Academic journal article Science Scope

Pesticides, People, and the Environment

Academic journal article Science Scope

Pesticides, People, and the Environment

Article excerpt

Byline: Roxanne Greitz Miller

If you were to ask your students what they do when they find ants or other insects in their homes, their most common response would probably be, "Get the bug spray!" Because students are not only being exposed to pesticides but are also developing patterns of behavior likely to continue throughout their lives, discussions about pesticides, the controversies surrounding their use, and pesticide safety are important in the middle grades.

Pesticide primer

A pesticide is any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest. The term pesticide is not interchangeable with insecticide, which refers only to chemicals that act on insects. Pesticides include herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, algicides, and cleaning chemicals or disinfectants designed to kill microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and prions.

Many household products are considered pesticides, including:

insect sprays and baits;

insect repellents for personal use;

rat and other rodent poisons;

flea and tick sprays, collars, and powders;

kitchen, laundry, and bath disinfectants and sanitizers;

products that kill mold and mildew;

lawn and garden products that kill weeds or undesirable growth; and

some swimming pool chemicals.

Pest control devices that trap, destroy, or repel any pest without the use of chemicals as listed above, such as black light traps or sonic devices, are not considered pesticides. Additionally, biological organisms that may be used to control pests, such as ladybugs, birds, or phorid flies, are generally not considered pesticides and are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Why do we use pesticides?

Modern pesticide use has both a commercial and personal causation. Commercially, farmers use pesticides to provide consumers with a plentiful food supply, and one that is generally considered in "perfect" condition (e.g., fruit that is free of blemishes, marks, fungi, mold, or insects). Individuals and government health agencies generally use pesticides either to protect human or animal health (e.g., controlling mosquitoes or other biting insects that may spread disease such as West Nile virus or malaria). Individuals may also use pesticides to control nuisances such as nonbiting insects in their home, or for cosmetic reasons, to control weeds or other unwanted pests (such as cinch bugs that destroy grasses) in their lawns and gardens.

The evolution of pesticides

It's important to understand why pesticides were invented, and why they became so important by the mid-20th century. Prior to the 1930s, farmers traditionally planted a variety of different crops on their farms (such as one field of wheat, one of corn, and one of oats). Today, however, farmers try to maximize their efficiency and revenue by specializing in one crop, such as corn. As a result, insects with a taste for corn are treated to entire regions covered by the crop.

Prior to 1940, a number of basic chemical compounds such as sulfur, arsenic, and copper were used as pesticides with limited success despite their high toxicity. DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane)-the pesticide invented in 1939 by Swiss chemist Paul Muller to combat the Colorado potato beetle ravaging potato crops in the United States and Europe-was the first carbon-based chemical insecticide and was highly effective on a number of insect species. DDT profoundly changed the lives of farmers and individual people worldwide, and is credited with saving millions of human lives by killing typhus-carrying lice and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The pesticide was so effective that it earned Muller a Nobel Prize. The mid-century modernization of farming occurring after World War II and the concurrent efforts to develop more organic pesticides worked hand-in-hand to increase crop yield and provide a wide variety of produce on-demand at a reasonable cost for consumers in industrialized countries. …

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