In the eyes of local activist Barry Zucker, the pesticides readily available at your local big-box retailer are a silent killer.
Zucker, along with other health and environmental advocates, points to studies linking chemicals used in pesticides to birth defects, autism, several types of cancer, asthma, ADHD and Parkinson's disease. Experts say children are particularly vulnerable because their bodies are still developing, providing even more reason to examine the use of pesticides in schools and playgrounds. But government oversight of a well-established, powerful industry remains questionable.
"Pesticides are a poison," says Zucker, director of Beyond Pesticides Ohio, an advocacy group dedicated to educating the public about the use of pesticides in urban/suburban settings. "Most of them have not been tested, or adequately tested. The ones that have been [tested] have been associated with all sorts of problems."
These persistent problems are just some of the topics that will be tackled at an upcoming convention that brings together advocates on the cutting edge of environmentally conscious health and medical research, eco-friendly food production and business, and progressive law and government. The 28th National Pesticide Forum takes place April 9-10 at Case Western Reserve University. The event — titled "Greening the Community: Green Economy, Organic Environments and Healthy People" — is expected to draw 400 people. Featured speakers include scientific researchers, health-care professionals, entrepreneurs and other environmental advocates from around the country.
Keynote speakers include David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper who has linked pesticides to the disappearance of honeybees and who was featured in the 2009 documentary Vanishing of the Bees; Missouri-based "food sleuth" Melinda Hemmelgarn, award-winning writer and nutritionist; Jeff Moyer, farm manager at the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute and an organic farming and gardening expert; and Columbus-based journalist/activist/author Harvey Wasserman.
All the speakers, says Zucker, will emphasize that "you don't have to rely on toxic chemicals to have a viable, healthier, beautiful life."
Jay Feldman, co-founder and executive director of Washington D.C.-based Beyond Pesticides, says Cleveland is an ideal setting for this year's forum because of its budding reputation as an urban farming and farmers-market hotspot. A key element of this food movement is avoiding pesticide use.
Donita Anderson, executive director of the North Union Farmers Market, agrees that reduction or elimination of pesticides in local farming is part of her organization's mission of providing healthy alternatives to mass-produced foods. "The less pesticides used the better, not only for our health, but leaving things for our children and grandchildren," says Anderson.
Zucker, of University Heights, has spent most of the past two decades educating the public about chemicals used to kill insects, rodents, weeds, mold and bacteria. Zucker says pesticides used today can be linked to the chemical weapons used throughout the 20th century. "People don't want hear this, but when we talk about weapons of mass destruction that have been used in war, those were pesticides."
Awareness of long-term health risks has increased, but health-care workers are still not able to detect poisoning because symptoms — nausea, headaches, dizziness, etc. — can resemble those of the flu.
The goal of the conference is to get people to think about their health and environment when it comes to performing routine tasks like maintaining your lawn and home. "You are exposed to pesticides used in thousands of products in homes, schools, gardens, parks and the workplace," says Zucker. "A lot of [pesticide chemicals] end up in the water. It ends up going into the ground water, the sewer system and going back in the lake."
Local laws to ban the use of non-essential, "cosmetic" pesticides have sprouted in Canada in the past decade, as municipal leaders focused on community health issues. Canadians recognized the link between the environment and human health, and promoted a responsibility to preserve the natural environment, says Feldman. (The upcoming event features two advocates — nurse/executive/educator Jan Kasperksi and lawyer Theresa McClenaghan — who were instrumental in getting pesticides banned in Ontario.)
"We are at a stage now where we see the dramatic impact on health that our treatment of the environment can have," says Feldman. He says Canada has embraced "a precautionary principle" that does not tolerate excessive, unnecessary use of pesticides if the "end goal can be achieved without the use of these toxic materials."
But in the U.S., says Feldman, the Environmental Protection Agency uses a flawed risk-assessment model that ignores many variables about communities — like individual residents' eating habits and proximity to heavy industry — and thus cannot present a clear picture of how a certain pesticide will impact health.
"Given that, the question should be: Why are we so quick to use these things?" says Feldman. "Given these uncertainties, it's really important to err on the side of caution and to try to avoid their use, and eat organically to the extent that it's possible."
Zucker and his Ohio allies have scored some victories. His group successfully pushed for a state regulation that requires lawn-spraying companies to post warning signs on treated lawns. The group also advised a number of cities and counties during the West Nile virus scare. "It was sensationalized amazingly in the media," says Zucker. "A lot of communities were out there spraying up and down the street — clouds and clouds of pesticides." Advocates testified before city councils, and the city of Lyndhurst even banned indiscriminate mass spraying in response to the group's testimony.
Zucker says he is not against pesticides; he advocates a form of pest control that stresses better sanitation practices to prevent pest infestation. Pesticides should only be used as a last resort, he says.
But the makers of pesticides and chemicals used in mass agriculture are a powerful lobbying force in Washington D.C., says Feldman. He hopes that next month's forum can inspire people to force changes in their communities. "Make decisions regarding your household, your school, your church, your synagogue — wherever you are engaged with a community or institution," he says. "Engage on this issue as a life-or-death issue."
To attend Greening the Community, register online at beyondpesticides.org or call 202.543.5450. Rates start at $25 for Ohio residents, grassroots activists and students.