Pesticides: A Dangerous Choice

The Agriculture Revolution has allowed mankind to evolve at a much faster pace than before. The introduction of pesticides has been a miracle to most societies, because it has stopped the spread of some diseases, produced mass quantities of food for

starving people, and it has given the world more variety in their agriculture than they have ever seen before. As years progress, the benefits are outweighed by the hazards. Pesticides have spread havoc over our ecological system and our own personal health. Alternatives are being created as the world’s technology advances, but the immediate threat is upon us and our future generations. It is up to us, as an individual, to educate ourselves so we can begin to make changes for a healthier future.

Twenty five years ago on Independence Day, friends and family came together to observe the joining of Olivia Olvera and Raymond Oliva. The bride and groom were finally turning their love for each other into the building blocks of a family. The bridesmaids were draped in lavender and different shades of white, and the groomsmen were dressed in silver tuxedoes with accents of white roses and baby’s breath. The Mariachi band hummed soft melodies that seemed to drift over the tops of the guest’s heads.

Everything seemed to be working out perfectly for being a wedding that was moved up four months ahead of schedule. In less than a month, a daughter had to plan an entire wedding and reception in order for her dying father to give away her hand in matrimony. During the first half of the wedding ceremony, her father complained of extreme fatigue and was immediately rushed back to his hospital bed. Her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and was given one, maybe two months to live.

His illness was not caused by smoking, but by the fields he labored in for many years while trying to raise his family. Peach, prune, and apple orchards line the highways in all directions of Yuba City, CA. It is here, as in so many other similar settings, where the use of pesticides was liberally used without knowing its deadly outcome.

With caution to the wind, mankind quickly took up the use of chemicals as a pest deterrent to solve an age old problem. The repercussions of this act would ripple through time as Mother Nature and the animals that resided in her died painful deaths. It wasn’t until author, environmentalist, and biologist, Rachael Carson, published her book Silent Spring that the world realized they may have made a serious mistake. With inspiration from the woman who started the environmental movement, this paper hopes to bring forth many cases of abuse with the use of pesticides. The effects on the nervous, immune, and reproductive systems, infant development, and cancer are some of the end results from the poisons we have dumped onto our earth. To avoid this outcome, scientists are using technology to create new environmental friendly solutions to combat today’s pest. The push to switch to this new frame of mind is summed up in the words of environmentalist Rachael Carson, “these are not pesticides, but biocides” (Peace River Films Production & Goodwin, 1993).

In order to understand how pesticides have become more of a problem than a solution, we must be able to take a look at its historical use in our society. The combination of certain carbon atoms can lead to the creation of lethal chemical concoctions. One of the most well known of these elixirs is the chemical known as dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane, otherwise known as DDT. In 1948, Swiss chemist Paul Muller won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discovering the effects of DDT as an efficient pesticide. He had discovered that DDT was “not merely poison, it: destroyed enzymes that protect the body, blocks oxidation of air to the blood, malfunctions certain organisms, and initiates in certain cells the slow and irreversible change that leads to malignancy” (Carson, 1962, 10). The use of this product and other similar chlorinated hydrocarbons exploded soon after as a form of insect control.

During World War II, DDT was first used as a combatant against insects that carried disease. Lice, mites, and fleas were a common problem amongst soldiers, prisoners, and refugees. These insects easily transferred diseases such as typhus and the plague. In order to control such outbreaks, camp residents would line up outside the medical tent and wait to be dusted with DDT. As soon as it became their turn to be dusted for lice, the person would pinch their nose, close their mouth, and squeeze their eyes shut carefully so not to ingest any harmful chemicals. A common belief amongst chemists was that in powdered form, DDT would not absorb through the skin. Unfortunately, this is true only to a certain degree; DDT turns toxic when inhaled, digested, or when it dissolves in oily skin. The immediate fear of being infected with a plague like disease was subdued, but the unknown carcinogenic effect would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Another disease that was cut short by DDT was malaria. In many communities, DDT has been called a savior, because it has stopped the spread of malaria and saved hundreds, even thousands, of lives. Countries across the world that were stricken with high population, low health care, and low funding for pest control were most susceptible to malaria. The use of DDT quickly eradicated infectious mosquitoes that were carrying this deadly disease. With DDT acting as a way to curb the spread of disease many societies accepted it graciously with open arms.

Over all other uses of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, the demand to produce enough crops for the survival of the human race has taken precedence. The world openly embraced toxic concoctions like: DDT, DDD, PBC, endrin, aldrin, methyl bromide, diazinon (to name a few). Approximately one billion pounds of pesticides are applied annually in the United States, with 4.4 billion applications in yards and gardens (Phillips, 2002) (See Figure 1). Some were miracle crop saviors in the form of pesticides, others were fertilizers and herbicides, but the advantage in the war on pest eventually had a heavy price to pay. Some of the benefits of using pesticides for agriculture are: they saved farmers millions of dollars in crop loss, it kept the price of certain foods within reason, and pesticides helped provide food for thousands of starving people. Do the benefits outweigh the consequences of it as a carcinogenic chemical? According to The National Academy of Sciences (1978), the process of pesticide decision making is indeed a complicated matter:

The complex issues relating to benefits and risks are
at the heart of the controversy that has surrounded the EPA since the Agency banned most uses of DDT. For example: if a pesticide could save thousands of lives from a vector-borne disease, such as malaria, but may also cause ten deaths from cancer, should EPA permit its use? (p. 14).

