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U.S. Annually Uses 388 Million Pounds of Potentially Fatal Pesticides Banned in the EU, China and Brazil

Health + Wellness
Workers spray toxic pesticides on a corn plantation. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images
When it comes to banning harmful pesticides, the U.S. lags behind the European Union (E.U.), China and Brazil, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Health. Eighty-five pesticides currently in use across the country have been banned or are in the process of being phased out in the three nations, in large part due to their harmful impact on human health or the environment.

In all, that means that about one-in-ten American-used pesticides contain ingredients that are either banned, not approved or have an otherwise unknown status in the E.U., China and Brazil. Many of these pesticides have been linked to acute poisoning in the U.S., some of which are considered highly poisonous in high dosages and have been connected to lung damage, convulsions, respiratory failure, coma and even death.

"It's appalling the U.S. lags so far behind these major agricultural powers in banning harmful pesticides," said study author Nathan Donley, who is affiliated with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The fact that we're still using hundreds of millions of pounds of poisons other nations have wisely rejected as too risky spotlights our dangerously lax approach to phasing out hazardous pesticides."

The study focused on 13 pesticides that are currently approved in the U.S. but banned in at least two of the three other leading agricultural economics, though the researchers compared the approval status of a total of more than 500 pesticides used in outdoor applications. Of the 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides used across the nation in 2016, 322 million pounds had been banned or were being phased out in the E.U., compared with 40 million pounds in China and 26 million in Brazil.

"The USA is generally regarded as being highly regulated and having protective pesticide safeguards in place. This study contradicts that narrative and finds that in the last couple of decades, nearly all pesticide cancellations in the USA have been done voluntarily by the pesticide industry," said Donley. "Without a change in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) current reliance on voluntary mechanisms for cancellations, the USA will likely continue to lag behind its peers in banning harmful pesticides."

Though states like California and Washington have taken individual action towards the banning of certain pesticides, a majority of those still in use across much of the U.S. had not decreased in the last 25 years or had even stayed the same or increased in the last decade. Generally speaking, the studied pesticides are used to kill "problem" weeds, an issue that occurs in all four of the nation-states but doesn't explain why they are still so prevalent across the country.

Donley argues this lag in banning has to do with deficiencies in the pesticide regulatory process. Though the EPA is given authority to ban pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the majority of cancellations comes from voluntary decisions made by pesticide producers following economic outcomes rather than in response to human or environmental health.

"Bans are the most effective way to prevent exposures to highly hazardous pesticides and can spur the transition to safer alternatives," said Donley. "A combination of weak laws and the EPA's broken pesticide regulatory process has allowed the pesticide industry to dictate which pesticides stay in use. That process undermines the safety of agricultural workers and anyone who eats food and drinks water in this country."

Since 1970, more than 500 pesticides have been used. Just 134 of those have been cancelled due to their harmful nature, and less than one-third of those were prohibited by the EPA.

The study is quick to advise that it did not compare the effectiveness of pesticide regulation between nations and may not accurately reflect other safeguards that may protect consumers against the harmful effects of pesticides, such as restrictions on pesticide labels.


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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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