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Climate Change

Pests or Pollutants: The Dangerous Downside of Pesticides

by Mia Costello

Pesticides are dangerous for human consumption. Are they needed?



Our entire economic system prides itself on efficiency. We have learned to master mass production while lowering production costs. Yet, we have not learned to thrive economically while still promoting the wellness of our Earth and nature as we continue to pollute and contaminate. As pesticides are integral to the industrialized agriculture system they are thus integral to the resulting pollution.

There is a long history of humans using pesticides. They were first used about 4,500 years ago by Sumerians. They used sulfur in their fertilizer to prevent the infestation of insects in their farmland. It wasn’t until the 1940s when artificial pesticides began to attract scientists and farmers alike. They quickly realized the cost efficiency and ability of synthetic pesticides to defend the crops and began to push them into the industry without considering the drawbacks of these chemicals.

Pesticide warning sign; Getty Images

Pesticide warning sign; 

Getty Images

Pesticides cause damage to our environment and present significant health risk. These risks include respiratory issues, eye and skin irritation, seizures and even death. Without any changes made to agricultural policies, we will continue to endure the health consequences of pesticides and there will be no incentive for farmers to change their ways and risk losing profit.

A farmer sprays his crops with a liquid pesticide; Getty Images

A farmer sprays his crops with a liquid pesticide; 

Getty Images


Impacts of Pesticides: Water Pollution

Pesticide contamination of drinking water is a common route of exposure for humans.  This can occur through the polluting of both surface and groundwater because of unsafe practices utilized within the commercial agriculture industry. Because nearly half of America’s population relies on groundwater as their main source of drinking water reducing pesticide water pollution is critical to keeping us safe.

To make matters worse, it is very difficult to rid groundwater of pesticide once it has been polluted so prevention is essential.  Changes to the amount and type of pesticides used as well as how and when they are applied can provide needed safeguards to reduce groundwater contamination in the future.

Testing a local stream for pesticide pollution; Getty Images

Testing a local stream for pesticide pollution;

Getty Images


Biodiversity Loss

Bees are critical to our ecosystem, yet they are disappearing in part to pesticides;  Unsplash

Bees are critical to our ecosystem, yet they are disappearing in part to pesticides; 


Many species of all shapes and sizes of life are affected by the usage of pesticides. In fact, about half of the loss of richness in species is attributed to pesticides in Europe.  Specifically, for birds, the ingestion of pesticides impairs their ability to sing, thus impacting their ability to mate and subsequently reproduce. Low levels of reproduction within species can ultimately lead to extinction. Bees have it even worse, being that even just the smallest consumption of pesticides will kill them.

Neonicotinoids, a specific kind of pesticide, remains wildly popular in the agriculture market because of its effectiveness. Even with extremely small exposure to neonics, the bees suffer weakened immune systems, social communications, development patterns and more. In fact, “Bees are responsible for one in every three bites of food.” Despite bees being vital to food production, we continue to allow extensive use of pesticides, hindering the ability of our beloved bees to thrive. It is unbeelieveable.


Air Pollution

Nearly 35% of crops are lost to the invasions of pests, hence the popularity and extensive use of pesticides. Pesticides not only affect the close vicinity in which they are employed, but their ability to travel poses risks for our air quality. Wind and evaporation carry pesticides away from their intended targets of crops and into the air creating significant air pollution. The warmer months of summer typically mean higher levels of humidity and warmer temperatures, allowing pesticides to travel larger distances.

Crop dusting a cornfield; Getty Images

Crop dusting a cornfield; 

Getty Images


Human Health Impacts of Pesticides

Farmers use pesticides to protect their plants from weeds and destructive pests that swarm their crops. If farmers wish to maximize their production without the use of even more land, they rely on pesticides, pushing them to much greater exposure than the average person. Many question the use of pesticides out of fear for their health. The chemical residue left on plants from the pesticides, upon ingestion, can have serious health effects.

However, continuous exposure can lead to chronic illnesses such as asthma and Parkinson’s disease. How much of our produce actually carry pesticide residue? A surprising 70% of some of our favorite fruits and veggies contain even more pesticides than average. Specifically, strawberries, spinach, and kale are reported to carry the most residue. Instead, you may wish to opt for safer foods such as avocados, sweet corn, and pineapples as the peels, skin or shucks protect the produce within.

Worker dressed to avoid pesticide pollution on corn; 

Worker dressed to avoid pesticide pollution on corn; 

Getty Images

Farmers are at the highest risk of pesticide poisoning as a result of their close proximity to the chemicals of pesticides. Pesticides are specifically harmful to pregnant women and mothers because pesticides can travel through the placenta and breast milk that ultimately harms the infant. Faulty irrigation systems also leave room for pesticide contamination through groundwater and seepage. Namely, irrigation systems that force water flow in areas where the soil is feeble push water deeper below the roots of crops, facilitating easier overflow of pesticides into groundwater.


Solutions for Pesticide Pollution

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

IPM emphasizes the importance of multiple agricultural techniques to minimize the need for pesticides. While we may be quick to call any bug that asserts itself into our own vicinity an irksome pest, only about 1% of the insect population is categorized as pests. Our generalization of what species qualify as pests lead to the unnecessary and excessive use of pesticides to kill the insects that are actually vital to our food chain.

Moreover, IPM encourages the use of various soaps and oils as substitutes for pesticides, claiming that they are more natural and less harmful to insects yet still effective in evading pests. The recommended products are typically made from food and contain no toxic ingredients and target pests specifically. There are also products made completely from plants that can help protect crops while reducing environmental impacts from the use of chemicals.



Of course, efficiency is valuable, but at what cost? The current agricultural system strives for maximum yield at the expense of our health, the quality of our produce, and the presence of critical species. However, there is hope, as consumer education, new technologies, and innovative agricultural techniques can help reduce the human health effects of widespread pesticide use.

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