Many other countries have banned some of the more dangerous pesticides used to grow food, but in the U.S., many of these chemicals are still used for agricultural applications. This means that some residues end up in our waterways, on our tables, and even in our bodies.
Along with environmental impacts, long-term consumption of these chemicals – even in very small amounts – may have significant effects on our health – particularly among children. Other populations at risk include those living in predominately agricultural areas, farm workers who work with these pesticides directly, and of course, numerous wildlife species.
There are many different pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used on our food crops, but the 5 listed below are particularly hazardous, and several have already been banned for agricultural use in other countries due to their environmental and health risks.
This is not a small matter – either for our health, or the health of the planet. Take the time to learn where your food comes from, and what’s on it, before you eat it!
Where it’s used: Atrazine, considered the second most widely used pesticide in the U.S., is applied mostly to corn in the Midwest and sugarcane in the South.
Health and environmental impacts: It has been linked to adverse developmental, hormonal, and reproductive effects, and potentially to certain cancers. Atrazine easily runs off fields, contaminates groundwater, surface and rain water, and is one of the pesticides most frequently detected in U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) monitoring. “There’s a lot of atrazine in the drinking water in the Midwest,” explained EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder.
Where it’s used: Chlorpyrifos is used on corn and many fruit and vegetable crops, as well as in nurseries and greenhouses all across the country. Consequently, it has been found widely in surface water.
Health and environmental impacts: Chlorpyrifos belongs to the category of insecticides called organophosphates, which kill insects by attacking their nervous systems. But due to concerns about its neurotoxicity, especially to children for whom exposure can cause potentially irreversible changes in the brain, the EPA has been gradually restricting its use.
However, levels of chlorpyrifos residue measured on produce regularly eaten by women and children were found by the EPA to exceed current safety levels by “up to 14,000 percent,” said Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) scientists Miriam Rotkin-Ellman and Veena Singla. Current research also shows “that children’s health effects are happening at lower levels than adult exposure,” added NRDC senior scientist Jennifer Sass.
Legal/regulatory status: Chlorpyrifos is no longer allowed by homeowners, or on farms growing tomatoes—and use on apples, citrus, and nut trees has been curtailed. In October 2015, due to ongoing concerns about its neurotoxicity, the EPA proposed eliminating chlorpyrifos use on all food crops…
Where it’s used: Glyphosate (AKA Roundup) is considered the most widely used pesticide in the U.S. and around the world. Nearly all the corn and soy grown in the U.S. is now treated with glyphosate. It’s also used on wheat, rice, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Use has approximately doubled in the past 10 years, due largely to corn and soy genetically engineered to resist glyphosate.
Health and environmental impacts: In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. Glyphosate has also been linked to hormone disruption, antibiotics resistance, and other adverse health effects, and it has been found in water sources across the U.S. Given glyphosate’s importance to the agricultural chemical industry, discussion of the herbicide’s health effects has become controversial, even contentious.
Legal/regulatory status: The EPA is now in the process of re-approving glyphosate’s use and assessing its potential to cause cancer….
Where it’s used: Malathion is used on a wide variety of food crops—and livestock feed—most intensively in California’s Central Valley, Florida, parts of Kansas, and the Pacific Northwest. It’s also used to control mosquitos, such as in the recent efforts to curtail the spread of the zika virus.
Health and environmental impacts: Like chlorpyrifos, malathion is an organophosphate and neurotoxin. Malathion can be absorbed by the skin as well as inhaled and can adversely affect the digestive, respiratory, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. Malathion has been found in surface water and can also move with air and fog.
Legal/regulatory status: In September 2016, as part of its malathion reregistration process, the EPA released its draft human health assessment of the pesticide. The agency noted that there’s some evidence to suggest its carcinogenicity, but whether this affects people is not yet known. However, it also added that the current protections required for agricultural workers may be inadequate.
Where they’re used: First approved for use in the U.S. in the 1990s, neonicotinoids are now considered the world’s most widely used and fastest growing type of pesticide. Use on U.S. corn and soy has increased ten-fold on the past decade. “Neocics” are also used on wheat, grapes, citrus, and nut orchards, and applied as sprays and seed treatments. The use of some neonicotinoids has doubled or tripled in less than 10 years.
Health and environmental impacts: Neonics have been implicated in bee die-offs across the country, and while they’re not considered the sole cause of the ongoing decline in pollinators, they are understood to be a significant contributing factor. Their human health impacts have also just begun to be investigated. Researchers have also linked neonicotinoids to declines of numerous bird species.
These are systemic pesticides, meaning that they stay with the plant as it grows and are present in pollen and other plant parts. USGS has found neonicotinoids in streams across the country, suggesting that they are moving through the environment…
Legal/regulatory status: The EPA is now reviewing the toxicity of five different neonics. Starting this month, the EPA was due to begin releasing ecological and human health assessments for the same five, but none of the reports have been released…