By Donella Meadows
–October 10, 1996–
“Have you ever known a pesticide to kill anyone?” a neighbor asked me the other day. She’s a good farmer. She uses pesticides lightly, only when she really needs them. I pick apples at her place, because on my own, where I use no pesticides, I do fine with every crop except apples.
No, I had to tell her, other than deliberate misuse or accidents like Bhopal, I don’t think pesticides kill people, not directly, not often. My concern has been ecological. I don’t believe in poisoning all the creatures in the countryside just to eliminate one small pest, especially if I have invited that pest by planting large expanses of its favorite food. But I’ve recently read John Wargo’s new book, Our Children’s Toxic Legacy, so now I’m also worried about what pesticides may be doing to people. There are more kinds of harm than flat out, drop-dead killing.
Wargo’s book says that of the 325 pesticides that are legally allowed to remain as residues in food, one-third are suspected of causing cancer. One-third are known to disrupt the nervous system. A whole new bunch is coming under investigation for disrupting hormonal signals that guide the development of fetuses, the growth of children, and the ability to reproduce. The damage they do may not show up until the next generation.
Nearly 100 pesticides are legally allowed (in tiny quantities) in milk — which makes up 21 percent of a toddler’s diet. A child may encounter 13 different insecticides and fungicides on apples, 26 on grapes, 20 on oranges. Ten percent of tested community water sources and four percent of rural wells contain pesticide residues. Children are especially at risk, because they are more sensitive than adults to harmful chemicals and more likely to ingest them.
Wargo, a professor of environmental policy at Yale and a scientific advisor to the “Kids Committee” (the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children), says that when government licenses pesticides, it is conducting a massive experiment on us and on our children. His book makes a convincing case that NO ONE KNOWS what our actual exposure to pesticides is or how these chemicals, either individually or in combination, affect us. So how can anyone responsibly assure us that they are safe?
Wargo is not a zealot like me, who would stop using pesticides. What he’d like to see is a lot more public information about the risks we are being exposed to and a lot more democratic discussion about whether those risks are justified. He takes his research seriously and personally, because of his own two children, Adam and Kate.
Here are some of the steps Wargo takes to protect his own family and would recommend to everyone to minimize the risk of pesticide exposure:
Try to buy organic fruits and vegetables from a grower you know and trust. If that’s not possible, ask your supermarket to carry organic foods. If it already does, ask how those foods are certified pesticide-free.
Make your own juices and baby foods from organic produce.
Wash non-organic fruits and vegetables before using, and peel off wax coverings (which can trap pesticides).
Grow your own — especially if you have children. Discover, as millions of backyard gardeners have, that gardens are fun and educational, and you don’t need chemicals to produce great crops (except maybe apples).
Avoid using pesticides in your home — instead check screening, keep floors, counters, and cabinets clean, wash off houseplants outside, and try non-poisonous repellents (like citrus juice or borax).
Reconsider lawn chemicals. It’s not worth endangering your family’s health to have a perfect lawn. If you walk across a lawn that has been sprayed, remove your shoes before going indoors.
Check with your child’s school or day-care center to find out whether pesticides are used there. If they are, ask if it’s necessary, ask if there have been tests for residues, ask to be notified in advance any time there’s an application.
If you have a private well and anyone around you uses pesticides (be wary of farms, golf courses, powerlines, railways, highways, and large institutional grounds), have your drinking water tested. If you use public water, ask to see the results of testing. If there’s a problem, install a filtration system.
If your children swim in a public pool, check to see whether algicides are used in the water.
If you are exposed to pesticides at work, change clothes before going home, and don’t wash those clothes along with other clothing.
If there are plans to spray power lines, forests, lakes, or recreation areas near you, sound off. Ask questions. Demand answers.
Take these steps with special care if you’re pregnant or have very young children.
If all this sounds like a lot of work, it’s the price of a political philosophy that distrusts government, treasures freedom, and lets citizens fend for themselves. This is what fending for yourself looks like. If you don’t like it, if you think freedom might perhaps include freedom from risk caused by other peoples’ use of toxic chemicals, sound off. Ask questions. Demand answers.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996