Who has higher levels of pesticide exposure, New Yorkers or rural dwellers near commercial farms?
The answer might surprise you: for at least two classes of pesticide, New Yorkers are actually more exposed, despite the fact that we associate pesticide use with the application of such chemicals to crops to protect them from destruction during growing and harvest season. Research on the subject has significant implications for pest management and environmental health.
Where are all these pesticides in New York coming from, and what can we do about it?
While these chemicals play a classic role in pest management for crops, and some certainly do reach the city on industrially produced produce and other goods, the bulk of that exposure is actually the result of the use of pesticides in the city itself. New York, like many urban areas, has problems with rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas and other animals that delight in crowded human civilization as a source of food, shelter, nesting material, and more. Residents fight back with all they can, which includes a toxic arsenal of pesticides.
Large-scale pest management as in apartment buildings can be challenging, and these chemicals may be applied heavily and indiscriminately as a result. While residents may be temporarily relocated for a few hours or days during treatments, pesticide residue remains when they return. They don’t just pick it up at home, but in offices, restaurants, the homes of friends, and a variety of other locations, including public parks. The entire city is a chemical soup including not just echoes of pest treatments past, but also smog, industrial pollution and other environmental toxins.
Pesticide residue also accumulates over time, because the compounds break down slowly indoors without light, heat and weather to do their work. Especially in older buildings, residues of pesticides that have since been banned can be present, passing on a legacy of health problems to new residents who may be completely unaware of it. The problem is one that stretches across the city, from the towers of Manhattan to the depths of the subway system, and it requires a multipronged approach.
For one thing, pesticide regulation needs to consider city dwellers as well as farm workers and people who come into close contact with industrial agriculture. That regulation can’t get rid of existing buildup, but it can prevent the addition of harmful chemicals to the environment. In addition, cities may need to start thinking about more ecologically-friendly methods of pest management and control, reducing the need for pesticides in the first place.
While some applications will be inevitably necessary, the consequence of the crowded environment, others might be mitigated by keeping environments clean, well-lit (cockroaches, for example, hate lighted environments), and free of food sources. Organic and natural pesticides may need to be considered as well to control populations without harming people, pets and plants.
For residents, washing fruit and vegetables thoroughly before consumption can help reduce the amount of pesticides consumed with food. Newer buildings are generally safer, although relocation may not always be an option. Residents can ask about the history of pesticide applications at a given location and request information on which compounds were used to determine their risk level.
Photo credit: alphaundomega.