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News Opinion Editorial

Md. needs a database on pesticides

What pesticides are Maryland families exposed to on a regular basis? Good luck finding out. There's simply no way for the average person to discover what chemicals are being applied to farm fields or even backyards.

Worse, it's nearly impossible for anyone in the public health field to find out either. Should doctors discover an unusually high incidence in Maryland of leukemia or other cancer that might be associated with environmental exposure, they'd be hard-pressed to analyze the risk from pesticides. There's simply an abysmal lack of information available.

Considering that Maryland has a cancer death rate significantly above the national average, this ought to be a cause for alarm. Whatever ill effects pesticide might have on human health and the environment, there is simply a serious gap in knowledge. Who is applying what and when? That basic information ought to be available to researchers, regulators and average citizens, too.

Fortunately, lawmakers have an opportunity to require some much-needed, if overdue, accounting of pesticide applications. Under a bill pending in the Maryland General Assembly, the Maryland Department of Agriculture would be required to develop an online database detailing pesticide sale and use by distributors and applicators.

The system would be funded by a slightly higher product registration fee paid by the chemical companies. No pesticides would be banned. Mostly, it means that those who apply the chemicals — and who already have an obligation to keep records about them — must share those records with the Department of Agriculture.

This shouldn't be particularly controversial. Advocates estimate that submitting properly maintained paperwork online shouldn't take more than a few minutes. That's hardly an excessive burden, even to family farmers — certainly not when weighed against the benefits of knowing more about pesticide use in this state. Those who lack a computer would need only copy their records and mail them to Annapolis.

A recent report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program raised serious concerns about the level of toxic chemicals in the bay. Even tiny doses of certain chemicals can have an impact on wildlife — and on the seafood delicacies that so many Marylanders prize. Yet it's difficult to determine the severity or extent of pesticides in the air or water when researchers aren't even aware of what chemicals to be looking for.

Cancer isn't the only disease with possible links to pesticide. Parkinson's Disease, asthma, diabetes, birth defects, Alzheimer's Disease, developmental delays, fertility problems and other maladies are thought to have a possible association with pesticide exposure, too. Medicine's understanding of what role these chemicals may play is evolving. Under the circumstances, it would seem prudent to at least keep better track of what's out there.

Naturally, the pesticide industry and certain farm organizations are opposed to the measure, but the general public appears strongly supportive. A statewide poll conducted in December shows eight in 10 people are concerned about the risk of pesticides and favor the pesticide reporting mandate, according to the advocacy group, Maryland Pesticide Network.

Farmers may be among the most important beneficiaries of the bill. Studies have shown they and their families are at greater danger of exposure to potentially harmful chemicals that may leach from fields and enter the groundwater.

The proposal could also benefit national security. The database would make it easier to track and investigate suspicious pesticide purchases — and the program even includes a toll-free number to report pesticide application anonymously.

There are also some limits on who can view the information on the database. Regulators, researchers and certain academicians would have full access (if they agreed to keep the information confidential). All others would be able to view information for a watershed but not so much detail that they could identify a specific property or location.

That seems a reasonable compromise to keep certain proprietary information confidential. Again, the point is not to ban any particular chemical but to more readily understand what's out there and what effect these toxic substances may have on human health and the environment. There are, after all, more than 13,000 registered pesticide products in Maryland. Being better informed about their use would seem a modest step in protecting the safety and welfare of current and future generations of Maryland families.

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