By Brian Gumm, Center for Effective Government
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer dropped a bombshell when it concluded the active ingredient in Roundup, a popular weed killer, probably causes cancer. Monsanto, which manufactures Roundup, immediately disputed the findings, accusing the agency of “cherry picking” data to further its so-called “agenda.” The cancer research agency released its full report on the chemical in late July in the face of demands from Monsanto to retract its findings. But this isn’t the first time that chemicals like Roundup have been in the spotlight, and it’s only one example of industry pushing back against research that shows risks from pesticide exposure.
Last summer, a CBS News article highlighted growing concerns that common pesticides can linger in our bodies for years, possibly even decades. Emerging scientific evidence also shows that toxic chemicals like pesticides can impact the brain and the nervous system and may be a factor in certain developmental and behavioral problems. The risk is almost certainly higher for children and fetuses, but chemicals may contribute to diseases like Parkinson’s in older people, too. But when asked about these concerns, a spokesman for an industry front group told Americans that this issue was “not even worth thinking about.”
Who is this industry-friendly group? It’s called the American Council on Science and Health. The CBS piece didn’t mention that the organization has ties to the pesticide industry and other companies, but some digging uncovered a partial list of its corporate funders. Among them are Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, two large pesticide companies that make and market insecticides suspected of decimating bee populations in the United States and Europe.
The Council’s quote was designed to counter scientific evidence gathered by public health experts like Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who was also cited in the 2014 article. This is standard operating procedure for such industry groups. They systematically work to undermine the credibility of scientists like Landrigan, and they try to create “uncertainty” to confuse the public about the need for common-sense safeguards that protect us from toxic pesticides.
In the past, the Council has bashed the well-respected American Lung Association over clean air standards and manufactured doubt about the risks of fracking. Some of its members also disputed the science on the health impacts of secondhand smoke. Additional money has flowed in from such notorious polluters as ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as the tobacco industry.
As public awareness of pesticide risks grows, citizens are pushing for restrictions and bans.
As scientists and the public begin to better understand the risks of common pesticides, citizens, advocates, and communities are fighting back and taking action to protect their health and safety.
Earlier this summer, the state of Connecticut banned toxic lawn pesticides in and around public playgrounds and is requiring more integrated pest management to reduce pesticide use on state property. The town of Mancos in southwestern Colorado banned pesticides in public parks in June, and Reno, Nevada is running a pesticide-free pilot program for its parks and open spaces. Several Chicago suburbs are encouraging homeowners to eliminate chemical use in their yards and gardens, and Montgomery County, Maryland (just outside Washington, DC) has an ordinance pending that would prohibit the use of unnecessary lawn chemicals in public parks and private yards.
The pesticide industry frequently tries to hide the hazards of its products behind snarky commentary and attacks on public health scientists. It is important for the media and advocates to identify industry-backed groups who are trying to discredit legitimate science. Only when we arm ourselves with the best scientific research will we be able to take the steps necessary to reduce the risks that pesticides pose to our families and communities.