The question is whether society would allow 1/100th of the population to die in the name of superior produce and total comfort while sitting in their backyards?

An unpredictable complication that has arisen through the use of pesticides has been an insect’s ability to adapt resistance to certain chemicals. In the lifespan of one human being, there will be at least one thousand generations of insects. Each generation allows the genetic composition of an insects DNA to become more resistant than the last. This evolution has called on scientist to produce more lethal varieties of pesticides in order to combat this growing problem. The health effects of this will only be seen as humans proceed through future generations.

Some immediate symptoms of pesticide poisoning are nausea and asthma. Long term effects are birth defects and diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and cancer. It is estimated that 20,000 people die each year from pesticide poisoning (Cunningham, William, & Saigo, 2001). The impacts of DDT and other similar chemicals were originally deemed harmless to any other creatures besides insects.

It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that America began to recognize the dangers of pesticides. The Food and Drug Administration declared that “it is extremely likely the potential hazard of DDT has been underestimated” (Carson, 1962, p. 23). This report came after several investigations of human health risk and the decline of several animal species in an area that was sprayed with pesticides.

To further elaborate the loss of a few selected species, “in the 50’s and 60’s there was an alarming decline in several predatory birds, particularly fish eaters: bald eagles, cormorants, ospreys, brown pelicans, and even the Peregrine Falcon, which is a predator on other birds. The Brown Pelican, bald eagle and osprey almost went extinct” (Bryant, 2002). All of these birds showed higher levels of DDT in their fatty tissue, more than what was sprayed in the given areas.

This is due to bioaccumulation, which is an increase of contamination occurring in each superior level of the food chain. For example, a small amount of pesticides run off into a river after an area was sprayed. The microorganisms in the river only ingest a minute amount of the toxin, and then these organisms are eaten by smaller fish. The amounts of pesticides in the smaller fish are nearly doubled to what originally seeped into the lake. Next on the food chain is the smaller fish; it is eaten by the medium fish, and then the medium fish is eaten by the larger fish. Finally, the larger fish is eaten by a bird. The bird, which is at the highest trophic level of the food chain, is now experiencing an increase of ten million times more than what was originally sprayed.

Since DDT and other pesticides are stored in fatty tissues, the carnivores of the animal kingdom accumulate all of the pesticides from their prey. The buildup of toxins quickly turns lethal and ultimately results in death. Birds such as the American Bald Eagle were put on the endangered species list as a direct result of America’s love for pesticides.

Even in the 20th century, pesticides are still taking a toll on the bird population. This time it is not under the omniscience of the federal government – it is your average gardener that is the silent killer. Author Tina Phillips, who is a scientist of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, explains, ”I was unaware that 672 million birds are directly exposed to pesticides on farms alone and that nearly 10 percent of them die…the most toxic pesticides to birds - diazinon and chlorpyrifos - are used mainly in home gardens” (2001).

Already we are aware of the direct effects of pesticides to an avian population, but the indirect effects of pesticides are what really make the population dwindle. A possible link between pesticides and unhatched eggs from a 1999 study found the following:

Diazinon is commonly detected in urban and agricultural watersheds and air-monitoring samples. It has been shown to reduce the number of eggs a bird lays, decrease survival of eggs and nestlings, and increase the number of deformities in the developing chicks (Phillips, 2001).

The bird’s young are the most susceptible to the effects of pesticides. Not only do the toxins reduce the number of eggs laid, increase deformities, but it interferes with calcium deposition in eggshells. This causes the eggshell to become thin and extremely fragile. The result is often an oblong or crushed eggshell, which leaves little chance for survival of the newborn.

Even though there have been high mortality rates among birds, fish have also experienced high casualties. Before the United States outlawed the use of DDT in the 1970’s, the Montrose Chemical company released twenty years worth of the chemical DDT into the sewer system of Torrance, CA. The sewers eventually emptied into the Pacific Ocean leaving toxic sediment on the ocean floor. The reckless dumping of toxins into the sewers is probably the reason for hazardous levels of DDT currently found in local fish and marine mammals. It is estimated that there is “200 tons of DDT over a 20 square mile area.” (Bryant, 2002) The EPA has designated this area as a Superfund Site, which is a program set up to identify, clean up, and prevent any more pollution to the effected area (See Figure 2). Regulations that were set up by the EPA off the coast of Southern California have recommended “to protect your health, do not eat the White Croaker Fish caught in the red zone” (Fish Contamination Education Collaborative, 2004). The warning against eating this fish is because of two reasons: the White Croaker Fish is a bottom feeder and it feeds on a toxic buffet, and it is a fatty fish, which means higher levels of pesticides tend to build up in its fatty tissue. The effect of long-term dumping of pesticides has devastated the coastline in this region for over fifty years.

