Q: How much pesticide exposure is too much?
A: Depends on the pesticide. Depends on the person. Depends on the timing and type of exposure.
What we do know is this: Pesticide regulations in the U.S. are well behind much of the rest of the industrialized world. This is mostly because agrichemical corporations like Monsanto have too much influence in Washington, but also because pesticide regulation in the U.S. does not adequately account for things like additive and synergistic effects.
Since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates most chemicals on a chemical-by-chemical basis, the combined and cumulative effects of a mixture of pesticides are nearly impossible for them to address – and so they usually don't. 1
Given the complexities of chemical causality and disease-formation, the smart solution would be to follow the European Union's lead and adopt the "precautionary principle"2 as the basis for regulatory decision-making. Put simply, this approach prioritizes protecting human health when there is significant doubt about the safety of a product. By contrast, pesticides and industrial chemicals in the U.S. are innocent until proven guilty. It often takes decades to prove a chemical guilty.
Meanwhile, we are exposed to dozens of pesticides in the food we eat, water we drink and air we breathe. People working on farms or living in rural areas near non-organic agricultural fields face even higher exposure levels.
How are we exposed?
» In our bodies
» On the farm
» In the environment
» On our plates
In our bodies
Most of us are born with persistent pesticides and other chemicals already in our bodies, passed from mother to child during fetal development. The human health impacts linked to pesticide exposure range from birth defects and childhood brain cancer in the very young, to Parkinsons' Disease in the elderly. In between are a variety of other cancers, developmental and neurological disorders, reproductive and hormonal system disruptions, and more.
On the farm
Most of us are born with persistent pesticides and other chemicals already in our bodies. Farmers and farmworkers are some of the hardest working people on the planet. Yet they and their families bear the highest health costs and face the greatest risks of pesticide exposure. Farmworkers in particular remain the least protected class of workers in the U.S. – last year another slavery case was brought in Florida on behalf of farmworkers there. Poisoning incidents among farmworkers are vastly underreported – yet in California alone, hundreds of cases of pesticide poisoning are documented every year.
Occupational exposure to pesticides in acute cases range from dizziness and nausea to death; chronic exposures are linked to the same array of diseases listed above plus a few more listed below.
In the environment
Pesticides don't stay where they're applied. They drift from their target and are carried in our air, oceans, rivers, groundwater and soil. They contaminate ecosystems and can poison fish, birds and wildlife. Water supplies around the world contain measurable amounts of pesticides, including atrazine. Atrazine, a suspected endocrine disruptor recently banned in Europe3, is the most commonly used herbicide in the U.S.
Besides heavy use in industrial farming, pesticides are used in or near playing fields, parks, schools, public gardens, golf courses, grocery stores, offices, apartment buildings, hotels and resorts, airplanes, cruise ships – the list goes on. Rural communities are routinely contaminated by pesticide drift, while city dwellers may trace pesticide residues on their shoes to public parks and even their apartment's common areas.
On our plates
Does eating organic make a difference? When researchers compared the levels of pesticide breakdown products in the bodies of children who eat organic and conventional diets, they found children who eat mostly organic foods carry fewer pesticides in their bodies. The good news is that some of these pesticides break down fairly quickly, which means increasing your consumption of organic foods can have an immediate impact on your pesticide exposure levels.
By eating food produced organically or without pesticides, not only will you be reducing the amount of pesticide in your body, you will be helping create a better environment for other people, the planet, and future generations. By engaging in political action to change our food system, you'll be part of making sure that everyone can eat their meals without pesticides on the side.
1. See Monossoon, E., "Chemical Mixtures: Considering the Evolution of Toxicology and Chemical Assessment," Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 113, No. 4, April 2005. for an overview of the history and limitations of EPA's risk assessment models.
2. The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action. The principle implies that there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk in the course of having screened for other suspected causes. The protections that mitigate suspected risks can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that more robustly support an alternative explanation. In some legal systems, as in the law of the European Union, the precautionary principle is also a general and compulsory principle of law. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle
3. See: http://edexim.jrc.ec.europa.eu/index.php?id_left=153&annex=108&part_limit=1