart, lung, and limb defects, many of which resulted in death. We saw many of the same effects in the local wildlife. Following the spraying, dead bees littered the ground...birds and squirrels literally fell out of the trees. There were bodies scattered all over the property: mice, moles, weasels, rabbits and foxes. Dead fish floated in the river."

An accounting system which does not take social and environmental costs into account will ultimately render its culture bankrupt. Let's choose the sustainable solutions-- for our families, for our ecosystem, for our future. See successive issues for related articles on Leafy Spurge control.