Fish are probably the most susceptible to being poisoned, because of their lack of mobility to escape contaminated waters. Rivers of death are formed as a result of a chain reaction from spraying pesticides. Once the water is tainted, birth defects and illnesses befall the aquatic residents. Fish may become blind, sluggish, infertile, and ultimately ending in death. Another adverse effect from spraying an area with pesticides is that much of the food source for the fish is longer available. The consequences of such actions are expressed in a report to the U.S. President about the use of pesticides:

An entire year’s production of young salmon was nearly eliminated in the Miramichi River in New Brunswick in 1954, and again in 1965. This resulted from DDT applications of one-half pound per acre for control of the spruce budworm. Stream insects, which are a most important food for young salmon, disappeared and failed to return within 2 years. Surviving young salmon were very thin (U.S. Presidents Science Advisory Committee, 1963, p. 10).

If the world is to evade future problems, like off the coast of our oceans and within the rivers that run through our country, then we must take up new resolutions to solving our pest control issues.

Before the use of chemicals as a pest control, human beings relied on other methods for controlling pest. One method used by farmers is a constant rotation of crops. Certain crops attract specific types of insects, and by not having a constant food source insects will be deterred to stay in the area. Other ancient techniques used as pest control involved farmers planting crops that were less prone to disease than others, and if the growing season came late, then the next seasons crops would be planted earlier.

As technology became more advanced, more alternative methods of pest control became available. Some simple, yet effective methods of pest management have been known since the later half of the 20th century. One example of controlling pest population is flooding or draining out marshes to destroy breeding areas. More advanced techniques of pest control are: synthetic sex attractants, ultrasound, micro-organism insecticides, natural predators, sterilization, genetic alteration, and pest deterrent through organic residues.

An example of pest control used to reduce the spread of disease stems from the presence of the West Nile virus in America. Researches from UC Davis are “Tapping directly into the mosquitoes’ ‘noses,’ the scientists can see a computer screen react to any of a sampling of scents wafted over them…–the equivalent of cheese in a mousetrap”(Lau, 2006). The thought behind this experiment is that different scents attract different breeds of mosquitoes, and all breeds of mosquitoes need to be dealt with when trying to annihilate a deadly disease. This is a twist on the synthetic sex attractants that have been used for many decades to lure mosquitoes into traps. By using the pheromones of a female insect, scientists are able to synthetically copy this scent and place it into a trap for unsuspecting males.

Another method to an alternative pest control is reintroducing sterile males into the natural population. This process for producing sterile males is explained as so:

the laboratory production of sterile male insects in very large numbers, using gamma rays or specific
chemical sterilants. The males are then liberated into the natural population where their mating produces infertile eggs (U.S. President's Science Advisory Committee, 1978, p. 14).

An additional method to pest control is with the use of ultrasound. Insect can be attracted or repelled, depending on the pattern of the noise omitted. The playback of a female’s wing pattern will draw males into a selected trap; or by using burst of ultrasound waves, an exact opposite effect will happen –the insects will be repelled.

One of the most recent bug deterrents can be found in something as small as a seed. The use of genetically altered plants harnesses the favored traits of one plant and allows it to be administered to another plant. For example, “The enhanced weed – a type of small mustard plant (Arabidopsis thaliana) – was able to summon bug ‘bodyguards’ after researchers inserted a gene from a strawberry plant” (Owens, 2005). Having crop defense in a seed, rather than in a chemical spray is ultimately the goal when searching for alternatives.

Additional techniques of pest control employ microorganisms and natural predators. In both cases a parasite, bacteria, fungi, or predator (native or non-native) can be introduced into problematic area. The targeted species will usually dwindle down to a community of a less threatening volume.

On a smaller scale of pest control, an everyday gardener can use ingredients found in their garden as a deterrent. Some of the most common organic pesticides are garlic and pepper sprays. Both of these vegetables are potent to the human’s senses as well as the insect’s senses. Even though this type pest management doesn’t produce results as highly as other methods of pest control, it is something that is 100% natural. This organic aspect is an avenue that is becoming an increasing trend in America.

The push for organic foods is a direct result of pesticide use and its ill effects on the world. As summarized by Rachel Carson (1962), “For the population as a whole, we must be more concerned with the delayed effects of absorbing small amounts of pesticides that invisibly contaminate our world” (p. 188). Death is the ultimate price many species have paid in the world’s usage of pesticides. Other dramatic effects are child deformities, cancer, blindness, seizers, and so on - the list is endless.

Fortunately with new technology we are able to create alternative methods of pest control. Other methods of managing pest populations are more expensive and less economically sound, but the loss of human and environmental health must be placed above the price of a dollar. We have evolved because of the Agricultural Revolution; it is for this reason alone that the populations of insects have grown to match the volume of agriculture production. We have created our pest problem, and we have created our pesticide problem. The question is: whether or not mankind will accept his responsibility to live with our natural environment, instead of having our natural environment live with mankind.


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