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Spray at your own risk

Published May 4, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

My bike route to work crosses Mt. Calvary Cemetery. Riding home last week under a beautiful blue sky, my exhilaration was jolted by several warning signs — "Weed control spraying tomorrow, cemetery closed."

It is a spring ritual for state agencies, farmers and gardeners to arm themselves with chemicals to wipe out insects and weeds, with little thought of the broader consequences. It is long overdue that this ritual give way to science.

Not surprisingly, chemicals that kill the cells of mosquitoes and dandelions just as easily do the same to beneficial insects, animals and humans. It is a misconception that doses of these chemicals commonly encountered are too small to matter.

Numerous physician/scientist groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Endocrine Society have made unambiguous position statements about the danger of the chemical stew we live in, from pesticides in particular.

Europe just banned the most widely used class of insecticides. Medical science is now overwhelming — pesticides are poisons and should be thought of much as we do tobacco. Don't smoke, and don't spray.

Addressing the effect on the human embryo, the 15,000-member Endocrine Society — specialists in endocrine diseases — released this official statement on chemicals (like pesticides) that act as endocrine disruptors. "Even infinitesimally low levels of exposure, indeed, any level of exposure, may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses."

Many pesticides, in addition to being endocrine disruptors, are toxic to the brain and nervous system. Research confirms that mothers exposed to more pesticides bear children with lower intelligence, structural brain abnormalities, higher rates of brain cancer, smaller head size and poor motor skills. Neurologic diseases like Parkinson's and an acceleration of cognitive decline are more common in adults with greater pesticide exposure. Roundup, the most common herbicide, causes liver toxicity, birth defects, adverse pregnancy outcomes, allergic and immune disorders, higher cancer risk and can cause chromosomal damage that persists in subsequent generations.

Utah families throughout the state approached the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment for help challenging state policy that gives away pesticides to homeowners, promotes excessive mosquito spraying and reckless and indiscriminate spraying by professional applicators on landscaping and crop acreage. They have compelling stories of pets and livestock becoming sick and dying from involuntary exposures, and family members suffering neurologic harm, cancer and other diseases linked to pesticides.

These stories expose a state bureaucracy that is ignorant and dismissive of medical science, public health in general and individuals in particular. The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food regulates pesticide spraying in the state, profoundly influencing how much of these toxic chemicals you are exposed to. But UDAF acts as a facilitator for pesticide sprayers, without any medical or toxicology expertise.

Worse still, in a clear conflict of interest, if not outright corruption, a member of the board of directors of the Utah Pest Control and Lawncare Association, Clark Burgess — essentially as a lobbyist for pesticide applicators — is the manager of UDAF's pesticide program. It's like the tobacco companies regulating smoking.

Pesticide drift is inevitable with commercial applicators. We no longer allow smoking in public venues, or burning trash in your own back yard, because others have a right to not be involuntarily exposed. For exactly the same reason, you should be protected from involuntary pesticide exposure.

We can create beautiful landscapes and raise crops in ways that don't poison ourselves and others. The poet Maya Angelou says, "When you know better, do better." We know better about pesticides, and now we must do better.

Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of Union of Concerned Scientists.