Alternative to synthetic pesticides

When it comes to health and safety, pesticides pose the greatest concern in gardening. Americans use about 4.5 billion pounds of pesticides each year in yards, gardens, homes, farms, and industry, about 1 billion pounds of which are synthetic pesticides. Despite a complex system of rules, regulations, and labeling requirements, thousands of people suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year. Like most gardeners, organic growers may occasionally need to use pesticides, but they choose them carefully, opting for the least-toxic organic sprays as a last resort — only after other control measures have failed.

Many people assume that organic means nontoxic, but that's not really correct. Some commonly accepted organic pesticides are, strictly speaking, more toxic than some synthetic chemical pesticides. But in general, organic pesticides, which are derived from plant, animal, and mineral sources, tend to be less toxic than synthetic chemical pesticides, which are created from petroleum and other chemical sources. More important, organic pesticides tend to break down quickly into benign substances, whereas synthetic pesticides can linger in the environment for decades.

Many of the synthetic pesticides used today belong to a group of chemical compounds called organophosphates. They're used to control insect pests on fruits and vegetables, to combat termites, and to control fleas and ticks on pets. These chemicals work by interfering with the nervous systems of the pests. Unfortunately, organophosphates can also harm the nervous systems of animals and humans. In fact, they are chemically similar to the World War Il-era chemical-warfare agent known as nerve gas. In humans, symptoms of overexposure include nausea, headache, convulsions, and (in high doses) death. Diazinon and chlorpyrifos, two recently banned pesticides discussed in the sidebar "How unsafe pesticides remain on the market," fall into this category. Unfortunately, since diazinon and chlorpyrifos have been phased out, the use of carbaryl, an insecticide that also damages the nervous system, has increased. The EPA classifies this product as a likely human carcinogen.

Despite extensive testing by chemical companies in controlled trials, it's hard to know exactly what pesticides will do out in the real world. Ponder these statistics: The EPA now considers 60 percent of herbicides, 90 percent of fungicides, and 30 percent of insecticides to be potentially carcinogenic (able to cause cancer). A study conducted by the National Cancer Institute found that farmers exposed to chemical herbicides had a six-times-greater risk of developing cancer than farmers who were not exposed. Scary stuff.

No matter what type of pesticide you're using — organic or synthetic — you must follow label directions to the letter. Read all warnings, wear recommended protective gear, and use only as instructed. Taking these precautions isn't just smart, it's also the law.

How unsafe pesticides remain on the market

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bans a pesticide, it usually phases it out over several years. In some cases, products already on store shelves or in home garden sheds may legally be sold and used even though they have been banned. (You have to ask yourself why, if a product is worthy of banning, it's also worthy of being sold until the stockpile is used up.) Consider the recently banned pesticides diazinon and chlorpyrifos:

  • Diazinon: The EPA banned residential use of diazinon in 2002, beginning with a ban on using diazinon indoors. Outdoor and garden use was not phased out until two years later.
  • Chlorpyrifos: On June 8, 2000, the EPA announced that many of the currently labeled uses of insecticides containing chlorpyrifos, including Dursban and Lorsban, would be canceled. But selling the products became unlawful only after December 31, 2001 — 18 months later.

The task of removing a chemical from a product is daunting. Manufacturers must change their products, modify packaging, rework their marketing materials, and inform tens of thousands of retailers nationwide to pull products containing the chemical. A comprehensive public relations campaign to inform consumers of the risks as well as safe alternatives is also required. Then any leftover pesticides containing the banned substance must be disposed of safely. When a chemical pesticide comes under suspicion, it can be years before consumers are affected. That's one reason why I avoid these pesticides. I'd rather not take the chance that I'm unwittingly using a dangerous product.

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Responses

  • Anita Bianchi
    Which of the following is not an alternative to synthetic prganic pesticides?
    8 months ago
  • Zoe Kennedy
    Which of the following would be considered an alternative to synthetic pesticides?
    3 months ago

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