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Understanding pesticide risks [Editorial]

Pesticides have been linked to a variety of human diseases, from cancer to birth defects, asthma and various disorders of the nervous system, so it's hardly unreasonable for people to be concerned about their exposure to them. But good luck finding out about the use of pesticides in Maryland, as there are scant reporting requirements.

That needs to change, and the first step toward developing an appropriate pesticide reporting database is to create the means to pay for one. Legislation pending before the General Assembly would create a modest $10 fee — added to the annual $100 fee paid by chemical manufacturers to register their products in the state — to finance just such a database that would be available to scientists and the public.

Other states have taken similar action, and this is one tax that ought to win unanimous approval from the Maryland General Assembly. It would raise a mere $130,000 each year, but that money is critical to financing a survey that would allow the state to find out what, how much and where pesticides are being used by professionals in Maryland.

We think the legislation should actually go further and mandate reporting by all applicators and distributors. But it's clear that certain farm organizations, pesticide makers and others would strongly object, as they did last year when such legislation was offered. At least creating the database and expanding the state's survey efforts would be a good first step toward a better understanding of what's happening with pesticides.

For the average Maryland resident, this isn't a close call. Polls show that people are concerned about the health and environmental risks posed by pesticides and even making pesticide reporting mandatory is backed by 79 percent of Maryland voters, according to one survey conducted last month on behalf of advocates.

A statewide task force created out of last year's failed reporting bill recommended imposing the registration fee to pay for collecting data and analyzing pesticide use. Gov. Martin O'Malley supports the measure as do a variety of health and environmental groups.

How would the pesticide data be helpful? Take the mysterious deaths of huge numbers of honey bees. In recent years, Maryland beekeepers have lost one-third to half their hives. Pesticides may play a role in this trend, but researchers need to look for patterns — knowing what pesticides were applied to the fields where bees traveled might point to a possible cause.

Recognizing what pesticides are used in areas that drain into the Potomac River might offer scientists some clues to explain the alarming presence of intersex fish in that tributary. And then there's human health, too: When a community suddenly discovers an unusually high number of cancer diagnoses, it would surely be useful to see if pesticide exposure might have played a role.

Considering Maryland's relatively high cancer death rate, this ought to be an easy call for lawmakers. Protecting public health and safety, particularly at such a low cost, should to be among their highest priorities.

Opponents will no doubt protest the database as a first step in a process that could lead to tougher state standards regarding the use of pesticides, which are already regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And it's true the EPA registers pesticides and sets limits on their use.

But even manufacturers must acknowledge that our scientific understanding of the impact of pesticides on wildlife, the environment and on people is evolving. Chemicals like DDT which were once thought to be safe were later judged to have adverse impacts. Even tiny amounts of some toxic chemicals can have a profound effect — but one that might take years to be observed.

A database would give researchers an opportunity not only to understand what's going on today but eventually to provide a historical record to know what happened in the past. And frankly, farmers ought to be first in line to welcome such a resource as they and their families are considered to be at highest risk of exposure.

Concerns over confidentiality and what information should be reserved as proprietary would seem to pale compared to the value of better understanding how these chemicals may be causing grievous harm to children and adults. People have a right to know what potentially harmful chemicals are being used all around them, period.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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