Opinion: Our Families Deserve an Environment Free of Chemicals

Chemicals
Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Would you rather your kids be bitten by a mosquito or be exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in your backyard?

This mosquito season, the Maryland Department of Agriculture is replacing its previously used truck-based pesticide, Permanone 30-30, with two similar pesticides after our organizations found alarming levels of the toxic “forever chemical” per- and polyfluoralkyl substances — PFAS — in a sample of Permanone 30-30.

This is of significant concern. Here’s why.

MDA has over 2,000 Maryland communities signed up for the agency’s mosquito control program. And we have no idea whether the replacement pesticides have PFAS in them, and it appears that neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nor MDA is testing pesticides for the presence of PFAS.

PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and there is no known way to dispose of them safely. Consequently, over time they enter our food systems and eventually build up in our bodies.

This is alarming because they are toxic to humans and are associated with a vast array of human diseases, including cancer, problems in growth, learning and behavior in infants and children, infertility and pregnancy problems, endocrine disruption, increased cholesterol, immune system problems, and interference with liver, thyroid and pancreatic function.

Why would pesticides contain PFAS? That is a good question without an entirely clear answer.

We are now learning that PFAS are found in a variety of pesticides, and EPA testing has shown PFAS contamination from fluorinated containers that are used to store pesticides and many food products. But there is likely more to the PFAS-pesticides story.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection began analyzing samples of pesticides collected from containers of varying sizes and materials and found three pesticides that contained PFAS where the containers were reported to be non-fluorinated.

Possible sources of PFAS found in the three pesticides include PFAS applied to the equipment used to manufacture or package the pesticides or PFAS that are intentionally added as “inert” ingredients to the pesticide products, which are not required by law to be listed on a label of a pesticide product and may be the most toxic chemicals in the formulation. They are often claimed to be confidential business information.

Moreover, EPA includes several PFAS in their list of approved inert ingredients, and some pesticides use PFAS as active ingredients.

It is imperative that Maryland ensures that the pesticides used in MDA’s mosquito control program and by private vendors serving Maryland communities do not also contain PFAS.

At the least, we urge MDA to halt its use of any pesticide for mosquito control in the state until properly tested and shown to contain no PFAS.

But Maryland should follow the lead of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and test all Maryland registered pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides) annually to ensure they do not also contain any PFAS.

It makes no sense for the federal government, Maryland and other states to be spending vast sums of money cleaning up water supplies contaminated with PFAS while at the same time spraying PFAS in our backyards.

For the residents of the communities signed on to MDA’s mosquito control program, know that your community can withdraw from the program this year and find safer alternatives to mosquito control than using toxic pesticides.

This latest PFAS debacle is just another example of how federal and state agencies who are supposed to be protecting public health and the environment are failing at their jobs.

Our families deserve an environment free of chemicals that are toxic to our health and the health of our children.

— TIMOTHY WHITEHOUSE AND RUTH BERLIN

The writers are, respectively, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and executive director of the Maryland Pesticide Education Network.