This month, the EPA drastically reduced $4.8 million in penalties leveled against a major chemical producer for pesticide exposures in 2016, dropping the fine to $150,000 and a commitment to spend $400,000 in worker training. This followed a late December announcement that the EPA would reevaluate a 2015 rule that prohibited anyone under 18 from using “restricted use” pesticides. These rules were already inadequate: The historical and scientific evidence is overwhelming — and still growing — that these pesticides pose dire threats to the environment, wildlife and even humans.
Instead of relaxing restrictions on pesticides, the EPA ought to ban them altogether.
The history of synthetic insecticides dates to the early years of World War II. A Swiss chemist named Paul Mueller discovered the insecticidal properties of the solid form of DDT (the chemical was synthesized in 1873). Neutral Switzerland released samples of DDT to Germany, Great Britain and the United States.
When initial testing showed impressive effectiveness against many types of insect pests, the United States began DDT production, and the U.S. armed forces deployed DDT in the ongoing fight against the mosquitoes that carried malaria in the Pacific theater. By the end of the war, chemical corporations were producing millions of pounds of DDT, and they found an enthusiastic domestic market among farmers. In short order, farmers nationwide were using DDT on crops. In addition, cities and towns adopted the insecticide to control numerous insects.
In 1962, Rachel Carson’s exposé “Silent Spring” revealed to the public the dangerous downsides of DDT. This best-selling book dramatized the risks posed by DDT and other insecticides to ecosystems, wildlife and even humans — spawning the creation of the modern environmental movement in the process.
To pick but one of many examples, the book exposed how DDT was decimating populations of bald eagles, as the chemical disrupted their ability to reproduce successfully. Carson described two classes of synthetic insecticides: chlorinated hydrocarbons (including DDT) and organic phosphate insecticides — or the class of chemicals that the EPA is reassessing today. Although the popularity of DDT made the former more widespread, the latter chemicals were many times more toxic.