UMD extension: The aerial spray is OK

During the past few weeks, we have received many calls in University of Maryland Extension offices regarding aerial spraying. What’s being sprayed? Why is it being sprayed? Am I at risk? With many misconceptions surrounding modern agriculture, it can be confusing to consumers trying to sort out fact from fiction, especially on the internet. So here’s what’s happening:

Aerial application of agricultural pesticides, sometimes referred to as “crop dusting,” was a practice first experimented with by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1921. The practice slowly gained popularity over the next few decades because of the benefits it affords the farmer. Many crop protection products need to be applied within a very narrow window of time; aerial applications make it possible for farmers to cover more acres in a day than a ground spray rig. In addition, aerial applications do not cause any disturbance or compaction of the earth, which benefits the health of the soil.

You may wonder why farmers need to spray their crops with pesticides, which can be a topic for a whole different article; but in short, these products help increase yields. With the world population expected to tip 8.6 billion by 2025 and 9 billion by 2050, crop yields will need to increase significantly to feed the world. Furthermore, we are losing farmland at a rapid pace and we want to conserve as much natural habitat for wildlife as possible, so we need to produce more food on less land. These products help farmers attain higher yields.

Farmers may not just be applying pesticides to their crops using aerial application. Other possible applications include topdressing with fertilizer or aerial seeding of cover crops, which help protect the soil from erosion and nutrient runoff.

The pilots that farmers hire to apply these products are licensed and are under strict surveillance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation and the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA). They must follow all the laws and regulations that any other pilot must follow, but in addition, must also be a certified commercial pesticide applicator. MDA licenses commercial pesticide applicators in the state, and in order to keep their license active, pilots must attend continuing education and re-certification classes every year. As a pesticide applicator, the pilots are also required to follow all application laws outlined by the pesticide label, which are defined by the EPA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and MDA.

Nearly 900 scientists and program officials from the EPA make sure that products are properly registered to comply with federal law. Once on the market, they are monitored by the EPA, the FDA, and state pesticide enforcement agencies. This stringent regulatory system ensures the safety of our food, the safety of the products to the environment and the safety of the workers that mix, load and apply the products.

The final and most important question is: “Is this safe?” In short, yes. If the pesticide was deemed too dangerous for aerial application, the EPA would not label it for aerial application. As long as you are not getting in direct contact with the spray, you are safe. A direct quote from the American Cancer Society states:

Although vegetables and fruits sometimes contain low levels of these chemicals, overwhelming scientific evidence supports the overall health benefits and cancer-protective effects of eating vegetables and fruits. At this time there is no evidence that residues of pesticides and herbicides at the low doses found in foods increase the risk of cancer.”

If you feel like you’ve been exposed to a pesticide, you have every right to be concerned and should seek medical treatment; then call MDA at 410-841-5710 to report the incident.

Andrew Kness (akness@umd.edu) is an agriculture extension educator at the University of Maryland Extension in Harford County. Erika Crowl (ecrowl@umd.edu) is an agriculture extension educator at the University of Maryland Extension in Baltimore County.

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