It sounds like basic chemistry 101. Chemicals, when combined, can be more dangerous than alone. Yet, according to a new report from the Center for Biological Diversity (CDB), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to properly test chemical mixtures in pesticides for years, putting all of us at risk.
The report, entitled Toxic Concoctions, analyzed patent applications for pesticide products. Researchers found that numerous approved chemicals have not been tested for how they interact when in chemical cocktails – they've only been examined individually. And that's a huge problem.
“It’s alarming to see just how common it’s been for the EPA to ignore how these chemical mixtures might endanger the health of our environment,” said Nathan Donley, a scientist with the CBD and author of the report, in a press statement. “It’s pretty clear that chemical companies knew about these potential dangers, but the EPA never bothered to demand this information from them or dig a little deeper to find it for themselves.”
The key problem is that when two or more chemicals interact, this interaction can enhance their toxic effects, raising the level of exposure above safe levels. Because these synergies were not properly tested, it is possible that countless farmers, laborers and perhaps even consumers have been exposed to unsafe, dangerous chemicals.
So, how did this happen? It is part of a larger problem with governance in the agricultural sector -- which, due to consolidation, is largely under the control of just a few large food and chemical corporations. In particular, two big agricultural seed and chemical fertilizer/pesticide companies Monsanto and Syngenta, hold an enormous amount of power. These companies spend millions lobbying to push forward laws that both promote the use of chemical-intensive agriculture, and restrict the power of oversight agencies like the EPA to regulate them. In fact, they're trying to do this right now with a multimillion-dollar effort to shape Congress's GMO-labeling bill in their favor.
The impacts are potentially huge. Just a few weeks ago, we reported on the growing evidence that there is a massive global die-off of various insects, with evidence pointing to a strong connection to chemicals being one of the causes. Cancer rates are on the rise in developing countries where pesticide and herbicide use is growing.
The scary part is that the true impact of chemicals in our environment is not something that can be easily determined. Cancer can take years to emerge, and the complex biological relationships we find in ecosystems around the world can make connecting a single chemical concoction to a biological impact nearly impossible. It is under this veil that the chemical industry, focused on short-term profits at the cost of nature, has lobbied against oversight of these products and created a potential global crisis.
“The EPA has turned a blind eye for far too long to the reality that pesticide blends can have dangerous synergistic effects,” Donley said. “Now that we know about all the data that are out there, the EPA must take action to ensure that wildlife and the environment are protected from these chemical cocktails.”
It is time to push, and empower, the EPA to fully test all chemicals, and take a new approach to deciding what chemicals to allow into our environment – only those that can be proven, without any doubt, to not have any detrimental environmental impact. It is time to stop playing games with our environment, and our health.
Image credit: Zeynel Cebeci via Wikimedia Commons
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.