How dangerous are pesticides to Darien?: Experts speak
More than 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used on agricultural fields and orchards, residential lawns, playgrounds and parks each year in the United States, according to Juliet Cain, co-chairman of the Darien Pollinator Pathway.
With the exception of emergency conditions, only organic methods are appropriate for weed and pest control, she said at a recent Parks & Recreation meeting held over Zoom.
Cain and Pollinator Pathway co-chairman Deepika Saksena, along with medical and agricultural experts gave a detailed presentation about how pesticides can be harmful Darien’s parks, fields and people. They also spoke about alternatives to pesticides.
The State of Connecticut generally bases its pesticide registration review process on the guidelines made by the Environmental Registration Association (EPA) in the federal pesticide registration process, according to Cain.
She added the EPA’s mission is to regulate pesticides to ensure they don’t pose unreasonable adverse effects to humans or the environment.
The EPA does not perform its own testing, according to Cain.
“Instead, it requires pesticide manufacturers to generate the scientific data, which the EPA then reviews. The EPA ‘recommends’ (i.e. does not require) that potential registrants provide data from tests conducted according to EPA’s own test guidelines,” Cain said.
“Thus, the people most motivated to get these products to market quickly, the pesticide manufacturers, those with a vested interest in the outcome of the review process, control what information and conclusions are given to the EPA,” she added.
Synthetic pesticides contain active and inert ingredients. The EPA defines an inert ingredient as “any ingredient other than an active ingredient,” according to Cain.
In some instances, inert ingredients are added to extend the pesticide product's shelf-life or to protect the pesticide from degradation due to exposure to sunlight.
“The law does not require manufacturers to identify individual inert ingredients, either by name or percentage on product labels,” she said. “In general, only the total percentage of all inert ingredients is required to be on the pesticide product label.”
Additionally, she said some inert ingredients may even be more toxic than the active ingredients.
According to Cain, said the EPA does not require inert “other” ingredients to be labeled.
“The EPA thus appears to be an active supporter of secrecy but this means that, as consumers, for any particular pesticide, we aren’t permitted to know what the inert ingredients are, what role they play or how toxic they are,” she said.
Additionally, she said the EPA does not require testing of either the active and inert ingredients in combination, nor the combination of two or more active ingredients in a product.
When chemicals mix in the environment, the chemicals change their toxicity profiles.
If those reactions are not taken into account, adverse effects on health or the environment could be much greater than the estimates the EPA reports, according to Cain.
“We ask how the Town can feel comfortable relying on determinations by the EPA (and thus the state), that a pesticide is safe given the deficiencies in the registration review process,” Cain said.
Children’s play areas
Sarah Evans, assistant professor, Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health Children’s Environmental Health Center Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said she advocates against the use of synthetic pesticides in areas where children play.
“Children are uniquely vulnerable to the health effects of pesticide exposure. Children are exposed to pesticides through contact with grass, soil, and other surfaces,” Evans said. “Unintentional exposure can result from drift from spray applications and by tracking residues indoors on shoes and strollers.”
Additionally, Evans said The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that children age 6 to 11 have higher levels of common pesticides in their bodies than adults.
“This is due to their age-appropriate hand-to-mouth behaviors, closer proximity to the ground, and higher breathing rates, all of which place young children at increased risk for pesticide exposures compared with adults,” she said.
She further said researchers found that acute exposure to pesticides can lead to asthma exacerbations, cough, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, eye irritation, and headaches.
She added that pesticide exposure early in life is associated with increased risk of certain cancers, birth defects, reproductive defects, asthma and cognitive and behavioral problems.
She said children are at risk for pesticide exposures at schools, parks, playing fields, playgrounds, and other public areas where pesticides are routinely applied— “a risk that could easily be mitigated by restricting the use of synthetic pesticides in favor of integrated pest management and biological pesticides proven to be safe and effective.”
Residential, municipal use
According to Anne Hulick, Connecticut director, Clean Water Action, said while pesticide use for agricultural purposes has grown the nation’s food supply, “the rise in residential and municipal use is cause for concern.
She added the pesticide contamination of groundwater is “a national concern, as about 95 percent of Americans rely on groundwater for their drinking water sources.”
According to Hulick, after pesticides are applied, they can seep into soil, groundwater or be transported in the air.
She added that given concerns about environmental contamination from pesticides, every effort should be made to eliminate their use when safer options exist.
“We strongly urge you, as Darien town leaders, to eliminate the unnecessary application of pesticides on your fields. Doing so can further demonstrate your leadership, help to protect residents and nearby streams such as Stony Brook as well as Long Island Sound.”
According to Cain, there are a number of organic alternatives that pose no threat to the environment or health of people.
“They may take a little more effort and may even be a little more expensive but these considerations should be outweighed by the knowledge that the Town would no longer be posing a risk to residents, their children and the environment,” she said.
Additionally, she said the focus on a clean, organic approach to weeds would showcase “the Town’s commitment to its ‘Go Green’ strategy and support its interest in improving its status in the Sustainable CT program.”
She offered to use the Darien Pollinator Pathway’s social media presence and email list to gather support.
“The Town would be seen as setting an example and acting as a role model in this regard, which would also encourage residents to consider giving up chemicals in their yard care,” Cain said.