Garden-variety pesticides may be more dangerous than you think


July 24, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Do you use pesticides in your home or garden? Do you spray your roses? Zap your wasps? Bait your slugs? Poison your rats? Those baits and powders and sprays are pesticides.

Pesticide is the generic term for chemicals designed to kill organisms. Insecticides attack insects. Herbicides kill plants. Fungicides kill fungi and so on. The tip-off is the -cide, from the Latin for killer, as in infanticide and genocide.

Do you think of pesticides as agricultural products? Last year, we dished them out pretty liberally at home -- 67 million pounds of the stuff, in fact. That works out to between four and 10 times as much pesticide per acre as farmers used on their lands, according to the National Academy of Sciences. And though farmers spray the food we

eat, we spray the gardens through which our children run barefoot. We spray the lawns we roll around on. We zap any insect strolling across our kitchen counters.

It is hard to know, as a consumer, whether these pesticides and other -cides pose a threat to our health. If you read your newspaper, you'll find an article describing their dangers one day, pooh-poohing them the next.

We know that symptoms of acute exposure include convulsions, difficulty in breathing, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, eye damage and skin and eye irritations. But it is often hard to prove that herbicides and pesticides are responsible in specific cases.

Here is some information the average home bug-zapper may not run into:

* Children whose parents use home and garden pesticides regularly are 6.5 times as likely to develop leukemia, according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

* The pesticide diazinon has killed so many hundreds of geese, ducks and songbirds that the EPA has banned its use -- on golf courses and sod farms. Diazinon is today the most widely used insecticide on home lawns.

* According to the American Medical Association, the herbicide 2,4-D causes an eight-fold increase in cancer among farmers who are exposed to it on 20 or more days a year. 2,4-D is the most widely used home lawn-care herbicide in this country.

* The National Academy of Sciences reports that the potential incidences of cancer in the United States due to maximum legal pesticide exposure is 1.4 million. That works out to about one in every 170 Americans.

* Most Americans rely on the government, in this case the EPA, to tell them whether a product is safe and to protect them from products that aren't. Pesticides carry an EPA registration number. Yet, according to the General Accounting Office, the EPA has yet to complete testing the safety of 32 of the 34 most widely used lawn-care chemicals.

Of these 32 pesticides, laboratory studies and/or reports on exposed

humans indicate that nine are possible cancer-causing agents, 10 can cause birth defects, three can cause infertility, nine are damaging to the liver and/or kidneys, 20 damage the nervous system and the majority, 29, cause skin disease or irritation.

* Last year, ChemLawn, the country's largest commercial lawn-care outfit, signed a settlement with the State of New York promising not to make false or misleading claims about the safety of its pesticide treatments. The ChemLawn ads the state objected to claimed that it is just as safe to eat 10 cupfuls of grass clippings treated with their pesticides as it is to take a baby aspirin.

* Here's a good question: Are pesticides working? No data are available for gardens and lawns, because the results are mostly aesthetic. But agricultural data are available. Pesticide use on crops has increased 10 times over the past 40 years, crop loss from pests has almost doubled during that time, from seven percent to 13 percent. The same probably holds for garden-variety pesticides. Our pests are becoming resistant.

So where does all this leave you? Reconsidering pesticides, I hope. If you are interested in finding ways to manage pests and unwanted plants in your house and garden, contact the sources below. Send stamped, self-addressed envelopes to these groups and ask for publication lists and prices:

Bio-Integral Resources Center, P.O. Box 7414, Berkeley, Calif. 94707; Washington Toxics Coalition, 4516 University Way, NE, Seattle, Wash. 98105, (206) 632-1545.

(Have a question? Write me at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican B St.,Seattle, Wash. 98112.)

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