Have you ever chosen a product because marketing materials contained words such as “safe” or “organic”? Do these words mean a product is better for the environment or human health? Sometimes the technical definition of the word does not completely match with the perception. In this week’s blog, let’s discuss the meaning of sometimes misunderstood terms like “safe” and “organic”, and how they relate (or don’t) to the toxicity of a pesticide.
The recent media spotlight on glyphosate has ignited renewed conversation on pesticide safety. Bayer (which acquired Monsanto) continues to address legal action around the claim that the active ingredient (glyphosate) in the popular herbicide Roundup™ causes cancer. The claim and resulting media frenzy has caused discord in both the scientific and political communities. This is understandable, given that evidence for glyphosate’s carcinogenic properties exist, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that glyphosate poses “no risks of concern to human health” when used as directed.
Media coverage on pesticides can make people anxious, which may be one reason why consumer research shows that people are seeking alternative, “green” solutions. However, terms like “safe”, “organic”, and “all natural” can make a product seem less hazardous to either the user, the environment, or both. That may not always be the case. According to the University of Illinois Extension, “…like synthetic pesticides, organic products have a broad range of toxicity levels.” The article goes on to say that botanical insecticides (pesticides made from plants) can be more dangerous to the environment than synthetic counterparts.
REGISTRATION AND PRODUCT LABELS
The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) is a written law that governs how pesticide products are registered, distributed, sold, and used in the U.S. This law requires pesticide products to be registered with the EPA (although there are exceptions to this). Before EPA will register a product, the applicant must submit studies to prove that the product does not cause “any unreasonable risk to man or the environment.” To do this, the applicant must show what will happen to humans if the product is eaten, inhaled, or comes in contact with skin and what impact it may have on the environment.
EPA also requires most pesticide products contain a signal word that ranks the relative acute toxicity, or the ability of the product to cause injury or illness. The signal word on the product label reflects the results from the test with the highest acute toxicity. DANGER reflects a high toxicity, WARNING is moderately toxic, and CAUTION is the least toxic. These signal words will impact the personal protective equipment (PPE) and other language required on a pesticide label.
A lot of danger can be mitigated when exposure to a chemical is limited, such as through the use of appropriate PPE during application. As the toxicity of the product increases, the required PPE increases as well. This is why all Directions For Use emphasize using a product according to the label. Labels contain valuable information designed to protect people and the environment.
SAFE, ORGANIC, AND GREEN
“Even though these products [Minimum Risk Pesticides] may not require federal registration, most states will require the product to be registered in their state before it can be sold,” said Dr. Janet Kintz-Early, urban entomologist and registration expert with JAK Consulting Services. “States may allow the word ‘safe' as a marketing claim if followed by the phrase ‘when used as directed’.”
Dr. Kintz-Early went on to say that small and start-up businesses may not realize that they are selling a pesticidal product or that their state and/or the federal EPA may require their product be registered. “There are many products for sale on popular e-commerce sites that claim they are ‘safe’ or ‘non-toxic’. These products could literally contain anything,” said Dr. Kintz-Early. “Nothing is safe if you are reckless. All products should be used only as described in the Directions For Use and with an abundance of caution.”
Another tricky term is “organic”. Organic pesticides are generally those that come from a natural source. However, nature can produce some very risky substances, such as snake venom, nicotine, and even peppermint. So, while organic active ingredients are naturally derived, they are still pesticides meant to kill pests. Furthermore, the word organic on food is a very specific term defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to the USDA, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced according to the USDA organic standards.” Organic, in terms of food production, does NOT mean that no pesticides were used to produce the food.
Perhaps the trickiest word of all is “green”. Currently, the term is not defined by any regulatory agency. As a result, different consumers and marketers can interpret the word differently. Additionally, just because a product contains words such as “natural” or “green” does not mean the product contains no risk.
Pesticides allow farmers to grow more food, kill mosquitoes that can spread diseases to people and animals, disinfect surfaces of harmful pathogens in hospitals, and help us conserve food by eliminating pests that eat stored products such as grain (to name just a few). However, whether the pesticide is “green” or synthetic, the best control programs use them as one component of an integrated plan that makes data-driven decisions and utilizes all tools available and reasonable. Undoubtedly, ways to reduce reliance on pesticides as well as the negative environmental impacts they can sometimes have should be explored. However, a “green” pesticide is not always likely to reduce environmental impact simply because the label contains words such as “safe” or “organic”.
For more information on what different words mean or help identifying a “lower-risk” pesticide, please visit the National Pesticide Information Center’s Common Pesticide Questions section.
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