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Perro rejects the notion, often floated by skeptics, that higher rates of diseases are simply a result of more efficient diagnosing. Children, for instance, are increasingly diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
"I am so offended by this idea that we're just better at diagnosing," she said. "When you walk into a classroom, the kids are spinning off the walls. Ten percent of kids in America now have a diagnosis of ADHD."
Research from UC Davis scientist Janie Shelton, published in 2014 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, identified pre-birth exposure to pesticides as the likely source of autism in children. In a 2006 paper in the journal The Lancet, Harvard researcher Philippe Grandjean said pesticides are causing a "silent pandemic of developmental neurotoxicity."
The American Academy of Pediatrics warned in a 2013 paper that pesticide exposure is the cause of "pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems." The paper discussed the difficulties in identifying pesticide exposure as a source of illness. The authors also recommended a shift toward non-chemical pesticide alternatives.
Preston, the organic farmer in Healdsburg, believes that people everywhere are ignoring the dangers of living in a world saturated with toxins.
"As a society, we're way too glib about the presence and impact on our lives of chemicals, whether it's plastics, pesticides, the burning of fuels," Preston said. "They're everywhere, and we ignore it, and in the long run, it's going to get us."
Big Brother is Not Watching Them
Marya of UCSF thinks it's time that state leaders took aggressive legislative action on agricultural toxins.
"We need a statewide synthetic pesticide and fertilizer ban, and Gavin Newsom is the guy to do it," she said.
The idea isn't crazy. Many nations have implemented bans and restrictive use policies on glyphosate and other chemicals, thanks largely to research demonstrating their hazards.
But in terms of restricting chemicals connected to human health problems, the United States lags far behind other nations. According to research published in the journal Environmental Health in June, American farmers in 2016 used 322 million pounds of 85 different pesticides that are banned in the European Union. The paper explained that the European Union's chemical licensing process places the burden of proof on chemical manufacturers to conclusively demonstrate that use of a chemical will not harm humans or the immediate surrounding environment.
This, observed the paper's author Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, is nearly the opposite of the United States EPA's approach, in which "harm to plants, animals, the broader environment, and harm to humans from occupational exposures remains solely a cost-benefit analysis."
"EPA approval simply means that the agency has determined that the economic benefits to the pesticide company and corporate agriculture outweigh the harms to people and the environment," Donley said in an interview. "They approach their job saying, 'This chemical needs to be approved, so how do we do that?'" Industry reports, rather than peer-reviewed independent studies, tend to guide assessment and licensing.
Donley said that improved practices have lessened the problem of outright fraud, for which the EPA's pesticide branch was once notorious.
"But better practices don't necessarily do anything about bias," he said. "We need to put a really thick wall between the industry and the EPA to them separated."
Many chemical-free advocates criticize the EPA's chemical testing and assessment process. Not only is it driven by industry interests, they argue, but it's dangerously flimsy in design. Formal testing is conducted on individual, isolated chemical ingredients but not usually on the final formulation of a product — a shortcoming in pesticide regulation, since chemicals can change radically when they encounter and sometimes bond with other chemicals. According to information published by Beyond Pesticides, research has found that product formulations of glyphosate are more toxic than glyphosate alone.
There is another area of concern that the EPA also overlooks: the so-called breakdown products of an active ingredient. As a registered chemical biodegrades, it results in various new particles. Sometimes, these breakdown products are more hazardous than the original chemical. For example, the organophosphate naled, used to kill insects like mosquitoes, breaks down into several chemicals including dichlorvos, which is believed to cause cancer. In California, public mosquito control agencies applied 282,000 pounds of naled in 2017. Glyphosate, meanwhile, breaks down into a compound called aminomethylphosphonic acid, usually termed AMPA, which some experts say is just as toxic as glyphosate itself.
The impacts of lenient chemical restrictions have shown up in marked patterns among agricultural workers, whom Reeves of the Pesticide Action Network believes have been more or less sidelined in the call for safer foods. She said consumers tend to worry more about residues on foods they bring home than about farm laborers' exposure to the same chemicals.
"The vast majority of people hoping to reduce pesticide use are concerned about the impacts to the consumers, and very few people are thinking about the farmworkers," Reeves said.
Lawmakers explicitly left farmworkers and food service workers out of 1935's National Labor Relations Act — an omission that has not been corrected. In a 2011 report titled "Inventory of Farmworkers Issues and Protections in the United States," researchers found that agricultural employees are denied protections offered to other worker groups by that act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and many state laws. These exemptions and loopholes have made farmworkers particularly vulnerable to heat stress and pesticide exposure.