GMOs aren't scary — pesticides are

AP

Americans who care about food and health have wrung their hands worrying about genetically modified organisms in recent years. GMO labeling dominated conversations in 2016, when then President Barack Obama signed a GMO label law that will allow companies to use a QR code to disclose products with GMOs. But worrying about GMOs, which most scientists deem to be safe for consumption, shouldn't be keeping you up at night in 2017. 

The scarier threat to public health? Pesticides. Farmers use chemicals to kill organisms that feast on their crops, but these chemicals stay in soil and groundwater for decades — potentially endangering us and generations to come. 

A crop duster sprays crops in Oklahoma  Brandi Simons/AP

One such example: A study published in July found that pesticide use might interfere with neurodevelopment in young children. If a mother was pregnant while high concentrations of pesticides were applied near her home, her child was more likely to have lower IQ levels and scored lower on a verbal comprehension test, researchers found.

The future of pesticide regulation looks grim. With Scott Pruitt as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, it's likely that the U.S. food supply will continue to harbor pesticide residue — and scientists don't know what the long-term consequences might be. Pruitt's home state of Oklahoma happens to have the highest rate of pesticide-related deaths and illnesses in the United States.

An environmental public health indicator provides information about a population's health status with respect to environmental factors. Tracking Indicators were developed in collaboration with national, state, and local environmental health partners.   CDC Environmental Public Health Tracking/ephtracking.cdc.gov

What's at stake? 

"I think we need to brace for [the EPA] to attack every protection we've achieved to secure healthy food, clean air and uncontaminated water," Sonya Lunder, Environmental Working Group senior analyst, said in an email. 

When it comes to pesticides, Lunder said that this year, the EPA will be evaluating how several pesticides impact human health and the environment. 

"While it will be difficult for them to reverse the progress we've completed to restrict highly hazardous pesticides, it seems likely they will slow or stall the current actions that would restrict currently acknowledged hazards," she said.

Lunder said the EPA moves slowly — especially compared to groups in Europe — when assessing pesticides. In other words, pesticides that other countries have banned, like atrazine, could continue to be legal for U.S. farmers if the EPA chooses to delay assessments. 

Scott Pruitt will head the Environmental Protection Agency.  Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

The pesticides that could remain in our food supply under Trump.

The Trump administration has pledged to ax regulations throughout federal government, and this anti-regulation sentiment could put the vetting process for pesticides at risk, Civil Eats reported. 

Lunder said the EPA is set to release decisions on or assessments of several pesticides this year: 

• Chlorpyrifos, an insecticide linked to autism and ADHD

• Atrazine, a herbicide associated with birth defects in animals and humans

• Neonicotinoids, insecticides that are decimating bee populations, the EPA admitted last year

• Pyrethroids, a group of insecticides that may interfere with brain development

• Glyphosate, an herbicide that could be a potential hormone disrupter and carcinogen. 

But let's back up for a second. If pesticides are out of sight, out of mind for you, here's what you need to know about how pesticides impact the environment and our health. 

Farmers rely on pesticides.

All farms deal with threats to crops that include mold, fungus and crop disease, Genevieve O'Sullivan, director of communications and marketing for CropLife America, a pesticide lobbying group, said in an email. 

Oklahoma wheat harvest  Sue Ogrocki/AP

"Without pesticides, farmers could face massive losses, which wastes not only the crops and food being grown but also the water, fuel, money, time and other resources spent in the growing process," O'Sullivan said. 

But don't be fooled — organic produce is still treated with pesticides. Farmers who grow organic produce use natural pesticides made from natural sources and farmers who grow conventional produce use pesticides made from synthetic chemicals. Using diatomaceous earth is one natural strategy, Chensheng Lu, associate professor of Exposure Biology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in an email. Derived from marine phytoplankton, diatomaceous earth is an insecticide used by the grain industry. 

There are trade-offs between using synthetic pesticides or natural ones, and it all depends on how much a farmer uses, Jeff Gillman, a professor of nursery management at the University of Minnesota, told NPR. "I could use a tiny amount of a potent synthetic that has proved safe over the last 50 years, or a much larger amount of a [natural] pesticide," he said. 

All pesticides are toxic in large amounts.

Insecticide sprayed in Florida  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Pesticides are designed to kill organisms and all pesticides are lethal in certain doses, Lu said. "We do not know the long-term health effects as the result of intaking small amount of pesticides from foods on the daily basis," Lu said. "This is a multiple millions research question."

O'Sullivan of CropLife America said the EPA conducts over 120 regulatory studies on a pesticide before it clears it as safe for use by farmers. Each product takes "an average of 11 years and more than $280 million" to thoroughly develop and test, she said.  

Yet the pesticide industry might be actively thwarting efforts to test pesticides.

Documents unearthed during a lawsuit against pesticide giant Syngenta found that the company was trying to discredit a scientist who had discovered that atrazine, a main ingredient in Syngenta's products, was linked to birth defects, the New Yorker reported in 2014.

The pesticide and seed company used tactics like buying certain search words online and attempting to draw attention to tangential scientific debates. Undermining scientific findings by diverting the conversation is one strategy used by the tobacco industry, David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health, wrote in his book Doubt Is Their Product, the New Yorker noted. 

Lu took issue with the pesticide safety levels established by the government. 

"The pro-pesticide folks claim that those levels are safe, but more and more evidences have provided a very different outcome," Lu said, adding that many pesticides used by American farmers have ended up being banned "because we did not know the exact toxicity of those pesticides in humans until we have enough human data after 20 to 30 years of usage."

One such pesticide: DDT. This insecticide was originally used to control malaria, lice and the bubonic plague during World War II. But the EPA banned it in 1972. The chemical has a tendency to accumulate in animals and has adverse health and environmental effects, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. DDT has been associated with breast cancer, neurobiological problems in children and spontaneous abortion, Public Radio International reported. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization supports its use in African countries where malaria is a health problem. 

Will science prevail in Trump's America?  

Americans already saw what happens when regulating pollution fails — the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a recent example of what happens when environmental toxins spread into a water supply. Without knowing what truly happens when farmers treat fields with synthetic and natural pesticides, other populations could be at risk for environmental disasters.  

"Support science, scientists and advocacy groups," Lunder said, suggesting people call elected officials to tell them they care about clean food and water. 

Long-term studies may be expensive and time consuming, but investigating the effects of pesticides on our health and environment is priceless.