Conservation Corner

Pesticides – Part 1

Pauline Lee

In 1962, Rachel Carlson made the world aware that pesticides can be detrimental to our health and our environment, documented in her book, Silent Spring. These man-made chemicals were created to kill unwanted pests that spread diseases or reduced crop yields in farms. The chemicals, however, killed pests and helpful organisms indiscriminately. The dangers of their over-use prompted the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 by our federal government to safeguard our health and our environment.

Rachel Carlson specifically pointed out how DDT, a pesticide, is very toxic and damaging to all living things. As a result, DDT has been banned in Western countries but, unfortunately, may be used elsewhere. New pesticides have been created that are supposed to be safe, but we can see the effects of their continued use or careless use. Fireflies have disappeared from some areas in North America and Europe where they were once abundant. The alarming drop in the population of bees is affecting pollination of farm products. Some species of bumble bee have even vanished. Since the 1980s to the present, there has been nearly an 80% decline in insect diversity and population, as tabulated and reported in the May 12, 2017 issue of Science by amateur entomologists at more than 100 nature reserves in western Europe. Moreover, don’t you recall how messy your car windshield got from smashed insects when you went on a road trip a few decades ago? Though drivers may not have appreciated them, these insects were food for birds and they played a significant role in our environment.

How can pesticides affect human beings? The exposure to pesticides can cause short term neurological reactions such as memory loss, loss of coordination, reduced speed of response to stimuli, reduced visual ability, altered or uncontrollable mood and general behavior and reduced motor skills. Their long-term effects have been linked to asthma, allergies, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, hormone disruption and problems with reproduction and fetal development. Children are generally more sensitive to pesticides and can develop abnormally as a result. The World Health Organization estimates that there are three million cases of pesticide poisoning each year and up to 220,000 deaths, primarily in developing countries.

The use of pesticides can be inexact and widespread. They can be sprayed by airplane, truck or hand. After they land on plants and on the ground, water can leach them into aquifers or carry them to lakes, rivers and the oceans. They are applied to plants, buildings and homes. Thus, they can be found in our air, in our food and in our water. Their toxicity to all living beings may prove to be more severe when the exposure is more intensive and of longer duration than intended. We need to be more vigilant in dealing with pesticides for the preservation of our health and our environment. In the next installment, the discussion will focus on possible ways to avoid harm from pesticides.