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Opinion: Md. ag department falls short in protecting people, pollinators, and the Bay from pesticides

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences photo.

By Bonnie Raindrop

The author is program director of the Maryland Pesticide Education Network, which includes a coalition of organizations and businesses working to achieve important public health and environmental protections from pesticides in the state of Maryland.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has deep ties to the pesticide industry, as shown by a recent article by U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting public health transparency. The article, based on emails obtained by the nonprofit, shows how the pesticide industry strategized to influence and prevent the passage of legislation to keep pollinators safe from toxic neonicotinoid pesticides but would hurt the industry’s bottom line. It also shows how state Department of Agriculture actively supported the industry.

The investigation validates what many of us who’ve worked to curb the use of toxic pesticides have known for decades: the Maryland Department of Agriculture has a track record for serving as the mouthpiece for the agrochemical industry. The agency continues to impede legislation that could negatively impact these big companies’ bottom lines. Even more alarming is that while department claims to be working toward the preservation and protection of agricultural resources, the environment, and enhancing the quality of life for all Marylanders, it continues to fall short in enforcing existing pesticide protection laws under its purview.

In one recent instance, the Department of Agriculture released the results of their statewide pesticide use survey. According to the agency, the 2020 Maryland Pesticide Survey Statistics report covers usage across the state in 2020, yet it includes a response rate so low — less than 6% of the total 12,400 Maryland farms — it’s not scientifically valid.

Maryland provides very little public information about pesticide usage in the state. The 2020 report shows that despite additional 2014 legislation dedicating funding (some $130,000-140,000 a year) to produce a pesticide use report every two years, MDA fails to meet the criteria public health scientists and Bay researchers need. Indeed, scientists and public health experts have found the 2020 report, much like the 2014 report, to be wholly inadequate. The data lacks scientific usefulness for researchers monitoring pesticide use and impacts — a clear misuse of funds allotted by law for providing needed data.

A growing body of research links pesticide exposure to asthma, autism, ADHD, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, birth defects, inflammatory bowel diseases, fertility problems and more. Pesticides are particularly dangerous for children. And pesticides are linked to pollinator decline and contaminated fish in our waterways. Access to comprehensive pesticide use data about the types of pesticides, as well as when, where, and how much are used, is essential to monitor and assess the impact of pesticides on our waterways, wildlife, and public health. It also enables us to identify and implement cost-effective and efficient solutions. Certified pesticide applicators and farmers are already required to maintain this data at their locations.

Another red flag: MDA’s lack of enforcement of the chlorpyrifos ban. Maryland’s full ban on all uses of the brain-damaging insecticide went into effect Dec. 31. And yet as of June 2022, the State Pesticide Database of pesticide products companies have registered with MDA to sell in the state listed 26 banned chlorpyrifos products with registrations through 2022. After advocates raised the issue, MDA acknowledged the error and removed the products in July.

MDA’s pesticide regulation website still has no visible reference to the chlorpyrifos ban or an enforcement notification. The agency says it’s notifying licensed applicators of the ban upon recertification, which typically occurs every three years. With a shortage of inspectors who cannot make annual visits to all retailers and other sites, MDA leaves the majority of chlorpyrifos sellers and users unaware or unclear about the pesticide ban, including local governments, schools, hospitals, and golf courses.

Incredibly, MDA has also failed to enforce a law that protects students from pesticides in Maryland schools. More than two decades ago, Maryland became the first state in the country to pass a law protecting school children, visitors, and school employees from unnecessary exposure to pesticides that may have adverse health effects.

Since 1998, the Integrated Pest Management in Schools law requires that all counties create a pest management policy and plan and share it with parents and employees at the start of the school year. To date, only six counties have adopted and publicly posted required pest management policies and/or system regulations and not one county has posted its plan on its website. The law requires that all nontoxic options be exhausted or be deemed unreasonable before pesticides are used to protect the health of the students and staff; however, without visibility to the plan or access to application records, we’re unable to identify what pesticides are being used and why.

We hope our next Maryland governor holds the Department of Agriculture accountable in prioritizing the health and well-being of Maryland residents over the deep pockets of the agrochemical industry.