Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Playing without Pesticides?

In case you've not heard, there's a movement afoot to ban pesticides as part of a green approach to community improvement. Pesticide bans are most common in schools and parks, but are even being proposed (most famously in Toronto, Ontario) for whole cities. A recent news story from New Jersey tells of a school in Mansfield, NJ that has taken to posting "Pesticide Free" signs near the playgrounds to advertise the school's policy of not using pesticides (at least around playgrounds).

Such actions, in my opinion, are misguided and teach kids the wrong lessons. Those of you who love kids and the environment, like I do, please hear me out before you click the "close" button on your browsers.

Let's ask ourselves, what message do pesticide bans really convey? Let me propose a few.
  • All pesticides are bad for the environment. This message ignores the diversity of pesticide products, all of which are different in their modes of action and degrees of toxicity. A pesticide is, by definition, something that manages pests, not something that is dangerous for the environment. The environmental impacts of today's pesticides are significantly different than the products that Rachel Carson warned us about in the early 1960s. Few of today's pesticides, for one example, have the potential to accumulate in the food chain.

  • All pesticides are unhealthy for kids and the rest of us. Not true. The older, nerve-toxin targeted pesticides have undoubtedly contributed to this misconception; but there are lots of pesticides that pose very low risks to humans and non-targeted organisms.Over the past twenty years or so, especially, pesticide toxicity and persistence has decreased dramatically.

  • You can't trust science-based regulatory agencies to keep unsafe pesticides out of our communities. While I'm not ready to go to bat for all our federal regulatory agencies, few people fully appreciate the vetting process that U.S. pesticides go through before making it to market. Suffice it to say here that pesticides go through much more thorough and expensive safety testing than most other consumer-destined products.

  • We don't really need pesticides. This message denies the value that pesticides have historically provided in keeping food costs down (for the poor as well as the rest of our society), saving human lives by keeping disease-carrying pests at bay, improving safety and appearance of athletic fields (ask your kid's high school coach about this one), and maintaining healthy and comfortable environments for all of us (care to share your sleeping space with bed bugs anyone?).

Leonard Douglen, Executive Director of the New Jersey Pest Management Association, made a good point in a recent editorial when he observed, "When one considers the many insect pests that can attack children, from ticks that can cause Lyme disease to mosquitoes that transmit West Nile Fever, cockroaches that can spread a variety of diseases, as well as stinging insects, the need for professional pest control becomes self-evident."

One final observation. Pesticide bans may be more palatable to consumers, and seem more acheivable, in cooler, northern communities where outdoor pest problems are less common and less severe. In the southern states the warm season is longer, weeds grow faster, and insect and plant disease pressure is significantly greater than, say, Toronto. Under these conditions, pest management is more essential to maintaining safe and attractive landscapes. Try taking the average Texan's bag of fire ant bait away from him or her, and you'll quickly understand what I mean.

Legislators should be careful lest they think that pesticide bans are the way to go. I propose a more thoughtful and nuanced approach. It may not be as fashionable or simple a message as "Pesticide Free", but requiring use of integrated pest management, and making sure that pesticide applicators are well trained in the safe and judicious use of pesticides will, in the long run, be best for us and our environment.

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