Pesticides are substances used to prevent, repel, or kill any pest.
It is no secret that our agricultural system heavily relies on pesticides to fulfill these purposes. One of its benefits is that it has managed to increase food production.
However, the increased use of pesticides in the past decades has exposed its potential dangers to the human body.
And it seems like these drawbacks have outweighed its benefits.
How can pesticide use be harmful to human agriculture?
Continue reading to learn more about how the billion-dollar industry can affect not only agricultural workers, but even unsuspecting people.
What are Pesticides?
Pesticides are chemicals meant to control pests.
The term pesticide also includes herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and many others. They come in different variations or chemical families depending on their target and purpose.
However, these formulations can pose a risk not only to the ecosystem, but also to the food chain and to human health.
For instance, a herbicide called Paraquat is currently being the target of many lawsuits in the United States.
A number of research has shown that the chemical compound might be linked to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.
And even though licensed applicators who have undergone proper training under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can apply, mix, or load the herbicide, it can still cause damage to nearby environment.
Aside from that, exposure to the harmful chemical has also been associated with lung damage, lung scarring, liver failure, kidney failure, and heart failure, among others.
In 2017, the first Paraquat lawsuit was filed in behalf of farmers and agricultural workers who were subsequently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after being exposed to the pesticide.
Pesticides contain a number of active and inert ingredients, as well as contaminants and impurities.
The active ingredient of a pesticide is usually the one material that does the most damage to the pest, in other words, the active ingredients have the capacity to kill living things. This is the reason why federal law mandates that these ingredients should be listed on the product’s label.
And even though all pesticides should be registered to the EPA and there are necessary tests and requirements in order for a pesticide product to be approved, pesticide poisoning still happens.
The bad news?
Not only agricultural workers and pesticide applicators are the most vulnerable to the toxic effects of pesticides.
Even children who accidentally get exposed to these chemicals because of unlabeled bottles containing pesticides are at risk.
Pesticides and the Environment
How can pesticide use be harmful to human agriculture?
In ways more than one.
Aside from its direct impact on humans, pesticides can also contaminate water, soil, and other vegetation.
It can also be toxic to hosts of organisms such as fish, birds, insects, and non target plants.
For instance, even though pesticides are sprayed on land, they can also reach surface water such as ocean, river, or pond through runoff.
And once a water source becomes contaminated with these chemicals, animals like fish can suffer and die, leading to an imbalance in the whole ecosystem.
In fact, a set of studies done by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on the aquatic life on major river basins in the country found that 90 percent of water and fish samples from streams contained one, or more often, several pesticides.
The use of pesticides can also cause groundwater pollution. This happens through a process called leaching.
Pesticide leaching is the movement of contaminants like pesticides or fertilizers through the soil and finally to groundwater, which is vulnerable to pollution.
Pesticides are often leached through the soil by rain or irrigation water.
Another cause for concern is that many people depend on groundwater for their drinking supply, so if the water is contaminated with pesticides, then it is dangerous for people to drink this water.
Another way pesticides can cause harm is through soil contamination.
Pesticides are sprayed on crops to protect them from pest. However, some amount of sprayed pesticide may fall on the soil and penetrate it.
This can affect soil fertility as excessive use of pesticides can cause beneficial soil microorganisms to decline. When this happens, the soil degrades.
How are Pesticides Harmful to Farmers?
When we ask, “How can pesticide use be harmful to human agriculture?”
We often forget the people who make a living through agriculture, the workforce that keeps it moving: the farmers and agricultural workers.
And sometimes, we should also ask ourselves: “How can pesticide use be harmful to farmers?”
People who are at the highest risk of suffering from the harmful effects of pesticide use are farmers and agricultural workers who work directly with these chemicals, applying, mixing, and loading them in the farms where they are used.
And even though pesticides are being regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by only allowing licensed applicators to use these harmful chemicals, at times, the guidelines are not always followed.
For instance, farmers may not always be given the required protective equipment or may be forced to work on fields previously sprayed with pesticides, still unabsorbed by the environment.
Language barriers may also play a role on how farm workers may be exposed to the risks of pesticide use.
Since many of the farmers or agricultural workers in the United States are undocumented immigrants with limited English speaking skills, they may not understand warning signages or they may not be able to achieve adequate training on the use of pesticides.
These challenges to farmers also mean that the harmful effects of these chemicals in them can go untreated.
And the fact that incidents of pesticide poisoning are often underreported means that not many health professionals fully know the risks that come with the use of pesticides and the extent of what dangerous levels of these chemicals can do to humans.
It can also be said that pesticides are not being talked about enough in public health research which influences guidelines and legislation.
The Impact of Pesticides on Human Health
The use of pesticides can cause acute (immediate) adverse health effects or chronic (long-term) health effects.
Here’s how they differ from one another:
Acute or immediate effects, as the word suggests, are health effects that appear immediately or 24 hours following pesticide exposure.
These acute effects may include nausea, dizziness, blisters, diarrhea, irritation of the nose, skin, and throat, which may lead to burning sensations as well as rashes.
People with asthma may also have severe reactions to many pesticides, including organophosphate and carbamate pesticides.
In many cases, these acute effects may easily be mistaken for symptoms of the colds or flu or even other illnesses. This is just another reason why pesticide poisonings are often misdiagnosed or under-reported.
On the other hand, chronic or long-term health effects are delayed injuries or illnesses which may not appear until several years following pesticide exposure.
These long-term health impacts of pesticides may affect farmers, consumers, and even people who live around fields where pesticides are used.
Some of these include preterm births, cancer, tumors, neurological disorders, lung damage, brain and nervous system damage, endocrine disruption, infertility, kidney failure, heart failure, liver failure, and damages to other body organs.
Pesticides have also been linked to studies of human illnesses such as leukemia and lymphoma, and numerous types of cancer such as brain, prostate, breasts, colon, myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma.
A number of research have also concluded that pesticides are especially dangerous to children even before birth.
Another way pesticides can pose risks to human health is through pesticide residues.
Pesticide residues are amounts of pesticide that may remain in foods after being applied to food crops.
Pesticide residues on the food we eat are highly regulated to protect consumers from adverse effects of pesticides, such as poisoning and other long-term health effects like cancer.
The good news?
These adverse effects can only occur when people are exposed to large amounts of pesticide, and these residues tend to decline as they break down over time.
What You Can Do
Since illnesses from pesticides may appear similar to symptoms of other illnesses, pesticide poisonings are often mistreated, misdiagnosed, and under-reported.
If you believe you have been exposed to pesticides and you are having immediate symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention immediately.
These symptoms are often reversible if a patient is given proper care. However, if left untreated, they can be potentially life-threatening.
Still in doubt?
You can visit the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website if you have pesticide-related questions and if you want to learn more pesticide safety tips.