Pesticides like chlorpyrifos and glyphosate have been in the news a lot lately, and not only are they hard to pronounce, they’re also tricky to keep track of.
Which one are you supposed to avoid? What does the science say, again?
To help clear up some of the chemical confusion, we’re sharing some basic facts on the most dangerous pesticides used in the food system, today. Sure, you could just always buy organic (do it if you can!), but it’s also important to stay informed.
RELATED: How to Eat Organic on a Budget
At the most basic level, pesticides are substances used to kill pests that threaten crops. The term encompasses both herbicides, which kill weeds, and insecticides, which kill bugs. Many pesticides are toxic chemicals that are sprayed on crops that have been genetically-modified to withstand them (see glyphosate, below), so the weeds die but the food-producing plants don’t. Others (like neonicitinoids) are more systemic and become part of the plant itself, embedding in its tissues a resistance to insects.
Some pesticides are permitted in organic farming, but they’re derived from natural sources, like copper sulfate and hydrogen peroxide.
Why Do Pesticides Matter?
Most people’s concerns about pesticides are related to their own health, and those concerns are totally valid. Almost all chemical pesticides have known health risks at certain doses, and arguments about their safety often come down to how much you’re actually ingesting when you bite into an apple that was sprayed weeks ago and has been washed. It’s hard to make blanket statements, but based on the data, if you’re eating chemically-treated food, you’re definitely ingesting some of the chemicals applied to them. For example, research has repeatedly found that glyphosate is present in most people’s bodies in measurable levels. We are also exposed to many chemicals at low doses on a constant basis, and the effects of that long-term, regular, mixed exposure is unknown.
Even if your exposure may only be to invisible residues, the people working in the fields to grow and pick your food are regularly exposed to toxic pesticides in high doses, causing acute poisoning and long-term health issues like cancer, birth defects, and more. Finally, most of these pesticides have massive environmental consequences, from killing off pollinators to polluting drinking water to causing the extinction of fish and other wildlife.
The Big Three
There are SO many others, but these three are widely used and talked about, so understanding them is a great place to start.
What It Is: An insecticide that was originally developed as a nerve gas in Nazi Germany (really) and is widely used on grain, fruit, nut, and vegetable crops. It was banned for household use in 2000. The EPA under Obama reviewed evidence on its health risks to children and recommended also banning its use in agriculture, but the agency reversed that decision in 2017, under Trump. Then, in August 2018, a federal appeals court ordered the EPA to reinstate the ban.
Risks: Acute exposures affect the nervous and respiratory systems leading to symptoms like dizziness, vomiting, and headaches. The most widely cited research on long-termeaffects links chlorpyrifos to neurodevelopmental issues in children, especially when exposed in utero. It’s uses endangers many species of fish and varieties of plants.
What It Is: Glyphosate, also referred to as “Roundup” (which is the brand name used by its manufacturer, Monsanto) is probably the most talked-about pesticide. That’s because it’s also the most widely used herbicide, and its use has increased exponentially over the past decade. Not only do home gardeners spray it to control weeds, it is a crucial component of industrial corn, soy, and wheat production. Almost all non-organic soy grown in the US is “Roundup-Ready,” AKA genetically engineered to withstand being sprayed. Glyphosate residues have been found in the urine of different populations across the country, in many popular foods, and in drinking water.
Risks: While it’s hard to draw direct lines between exposure and disease incidence, the evidence that glyphosate is associated with a range of serious illnesses, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, liver cancer, and endocrine disruption is piling up. In August 2018, for the first time, a jury in California sided with a worker who claimed he got non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma from repeated Roundup exposure after hearing all of the evidence on both sides, and there are currently 4,000 other plaintiffs suing Monsanto. Researchers has also shown other ingredients combined with glyphosate in the Roundup formula are incredibly toxic to human cells.
What It Is: Neonicitinoids sound pretty sci-fi. They are a class of insecticides that are applied to genetically-modified seeds—especially industrial corn—essentially embedding the entire plant with insect-resistance from the inside out.
Risks: That would be a pretty cool innovation if it didn’t come with consequences. Just like they kill the insects that threaten crops, they’re no good for other animals we really need. Neonics are the main suspected culprit when it comes to “colony collapse,” AKA killing off the bees we need to pollinate plants. They’re also associated with harming birds and aquatic ecosystems in places like the Great Lakes.