Educational Series: Toxic Pesticides are Poisoning Animals and People

By Nick Engelfried
What do the collapse of honey bee colonies across the U.S., bird population die-offs, and disappearing butterflies have in common? All can be partially traced back to the use of pesticides, an often invisible but deadly serious threat to animals and people. Although society has made great progress reducing the use of some of these poisons, many others continue to be widely applied in agriculture, on public lands, and even around our homes and yards. Phasing out the use of the most toxic pesticides is an essential step toward ensuring a healthy future for countless animal species–and for human beings as well.

Concern about pesticides is as old as the modern environmental movement, and led to some of that movement’s earliest major victories. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring helped alert the world to the dangers of pesticides like DDT, which went into widespread use soon after World War II. Throughout the late 1950s and much of the 60s, such chemicals were regularly sprayed on crops and even in densely populated urban areas to control agricultural pests and other unwanted insects like mosquitoes. Only slowly did scientists begin to realize the deadly side effects of this practice.

Prior to the publication of Silent Spring, DDT residues that lingered on plants or which were washed by rain into bodies of water were consumed in large quantities by rodents, fish, and other wildlife. Because DDT dissolves in fat, it accumulates in the bodies of animals who ingest it. Predators–like birds of prey–who feed on smaller animals build up even more of the chemical from the carcasses of the creatures they eat. This is known as bioaccumulation, a process by which toxic compounds concentrate in higher and higher amounts further up the food chain.

The effects of DDT on wildlife can include acute poisoning. The chemical also weakens birds’ eggshells, causing eggs to be crushed under the weight of the incubating parents. This proved especially deadly for birds like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, both of which were at imminent risk of extinction by the time DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Since then, these and other wildlife species affected by DDT have had a chance to recover. However, many newer pesticides that may prove just as deadly have emerged and been put into use.

The main U.S. law offering safeguards against toxic pesticides is the Federal Incesctide, Rodenticides, and Fungicide Act, also known as FIRFA. First passed in 1947, FIRFA was updated in 1972 and again in 1996. The law gives the U.S. EPA authority to ban or place restrictions on the use of certain pesticide products, such as DDT. However, FIRFA also has fatal weaknesses. For example, it does not require that new pesticides be approved by environmental regulators before being put on the market. It is fundamentally a reactive law that allows the EPA to end the use of specific, highly toxic pesticides, but often only after significant harm has already been done.

So, what dangerous pesticides must wildlife contend with today? Among the most notorious are a group of chemicals known as neonicotinoides, or neonics. Now among the most widely used insecticides in the world, neonics became popular because they are less toxic to humans and other vertebrates than some other pesticides. However, they have caused widespread devastation by decimating populations of non-target insects. When sprayed on crops or ornamental plants, neonics are absorbed into plant tissues and end up in nectar and pollen eaten by bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. The chemical attacks the insect’s nervous system, causing death or impairing its ability to fly and search for food.

Other harmful pesticides include Malathion, a chemical applied to crops and to remove ticks from pets; and Chlorpyrifos, an insecticide used on pests like mosquitoes and termites. A study published by the EPA in 2016 found that fully 97% of animals and plants protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act are negatively impacted by these two chemicals in some way. However, it isn’t just non-human animals who are at risk. Pesticides are harming people, too.

While almost everyone is exposed to pesticides in some form, certain groups are at much more risk than others. Children are more likely to suffer long-term harm from pesticides in their diets. In addition, farm workers come into contact with much larger volumes of herbicides and insecticides than do most other members of the population. According to Earthjustice, 10,000-20,000 cases of acute pesticide poisoning in farm workers happen in the U.S. every year. This doesn’t count longer term health impacts on the workers and their families.

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to reduce the use of pesticides and protect animals and people from harm. Probably the most important is to shift our agriculture to organic farming practices that use biological controls and other “natural” methods to reduce pests, rather than relying on toxic chemicals. We can all encourage our elected representatives in Congress and at the state level to support policies that incentivize organic farming.

On an individual level, we can buy organic food at the grocery store or at a farmer’s market. If you are a gardener, it’s also a good idea to make sure that any plants or seeds you buy have not been treated with pesticides. Many nurseries unnecessarily use harmful products like neonicotinoids on plants while they are still in the greenhouse. If you aren’t sure whether a plant has been treated, ask. It should also go without saying that spraying pesticides on garden plants yourself is a bad move for animals and the environment.

In addition, it is time to change the way pesticides are regulated in the U.S. by improving or replacing FIRFA. In an exciting development, earlier this year Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Joe Neguse (D-Colorado) introduced the Protect America’s Children From Toxic Pesticides Act, which would update FIRFA with strong new protections for wildlife and consumers. Specific components of the bill include a ban on neonicotinoids and several other harmful chemicals, as well as steps making it easier for ordinary people to challenge the use of pesticides in the future.

Unfortunately, the Protect America’s Children From Toxic Pesticides Act has little chance of passing in the current Congress. However, it is an encouraging sign that public opinion is forcing at least some lawmakers to seek action on this important issue. By using our power as citizens and consumers, we can and must work to make harmful pesticides a thing of the past.

Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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