October 23, 2012

Pesticide database would be a boost, not a burden, for farmers

Leo Horrigan, MHS

Leo Horrigan, MHS

CLF Correspondent

Center for a Livable Future

Spraying Fruit Trees in the Okanagan Valley, 1963

Pesticides are dangerous substances. After all, they are designed to kill living things.

So, if they are going to be released into our environment—whether by a farmer or a lawn-care specialist—the least we can do is track who’s releasing what, when, where and how much, so we can monitor whatever unintended consequences these substances might be causing. This means requiring the people who apply pesticides to report their use to government regulators.

This seems like an uncontroversial proposal, and yet a bill to this very effect has failed in the Maryland General Assembly all three times it has been proposed in the past four years.

A coalition of organizations that arose from the Pesticides and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Project, which is co-sponsored by The Maryland Pesticide Network and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, is hoping the fourth time is the charm for this idea whose time arrived long ago. So, although the next session of Maryland’s state legislature is still a few months away, the coalition has launched a campaign called Smart on Pesticides—for Safe Water and Healthy Kids, which is part of its latest push for legislation to require better reporting of pesticide use.

The Pesticides and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Project held its annual meeting last week, and this legislative effort was already rising to the top of the priority list for the next year.

The main opposition to the bill—coming chiefly from the Maryland Farm Bureau and the pest control industry—is based on an unfounded concern: it will create an additional paperwork burden for farmers. In reality, farmers are already required to keep records of pesticide applications they make on their farms. This bill would only add the requirement that they report those numbers to a centralized database. If a farmer hires a company to apply pesticides on her farm, it is the company that must report to the database, not the farmer. Additionally, the bill would allow reporting via a Smartphone application, by computer or by hard copy.

This program will not cost taxpayers a dime. The bill would be funded by upping the annual product registration fee levied on pesticide manufacturers. Maryland has a lower fee than any nearby state other than Delaware, and product prices have not gone up in states with higher pesticide registration fees.

While the Farm Bureau would have us believe that this is a bad bill for farmers, it is actually farm families and farm workers who stand to benefit most from the research that would be supported by this legislation, since they are on the front lines of health risks from pesticide use. These risks include both acute effects at the time of exposure, and elevated long-term risks for neurological problems, including Parkinson’s disease, respiratory disorders, and numerous cancers, among other health problems.

This does not even include all of the endocrine-disrupting effects that pesticides can be associated with—effects that sometimes manifest even when exposures are very low-dose, as the Watershed Project meeting’s keynote speaker, Linda Birnbaum, has pointed out. She is the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

And, of course, once pesticides leave farms—by air or water—they become a risk factor for the rest of us, too, and also for wildlife, particularly species that depend on the Chesapeake Bay, which is downstream from everything in our region. Presenters at previous Project meetings have detailed many of these risks.

If researchers are to effectively study other suspected associations between pesticides and disease—in humans or other animals—they need comprehensive data on which pesticides are being applied, where, when, and how much. Let 2013 be the year when the Maryland General Assembly finally makes this possible.

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