CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Like Moths to the Flame... by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

U.S. pesticide expenditures totaled more than $11 billion in 1998 and 1999, in proportions similar to that for world expenditures, with a relatively larger proportion of total U.S. expenditures on herbicides. U.S. expenditures accounted for approximately 33% of total world expenditures on pesticides, more than 40% of world expenditures on herbicides, 33% of world expenditures on insecticides, and more than 10% and 25% of world expenditures on fungicides and other pesticides, respectively.
United States Environmental Protection Agency's 1999 Sales Report

As a new chemistry graduate student I thought I knew everything; of course 20 years later I now realize I didn't know much of anything back then and I had plenty of chances to prove it. One of those opportunities occurred my first summer in graduate school, we had a terrible problem with ants; it seemed they were everywhere and my family could no longer deal with it. As a chemist I felt compelled to wage chemical warfare on these invasive creatures. With that in mind, I went to the local lawn and garden store and I bought a product called Dursban® (the active ingredient is chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate), guaranteed to work on ants. Armed and ready for battle I went home and spread rather liberal amounts of this stuff around the outside of the house. Within a day's time the ants were gone. I was extremely proud of myself. So proud in fact that I had to brag about it the next day to my labmate who quickly and fervently chastised me for being "so stupid" as to use such a deadly pesticide around infants and animals. OK, so I didn't feel as good about it when I walked out of the room as when I had when I walked in. I decided maybe I should do a little more research for future campaigns. Turns out that Dursban® is nasty stuff; so nasty that the EPA has since banned it from use in household products.

That early experience really opened my eyes and in many ways steered me toward environmental science and chemistry. There are alternatives to pesticides available, although sometimes it takes a little digging to find out what they are. My current ant killer of choice is in fact an alternative pesticide. It's a mixture of equal parts lard, sugar and boric acid (available at your local pharmacy), which I then put into bottle caps and set out near the anthills. Luckily, in at least one respect ants are similar to humans; that is they love fat and they love sugar. So while they are gathering the lard and sugar they inadvertently carry the boric acid back to the nest where it acts as a toxin. This treatment doesn't work as fast as chlorpyrifos but it is much, much safer.

We used to use homemade remedies, such as the one I've described above, all the time. Unfortunately, with the advent of synthetic pesticides, we've gotten used to faster and more deadly and gotten away from slower and safer. Rather than take the time to find a safe and effective method of pest control, we jump at the chance to use something that works rapidly, so that we can kill the pest and move on to something else before we even blink. And it isn't just the home consumer that is seduced by the promise of pesticides. Like the rest of us, farmers in this country have fallen under the spell too.

I don't think anyone would disagree that the massive use of pesticides started with the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Both yields and profits increased and farmers were hooked. But who could blame them, they were only trying to support their families and that's a good thing. I suppose we could blame the pesticide manufacturers, whose sales representatives give out free samples to farmers in the hopes of gaining more converts. But who could blame them; they're only trying to support their families, albeit at a much higher level.

There is hope though. Many producers of food are now going back to the days of no and/or little pesticide use. Many are organic farmers and finding a growing demand from knowledgeable consumers. The question now becomes whether or not it is a matter of "too little, too late".

Ask Yourself These Questions

Go to your garage or basement or wherever the pesticides are kept in your house and look at one of the containers. You'll probably want to wear gloves when handling the container or at the very least make sure you wash your hands when done. Find the active ingredient and find out all you can about it.

  1. What is the targeted pest for the pesticide you chose? Is the pesticide considered to be a broad- or narrow-spectrum pesticide? Are there other uses for it in addition to the one listed on the can?
  2. What kinds of alternative methods are there for controlling the targeted pest?
  3. How harmful is the pesticide to humans? How harmful is it to household pets?
  4. Suppose that there is an infestation of fruit flies at the neighborhood grade school and you are in charge of controlling the outbreak. How would you control the infestation? Would your answer change if instead of fruit flies, it was an infestation of mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus? How would it change?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Pesticides
    This is an excellent site that has a huge amount of information on pesticides, including information on safety, regulations, compliance and enforcement.
  • National Pest Management Association
    This is the official website of the National Pest Management Association. It gives an interesting perspective to the whole pesticide debate.
  • EXTOXNET: The EXtension TOXicology NETwork
    This is a great site where you can find profiles on well over 150 different pesticides.
  • ATSDR - Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
    This is an excellent site that has a huge amount of information on the effects of pesticides and other toxic substances. This page is the alphabetized directory of Frequently Asked Questions regarding these substances.
  • PANNA: The Pesticide Advisor
    According to the Pesticide Action Network's North America website: "The Pesticide Advisor points you to information to help with specific pest and pesticide problems".
  • National Pesticide Information Center
    This is an excellent site that has a huge amount of information on the toxicology of pesticides, as well as information on pesticide regulations and links to pesticide manufacturers.
  • National Pesticide Information Center's West Nile Virus Homepage
    You can find everything you ever wanted to know about West Nile virus at this website.
  • Compendium of Pesticide Common Names
    From the website: "For purposes of trade, registration and legislation, and for use in popular and scientific publications, pesticides need names that are short, distinctive, non-proprietary and widely-accepted. More than 1000 of these pesticide names have been assigned by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This Compendium is believed to be the only place where all of the ISO-approved names of chemical pesticides are listed".

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003