It is long past time for Maryland to regulate pesticides in a manner that properly protects people and the environment. This is unlikely under the current watchdog, the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), whose actions tend to reflect the interests of the Farm Bureau and chemical-based pest control and lawncare industries. That is why Gov. Martin O'Malley should transfer authority over pesticides from the MDA to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), whose staff includes medical and science professionals far better equipped to develop objective, science-based environmental and public health regulatory policy.
The MDA has been successful in a number of policy and regulatory areas. But it was given oversight over pesticides in an era when the far-reaching damage caused by toxic chemicals was little understood. Current pesticide oversight needs go beyond MDA's original mandate and expertise.
The impact of pesticides on the Chesapeake Bay's waning health is often overlooked. Recent research indicates pesticides are a contributing factor that needs to be addressed. One example is findings that link pesticides to male fish laying eggs in Maryland waterways.
The MDA's actions over the years reveal its lack of attention regarding serious public health and environmental problems attributed to the widespread use of pesticides. Short and long-term exposure to pesticides — some at low doses — are linked to cancers, reproductive dysfunction, developmental disabilities, immune system disorders, asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as neurological and behavioral disorders.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies nearly 100 pesticides in use today as probable human cancer-causing chemicals and nearly 90 additional pesticides as possible human cancer-causing chemicals. Studies show that farm families are at greater risk for certain pesticide-related cancers, farmer's lung and Parkinson's disease, diabetes and autism. Ironically, the MDA, with a mandate to guide and regulate the state's agriculture, has opposed actions that would help us better understand the impact of toxic pesticides on farm families.
A few examples of MDA's past actions clarify why Maryland would benefit from an agency better equipped to regulate pesticides. During the 2010 legislative session, the MDA opposed a cost-neutral bill requiring that certified applicators report their use of pesticides and fertilizer — critically needed for scientists to understand the negative impact of pesticides and nutrient runoff on the bay. The MDA agreed with the need for legislation, and its only stated concern was cost to the state. Despite the bill being cost-neutral, MDA still withheld support. At a recent meeting regarding a similar 2011 bill, MDA officials indicated that they would likely continue to oppose the bill, insisting there may be unseen costs, despite the bill's inclusion of an increase in yearly product registration fees paid to MDA by chemical manufacturers that would cover program costs.
The MDA also opposed a 2003 FBI-supported anti-terrorist bill that would have restricted access by noncertified applicators to highly toxic pesticides that can be weaponized. And in 2004, the MDA was instrumental in then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s decision to replace the Governor's Pesticide Council that included environmental organization, labor, parent and medical representatives with a Pesticide Advisory Committee lacking public stakeholders.
The MDA also spent five years opposing Maryland's Integrated Pest Management in Schools Law prior to its 1998-99 passage. The law protects schoolchildren from unrestricted pesticide exposure. Moreover, not until this year did the MDA alert Maryland public schools regarding corrections to its flawed manuals intended to guide compliance with the laws, despite repeated admonitions to do so, including a 2002 Maryland attorney general's office determination that the MDA's guidelines were not in compliance with the enacted legislation.
Given all we now know about the harm caused by exposure to toxic chemical pesticides and the MDA's failure to adequately safeguard the environment and human health, the agency's oversight of pesticides should end. Maryland should follow the lead of such states as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California, where pesticide oversight is handled by agencies comparable to the MDE.
The MDE's mission is to protect and restore the quality of Maryland's air and water, to foster safe communities, and to educate Marylanders for the benefit of the state's environment and public health. The impending departure of MDE Secretary Shari T. Wilson provides an opportune moment for the O'Malley administration to implement this important change. Through pesticide oversight, the MDE would further accomplish its mission by assessing, preventing and controlling sources of pesticide pollution. That would benefit Maryland, public health and the Chesapeake Bay.
Ruth Berlin is executive director of the Maryland Pesticide Network. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew Fellows is the Chesapeake regional director of Clean Water Action. His e-mail is email@example.com.