Pesticides and Herbicides – Benefits and Risks

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The use of natural herbicides and pesticides existed even centuries ago. Most of the first herbicides and pesticides were chemicals which occurred naturally that warded off unnecessary plants and animals. However, as the years progressed, scientists discovered that man-made repellants are more effective in warding off these pests than the natural chemicals.

Pesticide is an all-encompassing term which refers to chemicals used to kill pests.  This includes herbicides used for weeds, insecticides to eliminate insects, fungicides for fungi, nematocides for nematodes and rodenticides for verterbrates such as rats.

During the Green Revolution, pesticides were used to control insectivorous and herbaceous pests that invade the food produce.  The use of pesticides in the “chemical age” since the 1950s has helped in pest control. Regrettably, the pesticides also brought a number of disadvantages including the disruption of the predator-prey relationships which could lead to threats of the survival of the major ecosystems. Not only that, there is the much feared loss of biodiversity and the danger it poses to the human health.

These chemicals which are used as the modern-day pesticides and herbicides cause negative effects to the environment and people.  A number of studies have been conducted to determine its ill-effects among them poisoning, birth defects and environmental pollution.

Agriculture use of pesticides comprises a small portion of the total use of industrial chemicals harmful to humans in the modern society.  American Chemical Society data reveals that in 1993 alone there were around 13million chemicals with 500,000 new compounds added in an annual basis. 

A study conducted by the International Joint Commission in the Great Lakes of North America showed that there are more than 200 chemicals in water and sediments found in the Great Lakes ecosystem.  There is undeniable evidence that agricultural use of pesticides affect the water quality and causes harmful effects to the environment and the human body.

In the United States alone some 888 million pound of pesticides and herbicides were used each year.  That would translate to roughly three pounds of pesticides and herbicides for every person in the country.

An estimated 10 percent of the pesticides and herbicides are used by Americans to lawns and gardens. The majority of 90 percent are for industrial, agricultural and commercial uses.

The heavy use of these toxins carries a very high price tag to humans and the environment.  These pesticides and herbicides could cause contamination to the environment.  Take this scenario, for instance, applying these chemicals would affect the air which are inhaled by innocent people merely passing by.  These are also borne by the winds even further into streams, lakes, rivers and underground water that provide the consumable water supply.

Dr. Theo Colborn PhD has conducted extensive studies on the effects of herbicides and pesticides.  The results are quite disturbing, consider these:

  • Every child conceive in North America is most likely exposed to pesticides while in the mother’s womb or later, within the first 12 months of birth.
  • Herbicide 2,4 D was in the semen samples of 50 percent of Canadian males.
  • Pesticide CPF was in 82 percent of urine samples tested derived from people in US within the age range of 20-59.

Currently there are 891 pesticides and herbicides duly registered with the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).  There is a huge possibility that there are more toxins contaminating a person’s blood, urine and semen.

It is always almost impossible to avoid the damaging effects of the pesticides and herbicides. For instance, an ordinary individual living in a city often come across a number of open spaces such as athletic fields, golf courses and green plazas. Aside from that, there are small grass surfaces, planting beds and small areas allotted to vegetation.

Both of these large and small spaces are possible places where contaminated water runoff or infiltration could be found. Silt and debris can contaminate storm water runoff from these areas. But storm water and groundwater contamination could also be caused by chemicals used.

Among these chemicals that can seep into our drinking water supplies are pesticides and herbicides. In all cases, storm water runoff containing these chemicals causes problems. Surface runoff of pesticides and herbicides contaminating bodies of water can change the natural ecosystems by annihilating or permanently damaging several groups of organisms. These further collect and accumulate in the food chain, causing harm not just invading the surroundings.

The improper use of pesticides and herbicides may also cause the storm water infiltration into groundwater. When these pesticides and herbicides contaminants dissolve in storm water they infiltrate the groundwater and then the surface waters, such as ponds, streams, rivers and lakes. These chemicals may also find their way into the soil and deeper groundwater units.

Physical, Mental Damage Caused by Pesticides and Herbicides

Among the many effects of pesticides and herbicides, perhaps the most alarming is the danger they pose to human health. Pesticides and herbicides can cause a number of health problems such as heart congestion, lung and kidney damage, low blood pressure, muscle damage, weight loss and adrenal glands damage.

Pesticide and herbicides are used to kill pests or weeds.  They are very effective indeed in eliminating undesirable insects and plants. The problem though is they do similar damage to our bodies. The only reason why these could not kill us instantly like the plants and insects is because we are bigger and have different biological components. They could not annihilate humans but they can seriously damage certain parts of our bodies thus effectively incapacitating lives.

Recent studies also indicate the serious damage these pesticides and herbicides could cause on our brain. The extent of the damage could not be ascertained because in the first place it is difficult to measure. Scientists have reasons to believe that pesticide and herbicide contamination could be the cause of autism cases, attention deficit disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Poisonous chemicals such pesticides and herbicides are in almost all the food we eat and in the water supply. Americans may have 70 daily exposures to residues of a group of toxic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs include DDT and dioxin. It is impossible to avoid these substances because they are found in all food.

In a study conducted in the western provinces of Canada, there are around fifty pesticides commonly used. Of these, 95% of the total pesticide used is derived from nine separate herbicides (Birkholz, pers. comm., 1995). Pesticide use in farming is not popular in Africa and Asia, but the problem is in the improper and too much use of pesticides which affect the environment, public health and water quality. For instance, Appelgren (FAO, 1994b) reports that in Lithuania, pesticide pollution is greatly reduced due to economic factors. However, water pollution brought about by pesticides is still a problem to contend with because of the improper storage and distribution of agrochemicals.

In the United States, the US-EPA’s National Pesticide Survey indicated that 10.4% of community wells and 4.2% of rural wells have identifiable amount of one or more pesticides (US-EPA, 1992). In Canada, 35 percent of groundwater wells in agricultural southwestern Ontario (Canada) tested positive for pesticides on at least one occasion.

Prevention is the Key

Use Pesticides and Herbicides Safely

Follow the directions religiously in order to minimize the risk of using pesticides and herbicides. To do this, read the labels thoroughly.  Some may use the words “natural”, “organic”, or “biodegradable” in describing their product but this does not mean that it is safe. 

Choose “pest-specific” pesticide or herbicide that is intended to destroy only the pest that causes problems. Persistence means the length of time needed to cut its concentration into half (or the half-life). The half-life should be found on the product label. Don’t use  pesticides and herbicides with half-lives more than 21days.

Take safety precautionary measures when using pesticides and herbicides at home or on the job. At work, only those certified to apply pesticides and herbicides should use them. For any concerns regarding pesticides and herbicides, you can contact OSEH Operational Safety & Community Health for guidance and assistance.

Be extremely cautious when it comes to storing chemicals. Tragedies could erupt from improper storage procedures. Leaks and spills should be avoided at all cost.


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