It may seem hard to believe but the agency responsible for monitoring the thousands of pesticides and chemicals used in the United States has only been in business since 1970. Because of a budding environmental movement and too many cases of industry recklessly using chemicals and endangering populations, President Nixon signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency in July 1970. It officially began operating five months later.
Perhaps the most famous pesticide in contemporary U.S. history is the ridiculously difficult to pronounce dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane or DDT. It came into widespread use in the 1940s as an effective means to fight malaria, typhus and a number of other insect-borne human diseases plaguing both military and civilian populations. It was thought particularly effective as a pesticide for crops and animals.
The environmental science best-seller, “Silent Spring,” by Rachel Carson first brought attention to DDT in the early 60’s. Originally appearing as a three-part series in The New Yorker, “Silent Spring,” chronicled the reckless use of DDT and its effects on birds, bees, animals, including pets and humans. It particularly got the attention of President John F. Kennedy who appointed a Science Advisory Committee to study it.
Scientists had already begun noticing DDT buildups in the fatty tissue of animals. It was also finding its way into the food chain and threatening populations among birds of prey. It was thinning eggshells and causing a drop in reproduction. It became one of the first pesticides banned by the EPA but remains in use in other parts of the world.
Today is a light year from the days when regulating chemicals was roughshod. It is also a long way from the early days of the EPA. But chemicals are still essential components in farming, industry and the thousands of other places, including manufacturing. And while government oversight is routine in these places, there remains a constant need for vigilance.
“Colorado does have standards for the use of pesticides,” said Colorado Department of Agriculture spokesman, Matt Lopez. But the state, said Lopez, is not the final word on which chemicals can be use or that should be banned. “Like all environmental laws, they start with the federal government.”
Because Colorado has a $20 billion farm economy, no farming operation can escape inspection. But, Lopez added, “If a farmer is using pesticides, he must abide by label directions” set by the EPA. “If the label says the user must wear long-sleeved shirts, gloves, etc.” they must follow the directive exactly, he said.
In rules set forth by the EPA, “a pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest, or intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant, or desiccant, or any nitrogen stabilizer.” All pesticides sold in the United States must be registered with the EPA. The list stretches into the thousands.
While EPA polices chemical and pesticide use, it cannot give total assurance that some of these dangerous substances aren’t used. Some of those that escape EPA eyes have known links to health problems including cancer, low birth weights, brain development and birth defects.
Environmental groups remain in battles with the EPA over chlorpyrifos, a chemical used in orchards; methyl iodide, a pesticide used on strawberries that has been linked to cancer and pollutes groundwater; leaded aviation fuel which has also been linked to cancer, birth weights and long-term learning disabilities.
A number of chemicals have also been suspected of killing off or substantially reducing bee colonies. Bees are essential in the pollination of crops.
Despite their costs---they’re slightly more expensive---environmentalists suggest buying organic fruits and vegetables. They’re more expensive because farmers grow fewer of these foodstuffs and labor costs are higher. Farm workers harvesting organically grown produce are work in safer environments.
Strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, cucumbers and tomatoes are among those thought most susceptible to chemicals. Asparagus, avocados, cabbage and cantaloupe are listed as foods that don’t need to be bought organic.
Roundup, a weed-killing chemical produced by Monsanto and widely used by both agriculture and gardeners, has been found liable in a California case involving a man in which it was identified as playing “a substantial role in his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.” Bayer, the company that owns Monsanto, has appealed the verdict. But thousands of other cases against the chemical giant are pending at the federal and state level.
The EPA has reaffirmed its findings that it has found nothing to determine that Roundup and the chemical glyphosate does not pose a public health risk when used as directed.
In a 2017 EPA news release, the agency said it “found no other meaningful risks to human health when the product is used according to the pesticide label. The Agency’s scientific findings are consistent with the conclusions of science reviews by a number of other countries as well as the 2017 National Institute of Health Agricultural Health Survey.”