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Utah pesticide use not dangerous

Published May 11, 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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

As a government agency responsible for regulating Utah's agriculture industry, we find it necessary to offer a balanced view of the role pesticides play in our food system. Brian Moench, in a May 4 op-ed, "Spray at your own risk," offer a very narrowly focused and unrealistic view that all pesticides should be removed from the market because of their potential to do harm.

This is simply an irresponsible position to advocate, especially for a doctor.

Are pesticides risk-free? Certainly not. But the majority of credible science on the topic of pesticide residue in foods, including reports from the International Food Information Council and even the Environmental Working Group, say the evidence is unclear whether there is a link between the proper application of pesticides and any adverse health effects in humans.

State and federal governments, including Utah, spend billions of dollars each year to monitor pesticides and regulate their proper application within the food system.

A healthy diet contributes to human health and the National Academy of Sciences confirms that our plentiful, affordable and safe food supply can be attributed to the responsible use of pesticides. Pesticides have increased crop yields and the availability and affordability of fruits and vegetables year-round.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, promote consumption of a wide variety of grains, fruits and vegetables as the foundation of a healthy diet. All of these foods proliferate thanks to safe, regulated pesticides.

What is considered a safe level of pesticides? Under federal law the Food and Drug Administration, USDA and Environmental Protection Agency establish science-based tolerance levels that do no harm to consumers, and then divide that number by a factor of 100 to provide an extra margin of human safety. EPA studies of our domestic and foreign-produced foods show that pesticide residue levels "are generally well below tolerances and represent no appreciable public health risk."

Consumers must also do their part to further reduce the risks by washing fruits and vegetables before consuming, or considering switching to organic products for those with heightened sensitivities. But even organics are not totally pesticide-free. Modern pesticides are formulated to be effective, yet quickly break down under sunlight and with time.

Moench also took a below-the-belt swing at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food's pesticide manager, Clark Burgess, who has spent 16 years regulating the industry in Utah. Our manager sits on various pesticide-related boards to assure that industry lives up to regulatory expectations and to offer education in an ever-changing business environment.

The state's pesticide program has cited and fined local companies thousands of dollars for various infractions, most for minor issues. Consumers should feel relieved that none of the food-related cases involved major violations. The department has collected and disposed of more than 254,000 pounds of unused pesticides in the past decade and worked closely with the Salt Lake School District to implement an Integrated Pest Management Program in more than 30 schools.

We helped reduce pesticide use in schools by 90 percent. This program has received national and international recognition and awards from the EPA and is currently being piloted in three other school districts along the Wasatch Front.

I hope this offers consumers a valuable perspective about pesticides and our food supply. Our department is committed to administering its pesticide program to the best of our ability. We strive to protect the public and the environment from illegal pesticide exposure.

Our website (http://www.ag.utah.gov) offers more science-based information about some of the topics touched on here.

Leonard M. Blackham is Utah's state commissioner of agriculture and food. A former majority leader of the Utah Senate, he is a turkey producer in Moroni.