U.S. farmers still use many pesticides that are banned elsewhere | Science News for Students

U.S. farmers still use many pesticides that are banned elsewhere

American companies, not the government, drive most decisions on whether to phase out chemicals
Jul 11, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
a sign warning of pesticide useage in English and Spanish in a crop field

The United States lags behind other agricultural nations in banning potentially harmful pesticides, a new study suggests.

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The United States restricts fewer potentially harmful pesticides than other major farming nations. That’s the conclusion of a new study of pesticide use and laws.

Nathan Donley works at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group in Portland, Ore. He studies how toxic chemicals affect people and the environment. His new study focused on the chemicals used to limit pests on farm crops. Some of these pesticides also can harm people, wildlife and the environment. Such health risks have led certain countries to avoid or even ban the chemicals’ use. Donley compared the pesticides allowed on U.S. farms to those used in the European Union, Brazil and China. Those regions are three of the world’s other leading pesticide users.

The United States widely uses many chemicals that are banned or being phased out elsewhere, Donley found. What’s more, few of the pesticides that are no longer being used in the United States are banned by the government. Instead, pesticide companies just stopped making them.

Donley reported his findings June 7 in Environmental Health.

Donley reviewed more than 500 pesticides that have been used on U.S. farms. He looked at whether they are approved, or allowed to be used, in other countries. He found that 72 pesticides approved in the United States are banned or being phased out in the European Union. That was also true for 17 pesticides in Brazil and 11 in China.

In fact, 10 of the top 25 pesticides used in the United States are banned in at least one of the other three regions. Paraquat (PAIR-uh-kwat) was one such chemical. It causes some 100 U.S. poisonings each year. It is outlawed in all of the other areas in the study.

Very few chemicals face stricter laws in the United States than abroad. Of pesticides banned in the United States, only two are approved in the European Union or China. Only three are legal in Brazil.

Just because a chemical is approved doesn’t mean it is used, however. So Donley studied yearly pesticide use recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey. From that, he figured how much of the use was from chemicals banned elsewhere.

In 2016, U.S. farms used 544 million kilograms (1.2 billion pounds) of pesticides. More than one-fourth — 146 million kilograms (322 million pounds) — were pesticides banned in the European Union. Twelve million kilograms (26 million pounds) were banned in Brazil. And 18 million kilograms (40 million pounds) of these chemicals were outlawed by China.

Donley also wanted to know who decides which pesticides can be used. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, regulates those used in the United States. Since EPA’s founding in 1970, just 134 pesticides have stopped being used in the United States. EPA outlawed only 37 of them. And of theses, just five were withdrawn in the past 18 years.

Pesticide companies chose to remove the other 97 from store shelves. Why? It’s costly to keep them registered with the EPA, Donley notes. And many were no longer widely used at the time they were withdrawn or canceled. So manufacturers may have decided the pesticides didn’t sell well enough to keep making them.

That means the U.S. government plays a smaller role in controlling pesticides than do the companies that make those chemicals. So, Donley argues, pesticide choices on American farms may be driven more by money than by health risks.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

crop     (in agriculture) A type of plant grown intentionally grown and nurtured by farmers, such as corn, coffee or tomatoes. Or the term could apply to the part of the plant harvested and sold by farmers. 

diversity     A broad spectrum of similar items, ideas or people. In a social context, it may refer to a diversity of experiences and cultural backgrounds. (in biology) A range of different life forms.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

environmental health     A research field that focuses on measuring the effects of pollutants and other factors in the environment on the health of people, wildlife or ecosystems.

Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA)     A national government agency charged with helping create a cleaner, safer and healthier environment in the United States. Created on Dec. 2, 1970, it reviews data on the possible toxicity of new chemicals (other than foods or drugs, which are regulated by other agencies) before they are approved for sale and use. Where such chemicals may be toxic, it sets limits or guidelines on how much of them may be released into (or allowed to build up in) the air, water or soil.

European Union     The confederation of 28 European countries that have agreed to work peacefully together. Residents of EU can move freely between its member countries and sell goods to them. Most members have also adopted the same currency, known as the Euro.

paraquat     First sold in 1961, this highly toxic chemical remains a widely used weed killer. Even ingesting small to medium quantities of this chemical can lead to lung scarring or failure of the heart, liver or kidneys.

pesticide     A chemical or mix of compounds used to kill insects, rodents or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants, pets or livestock; or unwanted organisms that infest homes, offices, farm buildings and other protected structures.

regulate     (n. regulation) To control with actions. Governments write rules and regulations — laws — that are enforced by police and the courts.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

survey     To view, examine, measure or evaluate something, often land or broad aspects of a landscape. (with people) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

U.S. Geological Survey    This is the largest nonmilitary U.S. agency charged with mapping water, Earth and biological resources. It collects information to help monitor the health of ecosystems, natural resources and natural hazards. It also studies the impacts of climate and land-use changes. A part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, USGS is headquartered in Reston, Va.


Journal: N. Donley. The USA lags behind other agricultural nations in banning harmful pesticides. Environmental Health. Vol. 18, June 7, 2019. doi: 10.1186/s12940-019-0488-0.