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Chemicals Deserve Respect, Not Fear
CLEVELAND -- What is scientifically true about pesticide health risks and what is commonly believed are often at odds, a national expert on toxin exposure said recently.
Dr. Ronald E. Gots, managing principal of the International Center of Toxicology and Medicine in Rockville, Md., has been involved in toxic exposure cases since 1975. He spoke on this topic at the 1997 Delta Production Conference and Ag Expo.
"Pesticides stir passions, and often passion and reality differ," Gots said. "Pesticides can be dangerous, but they also can be used safely."
The media frequently reports instances of misuse and stories of people who believe they have been harmed by chemicals. However, overall cancer rates are down.
Gots said that among false public perceptions are that all natural things are good and anything manmade is harmful. Science, however, shows that humans eat 10,000 times more naturally-occurring carcinogens than manmade ones.
Another prevalent myth is that any pesticide or toxin present in the environment must be harmful. Science today can detect amounts of toxin previously unnoticed, and such levels often are not harmful.
Gots said a key principle in toxicology is knowing what levels are safe. Two aspirin relieve aches and pains while 100 tablets can be deadly. The air people breathe is 20 percent oxygen, yet breathing pure oxygen for extended periods is deadly.
"The dose makes the poison," Gots said. "The same applies to pesticides, as the conditions affect whether or not it is safe."
In the United States, federal policy sets allowable levels of toxins based on animal and human tests and epidemiological studies. In an epidemiological study, an entire population exposed to certain levels of a substance is compared to a similar population without the exposure.
Gots said outcomes typically vary and sometimes yield opposite results because there are too many variables. Due to the uncertainty and assumptions involved, federal policy tends to be conservative.
Among the assumptions made are that humans are as sensitive as the most sensitive test animal and that all types of exposure are equal, such as ingestion or skin contact.
Science and public policy blend in toxin regulations which Gots characterized as "small on science, large on public policy."
"There are safe ways to use pesticides and other toxins and there are dangerous ways," Gots said. "But most of the time, toxins are handled properly, and we live in a relatively safe environment, as evidenced by longer life expectancies and lower cancer rates."
Herb Willcutt, Mississippi State University extension agricultural engineer, said until recently Mississippi has had few problems with pesticides.
"Generally speaking, the problems we have with pesticides are the misuses," Willcutt said. "Problems occur when the pesticides are improperly stored, handled and applied and when they are used for off-label applications."
When used properly according to all label directions, pesticides are relatively safe.
"Pesticides should be respected, not feared," Willcutt said.
Much of Willcutt's work involves teaching farmers and aerial applicators safe use and application of the pesticides their jobs require.