Always Read the Label And Always Consider the Source of Your Information
The Internet being the amazing communication tool that it is, we get questions from some incredibly far-flung places. Yesterday a follower in Nigeria said she was afraid of the products in her local garden center and wanted our help in deciding what to buy to spray on her lawn. Soon afterward, a reporter from New York wanted our help in creating a top 10 most dangerous list of lawn and garden pesticides. Then a junior high school student sent me a list of interview questions by email. “Why are you so adamantly opposed to pesticides?” he began. “The man I spoke with from Scotts says pesticides are safe when used as directed.”
By 1 p.m. I had responded to more than 40 such emails, most from my iPhone while attending to other matters or conferencing in on phone calls.
Here’s just a sampling of some of my answers. They all have a common theme of “read the label before you buy or apply:”
To the woman in Nigeria:
“I’m not sure about the labeling requirements in your nation, but the label is the best place to start. Try to determine the active ingredients and any so-called ‘inert’ ingredients if they are revealed (in the U.S. they are not) and use an Internet resource such as the Panna.org pesticide database to find out more about the substances.”
To the New York reporter:
“Creating a list of just 10 bad pesticides is like asking me to rank oil spills from worse to worst,” I said. But I proceeded to give him some of what he wanted, not necessarily in order of risk:
1) Preen (active ingredient trifluralin) — The label states “This pesticide is extremely toxic to freshwater marine, and estuarine fish and aquatic invertebrates. Causes moderate eye irritation. Harmful if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through skin. Avoid contact with eyes, skin or clothing.” When you dig a bit deeper on this one, you learn that trifluralin is classified by the EPA as a possible carcinogen and that the agency further states: “No information is available on the acute (short-term), chronic (long-term), reproductive, developmental effects of trifluralin in humans.” Kind of makes you wonder how a product like that gets approved in the first place, doesn’t it? It’s a classic case of a pesticide that is innocent until proven guilty.
2) Sevin (active ingredient carbaryl) — This may well be the most toxic pesticide in common use by homeowners. Why it’s still allowed is anyone’s guess. The label states, ‘This product is extremely toxic to aquatic and estuarine invertebrates. BEE CAUTION: MAY KILL HONEYBEE IN SUBSTANTIAL NUMBERS.” This is also on the list of the EPA’s possible human carcinogens and the material safety data sheet from one manufacturer states: “Carbaryl is moderately to very toxic. It can produce adverse effects in humans by skin contact, inhalation, or ingestion.”
3) 2,4-D (this is the active ingredient, included in thousands of weed-killing products, either alone or in combination with other compounds) — I recall a conversation I once had with Jim King, a likable enough marketing guy for Scotts, who said, “2,4-D has been the most tested pesticide on the market and it’s always been proven to be safe.” This is the same ingredient that has been banned for use in residential areas in almost 80 percent of Canada due to its health and environmental effects. Here are just a few tidbits from our own government’s web site: “2,4-D is both an excitant and a depressant of the central nervous system [Hathaway et al. 1991]. It is also a moderate skin irritant and a severe eye irritant [Parmeggiani 1983] . . . Acute overexposure of 2,4-D may cause sudden death due to ventricular fibrillation and cardiogenic shock. Animals exposed to large amounts of 2,4-D developed extreme stiffness of the extremities, incoordination, lethargy, stupor, and coma. Severe dilation and congestion of the blood vessels in the lungs, liver, and kidneys occurs; death is due to congestion of the liver and pneumonia [Hathaway et al. 1991; ACGIH 1991]. Moderate cumulative toxicity due to 2,4-D has been reported in animals by some authors [Parmeggiani 1983], but others report no pathological changes following low dose 2,4-D exposure in the diet [ACGIH 1991]. 2,4-D is mutagenic in a variety of animal test systems [NIOSH 1995]. It also has teratogenic and fetotoxic effects causing fetal growth retardation and skeletal abnormalities in rats [Rom 1992; Sax and Lewis 1989; NLM 1995]. IARC studies of the carcinogenicity of 2,4-D in animals have been inconclusive [NLM 1995]. Human exposure to 2,4-D has been associated with central and peripheral nervous system effects, liver and kidney damage, and death [NLM 1995; Hathaway et al. 1991; ACGIH 1991]. Several case control studies of soft-tissue sarcoma and lymphoma have suggested an increased risk among workers exposed to phenoxyacetic acid herbicides, including 2,4-D. . . . Acute exposure to 2,4-D has caused irritation of the skin, eyes, throat, and chest; nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; muscle twitching and weakness; swelling or aching of the extremities; numbness; flaccid paralysis; hyporeflexia and hyperflexia; malaise, headache, and dizziness; low blood pressure; increased body temperature; loss of appetite and weight; malaise; stupor, convulsions, and death [Hathaway et al. 1991; Parmeggiani 1983]. Protein in the urine has also been reported following acute exposure [ACGIH 1991].
That’s some great reading, isn’t it?
But, then, here was my answer to the junior high school student:
“First of all, it is illegal for a manufacturer of a pesticide to make safety claims, because the minimum safety threshold cannot be determined. Secondly, you must always consider the source of your information. Here is the Material Safety Data Sheet produced by Ortho (a Scotts-owned brand) on 2,4-D:
POTENTIAL HEALTH EFFECTS
EYES: No adverse eye effects are expected from product contact.
SKIN: This substance is not expected to cause prolonged or significant skin irritation. If absorbed through the skin, this substance is
considered practically non-toxic.
INGESTION: If swallowed, this substance is considered practically non-toxic.
INHALATION: If inhaled, this substance is considered practically non-toxic.
“Now, son, if you believe a word of the MSDS sheet produced by Ortho, please see this web site from the U.S. government on 2,4-D: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/healthguidelines/2_4d-dichlorophenoxyaceticacid/recognition.html#healthhazard.”