Flashback: No evidence of harm from legally used pesticides

This issue popped up in a Twitter exchange today.

Note the bolded portion of this blast from the past.

Unwarranted Warning

By Steven Milloy
Copyright 2000 Washington Times
April 21, 2000

The Senate has voted unanimously to require parents be warned 72 hours in advance of the use of pesticides in schools. It’s too bad there is no warning required before senators vote on junk-science-fueled legislation.

Democratic Sens. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Patty Murray of Washington announced introduction of the bill in October. At their press conference, I questioned Dr. Philip Landrigan, a well-known environmental activist who is also chairman of community and preventative medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center and who was designated as a scientific expert by Mr. Torricelli.

In the aftermath of the 1993 National Research Council Report on children and pesticides, Dr. Landrigan admitted that “no disease has ever been documented that stems from legal applications of pesticides.” Reminding Dr. Landrigan of this statement, I asked him what changed to make him support this legislation. I also asked for specific scientific references that supported the need for the legislation.

After much fumbling for an answer, Mr. Torricelli had to prompt Dr. Landrigan to mention a study allegedly published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that reported children exposed to pesticides in their homes had a leukemia rate four times higher than those not exposed.

But I could not find such a study. I did find another study in Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The study was a critical review of 31 epidemiologic studies published between 1970 and 1996 that investigated whether occupational or residential exposure to pesticides by either parents or children was related to increased risk of childhood cancer.

The study found that an etiologic relationship between pesticide exposure and childhood cancer is far from proven — not a surprising result given that pesticides must pass a battery of 120 tests before being approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency.

There is no doubt the lack of scientific data supporting the idea that pesticides pose a threat to children played a role in California Gov. Gray Davis’ decision to veto legislation requiring school districts to notify parents 72 hours before applying pesticides on school grounds. And California can hardly be considered a slouch on the regulation of chemicals.

Properly applied pesticides are safe. More importantly, pesticides — including disinfectants, rodenticides, insecticides and herbicides — are necessary. And our children’s health often depends on pesticide application. Children face serious health threats in schools from cockroaches, fire ants, bees, wasps, mosquitoes, poison oak and ivy, rats and mice.

“It is not as though we were sending airplanes to fog the area around a school each time we treated for cockroaches,” according to Dan LaHart, environmental issues program manager for the Anne Arundel County, Md., public schools. “Instead we take a hypodermic needle with a gel bait and inject it right into the cracks and crevices when a roach problem exists.”

Before the Maryland legislature passed the School Pesticide Notification Act in 1998, that would have been a 15-minute job. Thanks to the new law, it now takes about a week and additional staff time before the same gel bait can be injected. The cost of photocopying and getting the notices out is an additional $12,000 annually. The extra staff time and other indirect costs to implement the program for only one of the 23 county school systems in Maryland is more than $32,000 annually.

More important than the cost is the potential impact on children’s safety and health. Cockroach feces is suspected of being a major factor in the recent epidemic of childhood asthma. Despite successful cockroach extermination and rigorous cleaning, cockroach allergen can still be present in levels high enough to cause disease, according to John Hopkins University researchers. The researchers found that allergen levels fell by 77 to 91 percent in areas treated with insecticides. The answer to keeping cockroach droppings in check is to prevent them from building up in the first place.

Why do Sens. Torricelli and Murray want to scare parents and children about pesticides? A conspicuous presence at the press conference was the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, an extreme, anti-pesticide advocacy group. As part of its campaign to rid the world of pesticides, NCAMP has led the charge to force schools to notify parents prior to pesticide use. The hope is parents will be sufficiently alarmed and force schools to halt pesticide use.

Appropriate use of pesticides has helped us achieve the highest standard of living ever. From increasing agricultural crop yields to preventing or halting the spread of insect-borne disease, we depend greatly on these invaluable tools.

The Senate apparently received no warning about the Torricelli-Murray legislation before its vote. Let’s hope the House of Representatives heeds this one.

Steven J. Milloy is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

3 thoughts on “Flashback: No evidence of harm from legally used pesticides”

  1. Chemophobes would just totally lose it if they knew about all of the naturally occurring pesticides they have in their local landscape.

  2. In connection with a recent scare about pollinators dying off a suggestion about using insecticides. Do not use systemic insecticides on plants that bloom (produce flowers). Some rose fertilizers do use systemic insecticides, check the label. Stop using contact insecticides about 4 or 5 days before the plant blooms and wait until after the blooms are gone before applying any more.

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