Pesticides in America: Boll Weevils and Silent Springs
Humans have struggled with agricultural pests for millenia evidence suggests that before 500 BC humans were using sulfur to prevent damage to their crops. Infestations like that of the boll weevil in the American South's cotton fields led to economic depressions and great hardship. Modern American pesticide history hit a milestone with the 1939 discovery that DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane) was a very effective insecticide. DDT was widely used during World War II among the Allies to control insect typhus and the mosquitos which carried malaria. During the 1950s and 1960s it became the most widely used pesticide in the world.
Enter Rachel Carson. During the 1960s studies showed that DDT was preventing some fish-eating birds from reproducing. Further studies suggested that DDT could cause birth defects in humans entering through the food web. In 1962 Carson published her study of the effects of DDT and other chemicals on the environment, SILENT SPRING. The book, which is often credited with spawning the modern environmental movement, had advance sales of 40,000 copies and another 150,000 copies were sent out to the public as a Book of the Month Club selection. Pesticide manufacturers countered with a direct mail campaign about the benefits of pesticides including the control of deadly pest-borne diseases and the great growth in post-war agricultural productivity.
The Environmental Protection Agency traces its origins to the controversy over DDT. As the SILENT SPRING agitation refused to die down, a new group, the Environmental Defense Fund, began lobbying to ban DDT and was successful in several states. Created in 1971, the EPA took over pesticide regulation from the Department of Agriculture. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.
The DDT debate also stimulated changes in pesticide research. Among the alternatives developed were
"biological controls (predator introduction, sterile males, and pheromone traps), integrated controls (crop rotation and carefully delimited pesticide use), and refinement of other, less persistent chemicals."
National regulation of pesticides has a long history. In 1910 Congress passed the Insecticide Act, which was designed to protect farmers from being sold "adulterated or misbranded products." This was followed by Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) of 1947 which required the Department of Agriculture to register all pesticides prior to their introduction in interstate commerce. A second Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) passed in 1964 gave the Secretary of Agriculture the power to refuse registration to pesticides that were unsafe or ineffective and to remove them from the market.
A sea change in the federal government's relation to pesticide regulation came with the transfer of pesticide regulation to the EPA. No longer was the focus mainly on safe agricultural use, but also on monitoring the effects such substances had on the human environment. P>
The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1972 (FIFRA) set up the current system of pesticide regulations. It was amended somewhat by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 which requires the EPA to "required to factor potential exposures to pesticides through drinking water into already complex procedures used to set pesticide 'tolerance levels' in foods." In addition, many states have their own pesticide regulations and monitoring programs. Find out about your locale with our Pesticide Regulation Map.
The following Web sites offer more information on pesticides:
Beyond Pesticides is a non-profit advocacy group which advocates the development of non-chemical pest management.
The Centers for Disease Control: National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals
Released in July 2005, The National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals provides an ongoing assessment of the U.S. population's exposure to environmental chemicals using biomonitoring. Biomonitoring is the assessment of human exposure to chemicals by measuring the chemicals or metabolites in blood or urine.
Established in 1933, CropLife America represents the developers, manufacturers, formulators and distributors of plant science solutions for agriculture and pest management in the United States. CropLife America maintains the National Pesticide Use Database, the only national, comprehensive, publicly available pesticide use database for the United States.
Environmental Protection Agency: Pesticide Program
The EPA is the federal agency with pesticide oversight. Their Web site contains a wealth of information on: regulations and procedures, types of pesticides, health and safety, environmental effects, new pesticide science and a section on chemical and pesticide safety for kids.
The EXtension TOXicology NETwork (ETOXNET)
EXTOXNET is a cooperative effort of University of California-Davis, Oregon State University,
Michigan State University, Cornell University, and the University of Idaho. The site bills itself as "a source of objective, science-based information about pesticides - written for the non-expert." Information on the site has been developed by toxicologists and chemists within the Extension Service of the land-grant universities listed below.
National Institutes of Health: Pesticides
The NIH Web site allows visitors to search the MedlinePlus database of health resources from US government agencies and other credible organizations as well as a Clinical Trials Database for the newest information on pesticides and human health.
National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC)
The NPIC is a cooperative effort of Oregon State University and the EPA. The site has information for both the public and those who use pesticides. Of special interest are the case profiles depictions of actual inquiries made to NPIC. "A case is chosen to profile because it involves circumstances, experiences, etc., where there is a take-home message. Thus, NPIC case profiles are intended to be educational and aimed at preventing unsafe or otherwise harmful pesticide practices." The site also contains links to the manufacturers of major pesticides used in the U.S.
Pesticide Action Network
PANNA (Pesticide Action Network North America) is one of five centers worldwide working to replace chemical pesticides with "ecologically sound and socially just alternatives." The site contains information on pesticides and related issues like "drift" as well as information the groups' campaigns and projects.
Pestfacts.org is sponsored by RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment), a national not-for-profit trade association representing producers and suppliers of specialty pesticides and fertilizers. The site contains safety tips, Q&As, reports on pest threats, health concerns and an extensive section on West Nile Virus.
U.S. Department of Agriculture: Office of Pest Management
The USDA Office of Pest Management Policy is most actively involved with implementation of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA)in providing the EPA with information to help assure that pesticide tolerance reassessments are based on realistic agricultural practices and the most accurate data available.
United States Geographical Survey: Pesticide Regulation
Since 1991, USGS scientists with the National Water-Quality Assessment program have been collecting and analyzing data in more than 50 major river basins and aquifers. The USEPA Office of Pesticides uses USGS data for pesticide registration and for assessments of pesticide exposure. The study has found "low concentrations of pesticides are in streams and ground water throughout the nation. At least one pesticide was detected in more than 95 percent of stream samples collected at 115 sites. Concentrations of individual pesticides in samples were almost always below current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) drinking-water standards. Nearly two-thirds of all streams sampled had at least one pesticide at a concentration exceeding a guideline for the protection of aquatic life."