Good News? and Bad News About Pesticides in U.S. Waterways
In a New York Times article on September 12, 2014, Michael Wines reported the results of a study by the U.S. Geological Survey that collected data on pesticides from 1992 to 2011 at over 200 monitoring locations. The bad news is that the study found pesticides and herbicides in nearly every waterway in our country.
The good news, however, and decidedly the good news is for only two types of waterways, is that levels declined from the first decade of the study to the second in agricultural streams and other streams other than urban streams. As Wines writes: “From 1992 to 2001 17 percent of agricultural streams and 5 percent of other streams had at least one pesticide whose average annual concentration was above the maximum contaminant level for drinking water. But in the second decade, from 2002 to 2011, the survey found dangerous pesticide concentrations in only one stream nationwide.” And the reason for this decline? Regulations to control the monitored pesticides forced manufacturers to focus elsewhere.
Before you start celebrating, however, you should know that, as Wines points out, this decline was a decline in name only. In fact, as the use of pesticides became more heavily regulated, manufacturers turned to substitute chemicals. In urban streams, pesticide levels above the threshold for aquatic life jumped from 53 percent in the first decade to 90 percent in the second. Part of this jump was attributed to two pesticides—fipronil and dichlorvus, both heavily used in household products, such as flea collars, roach killers (fipronil) and no-pest strips, and dog de-wormers (dichlorvus). As the use of other pesticides became more heavily regulated, manufacturers turned to fipronil and dichlorvus as substitutes. Thus the sudden increase in those pesticides during the second decade. Furthermore, the U.S.G.S. study did not monitor pyrethroids or glyphosate (brand name Roundup).
Although I have no experience with Roundup, I can speak to pyrethroids from firsthand experience. In Intentional Healing: One Woman’s Path to Higher Consciousness and Freedom from Environmental and Other Chronic Illnesses, I described my acute exposure to deltamethrin and delta dust during a visit from exterminators. Let’s start with some background: Type II pyrethroids, such as deltamethrin and permethrin, are sold to the public as safe for domestic use. Safe for children, pets, the elderly, for humans in general. How do they work? They attack the nervous systems of insects through sodium-ion channels. The principal effects of pyrethroids as a class are various signs of excitatory neurotoxicity.
Humans, as mammals, have many more sodium ion channels than insects. And the symptoms I experienced when the exterminators started working—tachycardia, inability to organize my thoughts, breathing difficulties, burning that began in my scalp and spread throughout my body— seemed to indicate that my nervous system was being affected. I later found out at the Environmental Health Center-Dallas that my nervous system had, in fact, been affected. Despite the assurances I had received that pyrethroids are safe for humans, I was harmed by them. Just as the nervous systems of insects are attacked by pyrethroids so, too, was mine.
What does the EPA have to say about pyrethroids? The EPA has found no harm to human beings, situational harm to pets (that is, if products are not used correctly), and a great deal of harm to aquatic organisms. The following was copied directly from the EPA website:
Pyrethroids are highly toxic to aquatic organisms. Because the pyrethroids can accumulate in sediments, risk to sediment-dwelling organisms is an area of particular concern. Recent water quality monitoring efforts in California have identified pyrethroids in sediments of water bodies adjacent to residential/urban areas. These monitoring data, coupled with additional pyrethroid-specific data submitted to the Agency, highlight existing concerns regarding residential uses of pyrethroid pesticide products and movement into non-target areas through runoff or spray drift that may occur during applications.
To reduce exposure to water bodies from non-agricultural and agricultural uses of pyrethroids, the Agency deployed the following labeling initiatives.
Environmental Hazard and General Labeling for Pyrethroid and Synergized Pyrethrins Non-agricultural Outdoor Products – Revised February 2013 – To reduce exposure from residential uses of pyrethroids and pyrethrins products, EPA implemented a 2009 labeling initiative, with minor revisions in 2013, requiring revised Environmental Hazard Statements and general Directions for Use for pyrethroid and pyrethrins pesticide products used in non-agricultural outdoor settings. The label statements spell out good stewardship and best-management practices and clarify how these types of products are intended to be used.
These label statements serve to reduce the potential for runoff and drift to water bodies that can result from applications of pyrethroid end-use products in residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial areas, applied by both professional pesticide control operators and residential consumers.
Pyrethroid Spray Drift Initiative – In the reregistration process for permethrin and cypermethrin, the Agency determined that the existing spray drift language for pyrethroid agricultural products needed to be updated to comply with FIFRA. Because of similarities in use patterns, and concern for exposure to aquatic resources, the Agency believes that this updated label language is necessary for all pyrethroid products used on agricultural crops. In a letter from the Agency (PDF) (6 pp, 75k, About PDF) dated February 21, 2008, registrants were instructed to incorporate the revised spray drift language onto their agricultural labels, and submit the amended labels to the Agency.
Do you now feel protected from toxic runoff? I don’t.
It may be the height of folly, or just another example of the hubris we exhibit toward our place among living organisms, to think that a substance that is deadly to any living creature will not pose dangers to ourselves. I know I am not a lone case. Since the incident in our home in 2002, I’ve met many others who were harmed by pesticides thought to be safe for humans. At the Environmental Health Center-Dallas, thousands of patients have been treated for exposure to toxic chemicals. And the EHC-D is only one of hundreds of clinics and medical practices around the world devoted to treating people who have been exposed to toxins.
If we want to safeguard the environment for ourselves, our families, and the generations that follow us, we need to adopt a new way of thinking about unregulated and regulated pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals. If we think that everyone who uses chemicals will do so in a responsible way, then we are closing our eyes to human nature. If we accept that the substances used to kill insects won’t harm us or our children, if we believe that the pesticides and herbicides we spray on agricultural fields that eventually work their way into our water systems won’t harm aquatic life or the animals (ourselves included) that eat fish, then we will continue to degrade ourselves, the earth, our oceans, and every living creature.
If, like me, you want to regulate strongly the manufacture and use of chemicals by supporting the watchdogs who work to protect us, then get involved by following the work of organizations that inform us and petition for legislation to protect us. Here are just a few of those groups:
The Environmental Working Group—www.ewg.org
The Sierra Club—http://sierraclub.org/
Environmental Health News—http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/
Through these organizations, you’ll have access to the latest environmental developments and political news related to the environment as well as to online petitions so that your voice can be heard. I urge you to take a stand. Speak up for the earth and all of her children.
My thanks to Google free images for all but the last of the visuals in this article. I photographed this nature scene in Sherwood Gardens in Baltimore during one of my meditation walks.