By Olivia Zago
While it may not seem obvious, pesticides are something that we encounter everyday. There are many different types of pesticides that are used as herbicides (used to kill weeds), insecticides (used to kill insects), fungicides (used to kill fungi), and rodenticides (used to kill rodents). Pesticides are used in many aspects of our lives: from the produce we eat that was sprayed with an insecticide to our apartments that were treated with rodenticides.
Most crops are sprayed with a group of pesticides called organophosphates. According to a report of the USDA (US Department of Agriculture), 81 percent of conventionally grown crops are sprayed with this group of pesticides. The CDC lists a few ways that a person can come in contact with organophosphates: eating or drinking them, touching contaminated soils, and/or working as a producer or applicator of organophosphates.
Many studies on pesticides, and especially organophosphates, have shown that being exposed to pesticides makes them more likely to suffer from genetic damage and the diseases that result from genetic damage. In a study looking at the effects of pesticides on farmers, blood samples were taken from 50 farm workers and results showed that the farmers exposed to pesticides had more DNA damage than those who were not exposed. In addition, farmers exposed to organophosphates reported that they experienced nausea, dizziness, anxiety, confusion, and abdominal cramps. While farmers are exposed to larger amounts than the average consumer, there is still a residue of pesticides that remain on produce when it reaches the consumer. The pesticides then have a way to enter one’s body because one can consume produce with a residue of pesticide.
Some people claim that pesticide residue is no longer left when a person eats the produce that was sprayed. However, this is not true. A study performed by the NIH took two groups of children: one group was fed a non-organic diet and the other group was fed an organic diet. It was found that the children on the non-organic diet had residues of organophosphates in their urine, which shows that residues still do remain on the produce even after it is purchased from the store.
The health effects of pesticides are not always visibly seen, though the effects on the environment are clear. Pesticides can contaminate soil, water, and other vegetation. Since pesticides are designed to kill insects and weeds they also are toxic to other organisms such as birds, fish, and beneficial insects and plants. When pesticides are applied, the runoff can reach water systems contaminating them. In a study by the Department of Agricultural Chemicals which tested various streams, 90 percent of the tested water and fish samples contained one or more pesticides. Soil contamination causes soil microorganisms to decline, which in turn causes soil to degrade and become non-farmable. A study by the University of Sidney suggested that 64 percent of the world’s arable land is at risk of pesticide pollution. Drift from insecticides can land on other plants which are essential for the ecosystem. Perhaps the most important and concerning effect is that of pesticides on bees. Bees are crucial for life on this planet and one of the contributing factors to the endangerment of bees is pesticides. The United Nations Environment Program states that out of the 100 crop varieties that provide 90% of the world’s food, 71 are pollinated by bees. By decreasing the use of pesticides, the chances of the survival of bees is increased.
In contrast to produce sprayed with pesticides, organic crops are produced on farms that must have not used pesticides or fertilizers in the previous three years and are far enough not to be contaminated from nearby fields. Organic farmers use biological control, crop rotations, and other techniques to manage weeds, insects, and diseases.
Buying organic produce is beneficial for health and the environment. For example, chlorpyrifos was once the most used pesticide in the U.S. After 56 years in use, in August of 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned chlorpyrifos because they were not able to confirm that there was no harm from exposure. Buying organic food protects against the harmful effects of pesticides which are not always publicized. Aside from the health effects that are caused by pesticides, the environmental effects on our planet are a reason to be concerned. To limit exposure to residues of pesticides care should be taken to wash produce well and to buy organic when possible. Organic produce is usually more expensive than non-organic produce though by buying organic even periodically, you are supporting a farming industry designed to be less harmful for the environment and helping keep organic farmers in business.