By definition, pesticides kill. They aim to kill insects, weeds and fungi, among other things, but they can also threaten the lives of humans. Though most people agree that pesticide use has contributed to immense gains in agricultural production and human nutrition, pesticides may also pose health risks to people.
For the most part, these risks are not deadly. Most side effects come in the form of minor illnesses, which require no medical treatment and cause less than three missed days of work. A smaller percentage of people experience moderate illnesses, which are non-life-threatening and cause three to five days of missed work.
It is this chronic exposure, and its serious side effects, that most people worry about. Though there is plenty of contradictory evidence regarding the risks related to pesticides — many farmers say that current regulations are working while others say they’re not — most people can reason that repeated exposure to chemicals intended to kill other lifeforms probably isn’t good.
Using the most recently available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the experts at HealthGrove, a Graphiq site, examined all annual pesticide exposure incidents by state and in aggregate through 2010.
However, despite the decrease in pesticide use since the 1980s — in 1981, 632 million pounds of pesticides were used in the United States while in 2008 that number was 516 million — the rates of minor illnesses have been on the up since 2000.
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This could be due to many factors. There are many types of pesticides, and changing their chemical composition could make them more toxic. Additionally, dispersing them by new methods (such as by airplane instead of ground level) could affect how many people are exposed.
Those most at risk for pesticide-related ailments are children, who consume more food, air and water relative to their body weight, and those who work in agriculture. Because of this, one might expect the top ten agriculturally producing states to have the highest rates of pesticide-related illness, but according to the CDC, this is not the case.
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While pesticides have very tangible benefits, such as improving crop yield and quality of food, they also pose real environmental and human risks. Given the dynamic nature of ecosystems, the use of chemicals may have unintended consequences. They can find their way into other crops or nearby water sources, for example.
According to the United States Geological Survey, a majority of streams and groundwater had detectable levels of pesticides. Many fruit and vegetables also have detectable levels — the twelve foods with the highest levels of pesticides are often referred to as the “dirty dozen.” However, even these twelve foods don’t come close to exceeding the maximum levels allowed, according to the Journal of Toxicology.
Of the top ten states with the most pesticide-related illnesses, seven of them had the largest increases in pesticide use from 2000 to 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This could have contributed to the increase in illnesses in these states seen from 2000 to 2010. However, when considering all the potential factors involved (toxicity, dispersal method, etc.), it’s impossible to draw clear conclusions.
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Though it’s hard to determine the causes of pesticide-related illnesses, there seems to be a connection. With this in mind, it is increasingly important to monitor and understand the relationship between pesticides and disease in order to develop safer methods of food production.