Tangled in the Web: Pesticide Research


The fjord

First in a series.

I’ve been working on a single, simple (ha) post for the past three days. This hunt makes me feel a bit like Theseus in the maze, playing out a thread behind him so he’d be able to find his way back—except it seems sometimes that the thread has broken, and I’ll be lost in cyberspace forever, adrift like the unfortunate astronaut in 2001, A Space Odyssey, when the wayward computer Hal snapped his umbilical cord leading back to the mother ship. (A bit of a mixed analogy there. Sorry.)

The topic of the moment is “inert” ingredients in pesticides—you know, the ones that aren’t active. When I try to trace the citations in a paper by Caroline Cox and Michael Surgan (“Unidentified Inert Ingredients in Pesticides: Implications for Human and Environmental Health” –with a name like that it had better be true, because it sure ain’t beautiful.) I find that those sections in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations are either “reserved” (which apparently means unavailable, censored, you know, the old need-to-know-basis thing) or simply missing—absent, gone, etc.

This hunt stems from some of the work I did for the infamous organic lawn article. In the course of writing that, I set out to check a number of what I’ll call “green rumors”: things that you’ll hear over and over about the dangers of pesticides, but that I’d never seen documented. I’d heard, for instance, that it’s not the active ingredient in Roundup that’s dangerous, but the inerts; I’d heard that “inert” ingredients in pesticides are not necessarily inert; I’d heard, of course, that pesticides are dangerous to our health, that many have never been tested by the EPA, that they are sold in products in untested combinations, and that the EPA relies on testing conducted by the manufacturers. Here’s the low-down: every one of these green rumors that I’ve traced to a clear, solid source in EPA documents or in university studies turns out to be true.

But I’m still on the hunt, and the quarry, it seems, is growing more elusive. Wish me luck; it looks like I’ll need it.

The picture shows West Brook Fjord in Newfoundland's Gros Morne Park.

11 Responses to Tangled in the Web: Pesticide Research

  1. Good luck Kate. I read an article about Round-Up in Mother Earth News this year that I found very surprising. I wasn’t actually using Round-Up as I try to avoid chemicals in my yard completely, but I had been told in the past that Round-Up was safe. The author of the article didn’t think so :(

  2. Seriously and with not the slightest bit of snark, good luck on that. What I find particularly scary about research into those inert ingredients is that so little work has been done on both chemical interactions with different inert ingredients, and on the effects of time on those ingredients. Considering that most standard insecticides are pretty much nerve agents, I get freaked out every time I help my mother-in-law clean her house and we come across another can of Sevin dust and the like. (She went organic about ten years ago, but these cans of pesticides have been in her unheated and uncooled garage, through typical Texas summers, for 25 to 30 years. We’ve come across bottles that were old when they were put in storage when my in-laws moved into that house, and that was in 1969.)

  3. Serious stuff, I wish you luck. I will be anxious to see what you learn. Thanks for putting in the effort!

  4. Hi Kate,
    This is soooo timely as we’ve had an environmental campaigner win her high court case today re the risk of pesticides to human health. The judge said she’d provided ‘clear evidence’ that crop spraying close to human habitation is harmful. I hope this may give you some thread(s) to follow:

  5. BTW I googled pesticide court case to find that link. Of course I could restrict my search just to the UK part of the web, so you may need to add more to the search if you want to find more on this at the search level

  6. Oh, do I hear your pain! I have been doing research for a proposal…but for a blog post? You are dedicated! :)
    I am not sure if these will be helpful or not, but here are some links that might be of some help:
    This does briefly touch on ‘inert’ ingredients, or what possibly could be in pesticides:
    This will probably be helpful, but I had to view it through my online library membership:
    This also maybe helpful, but quite a bit of reading.
    Good luck!

  7. This is great, people! Keep those experiences and articles coming.
    Amy, I’ll look up what Mother Earth has to say, though in most of my research I prefer to rely on university and government papers, partly because someone who’s not on board already isn’t likely to be convinced by anything in Mother Earth, if you follow my meaning.
    I’m reading up on Round-up already, so stay tuned, and by all means chime in.
    Texas, not Sevin! That stuff is bad news. But you already know that. It’s carbaryl, which is one of the things made “from” methyl isocyanate (or MIC), which is what leaked in 1984 in Bhopal, India, killing on the order of 20,000 people. (Every time I look this up–and I seem unable to keep it in my head–I’m utterly horrified by that number.)
    I hadn’t even thought about degradation over time. Oy…
    Thanks for stopping by, inadvertant; I’ll pass along whatever I learn.
    VP, I’ll have to try that as a search; I can’t make the url work. Thanks, though–I’d like to see this!
    Great stuff, Laurel! The House Publications site wouldn’t open its doors to me, but I’m familiar with both Environmental Health Perspectives and with Caroline Cox. Feels like deja vu all over again. What the heck are you working on, girl?

  8. Oh, don’t get me going about Sevin. I first learned that it was incredibly toxic to bees when I was thirteen, and swore I’d never use it no matter what. Over the last 29 years, after discovering exactly how nasty it was, I’ve felt more and more vindicated in my decision.

  9. What alerted you at the ripe old age of 13, Texas? (Pretty soon I’m going to shorten that to “Tex.” Will you be deeply offended? Maybe I should go for “Trif” instead?)

  10. Very interesting to read your posts about this, Kate – and I was delighted to see the link to the Guardian article from VP too – I was away when Georgina won the court case this refers to, so I’d missed it. I have the same illness as Georgina (CFIDS for those of you in the US; in the UK we call it ME), and also have severe allergies to chemicals, so I’ve been following her campaigns for some time.
    This is her own website: http://www.pesticidescampaign.co.uk/ – I hope that one will work for you & should give you more details of her case if you’re interested, though it is obviously rather Euro-centric.
    I’ve also found this site: http://www.pan-uk.org/index.htm useful in the past – although it’s a UK group it keeps an eye on pesticide use internationally, and seems to have a lot of facts & figures at its fingertips.

  11. Extremely belated response to you, Juliet—I rather missed the bus on that one. I do consult the PAN (Pesticide
    Action Network) database fairly often, but Georgina's work was new to me—and very exciting. I just left a comment on your blog. Lovely garden!

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