How Agricultural Toxins are Poisoning Waterways and Affecting Physical and Mental Health


Pesticides and other chemical preparations used by farmers to kill fungal or animal pests have effects the go on to affect non-target species. Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species because they are sprayed or spread across entire agricultural fields.

According to recent research, chemical fertilizer run-offs from farmed land directly negatively impact our waterways AND our physical and mental health. Researchers are focusing on glyphosate, one of the most widely used herbicides, to understand how dead zones pose a risk to ecological systems and human health.

Drift Over Neighboring Properties or Waterways

Chemicals are sprayed to control pests and diseases on farms, around the home, and in gardens, parks, and reserves. When chemicals are used, droplets are produced that can remain suspended in the air and maybe carried by wind away from the target area. This is known as ‘spray drift.’

Chemical spray drift cannot always be contained or controlled completely, despite correct application. Chemical sprays may drift over neighboring properties or waterways and can affect human health, animals, or the environment. Spray drift can affect household and farm water supplies, including tank water.

Large-scale, conventional farming focuses on intensive single crop production, mechanization and depends on fossil fuels, pesticides, antibiotics, and synthetic fertilizers. While this system yields high production levels, it also contributes to climate change, pollutes air and water, and depletes soil fertility.

Endangers Farm Workers and Owners

The policies and practices underlying this system contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diet-related disease in the United States. The health impacts of this system extend well-beyond diet. For instance, agriculture is a significant source of air pollution, contributing to a range of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. The industrial-scale, conventional system endangers farm workers and owners, who regularly face serious occupational hazards and limited access to health care.

These agricultural practices have significant health implications. Standard practices and production inputs used to maximize yields negatively impact human health and environmental conditions.

  1. Farmworkers and owners face many health risks, including chronic and acute exposure to pesticides, high risk of injury, and limited access to health care.
  2. Routine antibiotic use in animal agriculture contributes to antibiotic resistance, diminishing these drugs’ effectiveness for human use.
  3. Agricultural contaminants, including pesticides, nitrates, and phosphorus, impact ground and surface water quality, affecting urban and rural communities.
  4. Synthetic fertilizers deplete soil health and require intensive use of fossil fuels to produce.
  5. Emissions and pollution resulting from all agriculture stages, from production (pesticide drift and methane) to distribution (carbon dioxide), affect air quality and contribute to climate change.

While rural communities and farm owners and workers face the most immediate risks from these practices, the overall impact is far-reaching. Air and water pollution from agriculture affects communities over vast areas (rural and urban), and the impacts of antimicrobial resistance and climate change transcend geography.

Hazard, or risk, of using pesticides is the potential for injury or the degree of danger involved in using a pesticide under a given set of conditions. Hazard depends on the toxicity of the pesticide and the amount of exposure to the pesticide and is often illustrated with the following equation: Hazard = Toxicity x Exposure

Minimize or Nearly Eliminate Exposure

The toxicity of a pesticide is a measure of its capacity or ability to cause injury or illness. The toxicity of a particular pesticide is determined by subjecting test animals to varying dosages of the active ingredient (a.i.) and each of its formulated products. The active ingredient is the chemical component in the pesticide product that controls the pest. By understanding the difference in toxicity levels of pesticides, a user can minimize the potential hazard by selecting the pesticide with the lowest toxicity to control the pest.

Applicators may have little or no control over the availability of low-toxicity products or the toxicity of specifically formulated products. However, applicators can minimize or nearly eliminate exposure–and thus reduce hazard–by following the label instructions, using personal protective clothing and equipment (PPE), and handling the pesticide properly. For example, more than 95 percent of all pesticide exposures come from dermal exposure, primarily to the hands and forearms. By wearing a pair of unlined, chemical-resistant gloves, this type of exposure can be nearly eliminated.


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