Are Conventional Pesticides Safe?

We are told that pesticides are regulated and scientifically tested. What does this really mean?

Are Pesticides Rigorously Tested For Safety?*

Chemical Testing

According to the U.S. President’s Cancer Panel: “Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety.”

Pesticides are subjected to more testing than most other chemicals, but the USPCP reports that “Some scientists maintain that current toxicity testing and exposure limit-setting methods fail to accurately represent the nature of human exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.”

Chemical Cocktails In Our Environment

Because of the wide use of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides in agriculture, commercial and home use, we are constantly exposed. The CDC measures chemicals in urine and blood, including pesticides every few years (biomonitoring). The most recent testing found widespread exposure to hundreds of chemicals, some of which have been banned for decades. In 2009 the Environmental Working Group tested the placental cord blood of newborns and found up to 232 different chemicals – many linked to cancer and other health risks.

Regulatory authorities only test active ingredients in pesticide products. No testing of combinations are done. Emerging evidence shows cause for concern regarding synergistic toxicity. Synergistic toxicity is the effect that when exposed to two toxins, the toxicity level is far greater than the additive toxicity levels of each. In other words: 1 + 1 can equal 10, 50, 100 or more. Toxicity amplified to more than just the sum of its parts. The combinations of chemicals encountered in the environment are not tested for synergistic effects.

Active and Inert Ingredients

Registered agricultural products (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides) are mixtures of multiple chemicals. A primary ‘active’ ingredient and ‘inert’ ingredients – solvents, adjuvants and surfactants. The inerts help the active ingredient work more effectively. Many inert ingredients are toxic, but they do not undergo testing for possible negative health effects. Nor is testing done for complete formulations sold to consumers and professionals. Even the active ingredients in combination products have only been tested singly.


The only study of its kind to compare the active ingredient and registered product looked at nine different formulated pesticides and found that eight of those nine were hundreds of more times toxic to human cells than the active ingredient alone – at far below the dilution used in agriculture.  The commonly used herbicide Roundup was the most toxic pesticide tested.

This shows us that a safe level of residues cannot be found by testing the active ingredients alone.

The Developing Fetus, Infants and Children

Regarding children, the USPCP states, “They are at special risk due to their smaller body mass and rapid physical development, both of which magnify their vulnerability to known or suspected carcinogens, including radiation.”

There is much criticism of the lack of safety testing that looks at the impact of pesticides on children at different stages of development. The USPCP further notes, “Chemicals typically are administered when laboratory animals are in their adolescence, a methodology that fails to asses the impact of in utero, childhood and lifelong exposures.”

Inadequate Testing

In addition to the shortcomings in testing for effects on children, there are many other areas which are overlooked by our current testing methodologies. No Testing is done for:

  • Mixtures and cocktails of chemicals
  • The actual formulated products
  • Toxicity of pesticide metabolites
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Metabolic disruption
  • Intergenerational effects on all organs and physiological systems
  • Developmental neurotoxicity

Clearly, what this tells us is that pesticides are not rigorously tested. One cannot assume safety form such a lack of quality scientific data. What then can we do about it?

What Else Can We Do?

Preventing the need for pesticides is the best place to start. Management strategies include habitat modification, sealing and structural repairs, sanitation, biological controls and organic management of outdoor spaces. If a control measure is needed as a last resort, use the least toxic option. An example of this would be using traps instead of poison baits, or boric acid instead of commercial insecticide. Ask your local retailer to carry organic options, if they don’t already. Look for products that are OMRI listed. This means they have met organic standards. Any pesticide should be handled with care to reduce exposure.

Learn how to use a natural systems approach for lawn and turf care. Not only is it safer for you, your children and the environment, but it is cost effective as well. Healthy soil means healthy turf, and more disease and pest resistance.

Speak to your city officials about using least toxic options for pest control and turf maintenance of our public areas. Are they using the safest methods possible? It is your right to inquire and obtain information about the methods and products being used.

For more information on pesticide use, safer alternatives, and natural turf care, the non profit group Beyond Pesticides is an excellent resource. Their website includes info on alternatives, structural IPM and help in finding a a service provider for managing pests.

More helpful links can be found on our About & Resources page.

*Reference: The Myths of Safe Pesticides by André Leu, Copyright © 2014, Acres U.S.A.

About NonToxicDoverNH

Advocating for safe and healthy public spaces for Dover, New Hampshire residents.
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3 Responses to Are Conventional Pesticides Safe?

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