Pesticides Also Not Very Good For Humans

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Watch how researchers are working to make agricultural communities safer for children and families in this four-minute California Matters with Mark Bittman video.

The arguments surrounding the use of certain pesticides can be summarized in simple risk assessment terminology: If you're planning on using a certain pesticide, you have to figure out if the probabilities of the negatives associated with it outweigh the probabilities of the positives.

The variables in that decision matrix are predictable: (1) The cost of the pesticide in question; (2) the ability it has to kill the pests ravaging the crops; but (3) doing so without damaging the crops themselves; while (4) not eradicating an insect population you want to keep around because of their high importance to the global food supply. (For that last one, we're obviously talking about bees.) Throw the answers to those questions in an algorithm and wait for your solution.

But now, there may be another question to consider whenever thinking about using a new pesticide: Will it harm the future of the human race?

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At least, that's the warning we should be taking away from a new round of test results from the European Food Safety Authority. For the past few years they've been studying a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids in order to find out whether claims they may be responsible for the massive honey bee die-offs are worthwhile. But along the way, they found something much more troubling:



In more clear prose, use of these pesticides may lead to negatively affecting the brain health of unborn children. And, frankly, there's no more insidious method of harm for the future of our species than that.

These pesticides are so troubling in fact, that the EFSA recommends the acceptable daily intake by consumers, and exposure level by pesticide-sprayers, be cut by two-thirds of the levels that are currently the norm. And if that doesn't happen, well, we're all in mighty fine trouble.

But perhaps the most troubling part of the study is that while the EFSA's been shouting out these dire warnings about using these specific pesticides, the United States has basically been putting fingers in their ears and yelling out "La! La! La!" as loud as possible. Not only have these warnings been ignored, but they've been deemed without risk to the point where they're still available for over-the-counter purchase at Home Depot.

The EPA's reason for allowing that:



Maybe it's time to take a look at the validity of one's own testing ability if an agency like the EFSA directly contradicts your findings.

Also, while we're at it, a bit of a digression: Another troubling aspect of this warning -- as far as it concerns the U.S., at least -- is the fact that the Europeans seem to understand how to institute a test more than we do. For example, if they're testing a possibly troubling item, they first take it off the market with a moratorium and then see if it's actually dangerous or not. The U.S., as evidenced by the passage of the Monsanto Protection Act earlier this year, is apparently of the mindset that you need to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an item's dangerous before removing it from the market.

All of which is to say: In the realm of pesticide use, maybe the best course of action is "better safe than sorry." And right now, the scientists on the other side of the pond are the ones going about it correctly.

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