Pesticides: Health-Risk or Hype?

Do pesticides really cause health problems? We did the research. Read why many people choose pesticides to control unwanted weeds and pests.

Do Pesticides Cause Health Risks, or Are They Safe to Use?

Nothing says summer like biting into a fresh ear of corn slathered in butter, or eating ripe tomatoes from a farmer’s market. Summer peaches, still warm from the sun, bought at a roadside stand, are a bite of juicy bliss. While we feel like we are doing our bodies a favor by eating fresh fruits and vegetables, are we unknowingly ingesting something not so good for us, along with our favorite garden produce? Should we only worry about supermarket fruits and vegetables and feel safe with organic options and farmer’s market finds? How much of what we hear about pesticides in our foods should we worry about?

First of all, we should know exactly what pesticides are and how they get into the foods we eat.

Pesticides: What Substances Does That Word Encompass?

Most people think of insect-killing agents as pesticides, but the word actually includes many other chemical classifications. A pesticide is any substance used to kill, control or repel any form of insect, animal, or even plant life. Pesticides include weed killers, or herbicides, insecticides for killing insects, fungicides for killing fungal growth such as mold and mildew, compounds used to kill rodents, and even disinfectants for killing and preventing the spread of bacteria.

The use of all of these agents is necessary for most food production. Farmers use many of these pesticides to protect crops, meaning that humans and animals are exposed to at least low levels of these agents in most of the foods we eat. We are also exposed to pesticides used not only in food production, but inside our home, hospitals, schools, and office buildings.

Understanding the Risks of Pesticides

While most people believe that some pesticides are dangerous and others are safe, all chemicals, natural and man-made, including organic ones, carry risks, depending on the level of exposure. In order to be adversely affected by a pesticide, you have to be exposed to it, either by contact, ingestion or by breathing it in. Some pesticides may be used very close to you, but if you aren’t exposed to it through any of those methods, it can’t harm you.

In order to help the public understand the risks, pesticides are classified into groups that range from low to high toxicity. However, it’s important to remember that even those classed as low toxicity can have a negative effect if the amount of exposure is high.

How can you tell how toxic the chemicals you are using, or have been exposed to, might be? One way is by knowing the meaning of keywords used in labeling these products.

Important Keywords in Pesticide Labeling

All pesticide labels are marked with the words, CAUTION, WARNING, or DANGER. Many people assume these are just different ways of saying the same thing. However, each label actually indicates a specific level of risk in that particular product. It’s important to know what each warning label means before you expose yourself to that chemical.

  • CAUTION: Products labeled with the word caution have the lowest level of toxicity.
  • WARNING: Products with this label have a medium level of toxicity.
  • DANGER: Products labeled with the Danger warning have the highest level of toxicity.

There are many studies on the toxicity of pesticides, and those have helped to set the regulatory standards for these reference labels, but it’s important to note that though these labels are helpful in understanding risks, the toxicity levels are still very much dependent on the amount of exposure. More frequent exposure to a chemical labeled with CAUTION can be more harmful than a lesser exposure to a product with a DANGER warning label.

The regulation process for labeling pesticides requires the manufacturer to conduct many scientific tests on their product before determining the warning label. These tests define the risks to humans and animals, the environmental effects of the pesticide, and impact on non-target organisms.

Are GMOs pesticides?

Many of us hear talk of pesticides and GMOs together when assessing the dangers of toxic chemicals in our food and water, but what are GMOs?

A GMO is a genetically modified organism. It is a fruit or vegetable that has been modified genetically to produce its own pesticide or to survive the dosing of pesticides that would otherwise kill it. One major organization modifies their crops to withstand an herbicide containing glyphosate, a chemical that since 2014 has been classified as a probable human carcinogen, sparking much concern worldwide.

The Bright Side of Pesticides

Before we condemn pesticides and talk about banning them, it is important to consider the huge benefits the human population has enjoyed since the development of pesticides. Not just insect and mouse free homes, but more importantly the abundant and affordable food available to consumers. Many of the fruits and vegetables that are now easily purchased in any supermarket were previously only affordable to the rich. Thanks to pesticides, farmers can grow the large crops that provide affordable food and fight worldwide hunger. In many nations where starvation was previously a problem for citizens, these pesticides have saved many human lives.

Because of increased awareness of some of the dangers associated with pesticides, researchers are developing new methods and improved protocols to protect crops with less, and safer, pest control products, and to minimize human exposure. The goal is to provide abundant crops at affordable prices while protecting humans and the ecosystem from further harm.

Resources— National Pesticide Information Center, NIH, NCBI, As You Sow