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Pesticides: The good and the bad (Released: 9/18/95)

News tip for journalists

by Renu Sehgal, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- Pesticides. The word conjures images of spraying a slimy substance on food. It also brings to mind possible health risks. But why are they used and how safe are they really?

''Pesticides are used to help farmers get the most out of their crops,'' said Candace Bartholomew, a pesticide specialist with the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System.

''People know pesticides are poison, but people fail to recognize that risk is relative. Without these products our food supply would be very different today,'' she said. ''We get mangos, star fruit and kiwi fruit. We get fresh lettuce, string beans and zucchini in January -- where do these things come from? They come from large farms, where pest outbreaks could spread like wildfire and destroy crops. That would reduce the abundance and variety of our produce.''

Without pesticides, the appearance of produce would be much less appealing, she said.

''When you look at a perfect apple or peach you have to think about how it got that way. At the same time, people won't buy a blemished apple. Perfect looking fruits and vegetables is extremely difficult to produce without the use of some pesticides.''

Pesticide products are made from about 600 active ingredients approved for use and include household disinfectants and cleaning supplies found in most homes.

''There is a potential health risk. But there's risk in everything we do. The risk associated with the use of pesticides is dependent on how it's used, where it's used and how skilled the person applying it is,'' Bartholomew said. ''Farmers must be certified as competent to use higher risk pesticides safely.''

Pesticides grabbed headlines in August because several blueberry farms in Connecticut had been using a pesticide banned for use on food since 1990. The uproar caused many residents in the state to worry about their food. But Bartholomew said the risk of becoming ill from those berries was very low. At issue was a violation of a regulatory standard. Pesticides must be registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection to be used, she said.

''Using the word banned was incorrect,'' Bartholomew said. ''The pesticide was not banned.''

The manufacturer of this pesticide decided not to continue its registration, she said. The blueberry farm owners had apparently been using leftover supplies of the pesticide.

Part of the problem in dealing with pesticides is that too many state and federal agencies regulate them, Bartholomew said. The DEP regulates pesticide use, while the EPA sets maximum levels for pesticide residue on food. The state Department of Consumer Protection collects and inspects samples of produce grown in the state for pesticide residue, going by EPA standards.

''The incident with the blueberries was unfortunate. The violation of a standard is apparent, but it is not a reflection of the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in Connecticut,'' Bartholomew said.

For more information on pesticides, please call Bartholomew at (860) 241-4940.

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