What are pesticide hazards?

Pesticide hazards include acute, immediate toxicity to humans and other non-target organisms; chronic or long-term toxicity such as cancer; and environmental contamination of the air, or ground and surface water. Information on many of these potential hazards for specific pesticides can be found on pesticide labels, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and resources such as the National Pesticide Information Center or the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Pesticide Database. Hazard or toxicity and potential for exposure together represent pesticide risk.

Recent studies document the need for continued reductions in hazardous pesticide use and practices. The Heinz Center’s State of the Nation’s Ecosystems evaluation of our nation’s ecosystems in 2002 reported that seventy-five percent of streams tested had more than five pesticide contaminants.  A 2006 US Geological Survey review of 51 studies over ten years reported that 96% of fish, 100% of surface water, and 33% of major aquifers sampled from 1992 to 2001 contained one or more pesticides. Nearly 10% of stream sites and 1.2% of ground water sites in agricultural areas, and 6.7% of stream and 4.8% of ground water site in urban areas contained pesticides at concentrations exceeding benchmarks for human health derived from US EPA standards and guidelines for drinking water.

The adult human body is similarly contaminated with pesticides, pesticide-related compounds and other synthetic chemicals. A 2002 study led by Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers found an average of 91 industrial compounds, pollutants and other chemicals in the blood and urine of nine volunteers.  A total of 167 chemicals were found in these individuals, none of whom worked with chemicals occupationally or lived near industrial facilities. Of the 167 chemicals found, 17 were pesticides or pesticide breakdown products. Seventy-six were carcinogens, 94 neurotoxins, and 79 developmental or reproductive toxins. The authors termed this collection of foreign chemicals accumulating in our bodies as the “body burden.”

Pests can also become resistant to pesticides, increasing control costs, crop losses or other pest damage. Many natural enemies of pests are killed by pesticides, freeing pests from these natural controls.

According to a US General Accountability Office report in 1999, information is currently not collected to fully document the extent of pest problems and pesticide use.  Data on impacts of pest infestation and pesticide use on children as well as the general public are lacking. Data of short-term illnesses due to pesticide exposure are limited. Documentation would be difficult to obtain even if concerted efforts were made due to the multiple potential causes for short and long-term symptoms and illnesses associated with exposure to pests and pesticides.  These unknown or poorly understood potential hazards argue for additional levels of protection including exposures to multiple pesticides, at home, at school and in the diet; exposure to chemicals in combination with pesticides such as pharmaceuticals, industrial compounds and personal care products; and the general difficulty in attributing chronic illnesses to any one particular cause.

Pesticides are powerful tools for responding to persistent pest problems. It’s not smart, effective or affordable to use these tools when they are not necessary.  Using IPM to prevent pest problems and minimize reliance on pesticides is the best solution for a healthy environment for everyone.