Killing Pests While Poisoning Communities

-cide: Suffix typically used to denote the killing of something. There's a good chance that most of us don't want something that ends in "-cide" added to our drinking water, unless, it seems, you're a member of the House of Representatives. Last month, the House voted 292 to 130 to strip Clean Water Act protections away from the spraying of pesticides into our waterways. If the Senate follows suit this month, the pesticides industry will have the Congress-sanctioned freedom to poison our waterways with their skull-and-cross-bones labeled chemicals. Pest control is undoubtedly a good thing, but allowing pesticides to be dumped into water supplies without good regulatory oversight is a bit like the proverbial cutting off your nose to spite your face.

In the 70's when the environmental movement began to enter the mainstream of U.S. politics, the need to protect people and nature from the overuse of chemical pesticides was one of the main reasons underlying the creation of the Clean Water Act and other important environmental laws. The Bald Eagle, America's national symbol, was on the verge of extinction -- and the main reason for this was that the entire species was being poisoned by DDT and other pesticides which weakened their eggs and poisoned them by contaminating the fish that was their prey.

Now, after nearly 40 years of environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, protecting these birds and the environment they share with us, the Bald Eagle is recovering. The impact of these regulations on the trajectory of the Bald Eagle's story is one of the great success stories of American lawmaking. And the recovery of that bird and other species shows us that our own homes and drinking water supplies have become safer.

But -- this could all change. Chemical companies and the lawmakers whose allegiance they pay for through campaign contributions and lobbyist perks are hoping that America has forgotten all about the reasons laws protecting the environment and human health were passed in the first place. In short, they're trying to open the door for increased chemical business opportunities -- at a time when the efficacy, financial viability and safety of the chemical pesticide roller coaster are being questioned by farmers, consumers, food companies and scientists alike. The fact is, the country is moving away from chemical pesticides, toward organic and safer food production methods, and this makes the chemical companies nervous. Instead of trying to get the public to embrace their products -- a losing proposition if ever there was one -- they're doing anything that they can to make them easier and less restrictive to use.

Right now, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is considering ill-advised legislation that would have the simple and practically immediate effect of beginning to undo all the good that's resulted from the passage of laws like the Clean Water Act. Certain members of Congress are hell-bent on turning back the clock for increased pesticide company profit with the result of detrimental impacts to water quality across the country. These efforts are taking the shape of amending the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) either through S718 introduced by Senator Roberts or through a Senate version of House bill HR 872, the so-called "Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act". Both are a ploy by the chemical industry and farm bureau to relax important regulations on the way toxic pesticides are applied on or near bodies of water.

Although S.718 purports to "improve the use of certain pesticides," it would, like HR 872, exempt pesticides applied to waterways from Clean Water Act permitting. This would overturn a 2009 Appeals Court decision (National Cotton Council et al. v. EPA) that correctly ruled certain toxic pesticides are pollutants and harmful in our waters, thereby necessitating oversight under the Clean Water Act.

While the rhetoric of the bill's title purports to reduce regulatory burdens, it would -- in due course -- have the effect of increasing the average human's exposure to harmful pesticides. The complete lack of humanity and common sense of those pushing these twin assaults on a law protecting the public and environment from pesticide poisoning is clear right now, the week after a new study by researchers at the University of California at Berkley which shows that young children are even more vulnerable to pesticides in their food and drinking water than previously thought. The researchers found that organophosphate exposure during a mother's pregnancy corresponded to a significant drop in overall IQ scores in young children. Children in the study with the highest levels of prenatal pesticide exposure scored seven points lower on a standardized measure of intelligence compared with children who had the lowest levels of exposure.

Treating pesticides -- which are poisons -- as pollutants under the law is common sense. Pesticides are designed to be toxic to living things, are responsible for significant harm to waterways, and even under legal, regulated use have caused real harm to public health and ecosystems. Pesticides discharged into our waterways directly harm fish and amphibian life in particular. They also move up the food chain and contaminate drinking water.

Regulating pesticide discharges to water under the Clean Water Act does not duplicate other regulations and is necessary to protect our waterways, public health, fish, and wildlife. And, it's not a needless "burden" to food production or chemical company business to ensure that people, livestock, fish and water are protected and safe. Due to the potential critical environmental impacts, it's necessary that we take action to ensure that these ill-advised bills do not become law.