Why Have Pesticides Become the Archetype of All That Is Wrong with Modern Society?

By Kelly, Shona | Canadian Journal of Public Health, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview
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Why Have Pesticides Become the Archetype of All That Is Wrong with Modern Society?


Kelly, Shona, Canadian Journal of Public Health


The paper by Arya et al.1 in this issue of the CJPH summarizes a recent report from the Ontario College of Family Physicians which advocates a ban on the use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes. There has been a flurry of comment about this report. Not all have been as supportive as Arya. The UK Advisory Committee on Pesticides, for example (Sept 2004 meeting2), found the report to be seriously flawed as it failed to completely review the literature and was selective about what was included; it failed to take relevant lexicological knowledge into account; and it conducted only a superficial synthesis of the evidence.2

What is it about the nature of pesticides that elicits such strong reactions on both sides of the debate? Why not drugs, plastics, cigarettes or other components of modern life? It seems that pesticides have become the archetype of all that is bad about modern society. Have we transferred our vague and undefined dissatisfaction with modern society onto an easily labelled group of compounds for which their role in society is not clearly understood? I think the pesticide debate has been coloured by perception of risk, the role of 'experts', media coverage, understanding complex knowledge and, lastly and perhaps most importantly, trust in institutions.

Before I start, I want to say that my publicly stated opinion is that pesticides should only be applied by trained, licenced and monitored applicators. I am writing neither as an apologist for the pesticide manufacturing industry nor as an advocate of unregulated pesticide use.

Researchers who have examined why people perceive some things as hazardous and others as not hazardous have identified several key features that increase the perception of something being hazardous. These include dread, unfamiliarity, lack of understanding, uncontrollability, lack of volition, effects on children, inequity of exposure and lack of benefits (see reference 3, for example).

Risk perception

Concern about exposure to pesticides reflects many of these features associated with perceived risk. For example, many of the processes that surround pesticide application are unfamiliar to people. Most people know little about how food is produced, the task of keeping trees from disrupting power distribution, or controlling rats at recycling centres. Hence, pesticide applications to communal areas may not be seen to be necessary.

Familiarity breeds understanding (not contempt) and leads to a feeling of being more in control. Many people are shocked to find out that only pesticides and drugs have any safety testing that is routinely reviewed by government. The vast majority of products used in everyday life are only evaluated for safety by their manufacturers.

Knowledge about chemical compounds and physiological processes is complex. It is not surprising that the public does not immediately understand that a herbicide that acts via photosynthetic pathways in plants would not be expected to have an impact on humans who do not share that biochemical pathway. Neither should we be surprised that it is not immediately obvious that the term 'pesticide' is an all-encompassing legal term that covers literally hundreds of compounds. The term 'pesticide' includes everything from electric bug 'zappers' to lavender oil used in 'natural' insect repellents. Even Organic' pesticides are evaluated.

The role of 'experts'

We need to remind ourselves why we rely on government experts. First, pesticides are commercial products and therefore saddled with all the economic baggage of protecting markets, and protecting investment for development which requires some level of confidentiality. Pesticides, by their very nature, are substances intended to kill or slow the growth of other organisms. In the unregulated markets at the turn of the 20th century, people were exposed to some extremely hazardous substances. For example, I have been regaled with anecdotal reports of horses dropping dead in their traces while pulling wagons spraying leadarsenate onto fruit trees to control insect pests.

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