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Researchers find pesticide hazardous to human health

June 25, 2001

When Rachel Carson published the novel “Silent Spring” in 1962, she warned that the pesticide dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane, or DDT, might have more long-term effects on the environment than killing insects.

The pesticide, which had been produced in lots of 600 million pounds per year in the United States, was later banned in the country in the late 1970s.

MSU researchers have found dichlorodiphenyl dichloroethene, or DDE - a metabolite of DDT - might have a long-term effect on human beings.

Wilfried Karmaus, an associate professor of epidemiology, researched children in areas of Germany where the pesticide is still used, with the help of epidemiology graduate student Scott Asakevich.

Many of the girls exposed to the pesticide were nearly an inch shorter than average. Their height and blood samples were studied from birth to age 8.

“In the last years, there is more and more research that DDE is a health hazard for mammalians,” Karmaus said. “The difference in growth is two centimeters. It tells you that it has an effect. There could be bigger health problems that might take more time to develop.”

Karmaus said DDE has entered the food chain for years through imported foods and use in the past.

While the pesticide has been banned in the United States, Karmaus said it still has high levels in Michigan because of the surrounding Great Lakes.

“Michigan residents have higher exposure than other people because of the Great Lakes,” he said. “We will continue the research in newborns and children in Michigan, especially among fish eaters.”

Levels of DDE and polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, in Great Lakes fish have forced officials to place advisories on food source.

The Michigan Department of Community Health advises extra caution for pregnant women and children under the age of 15 when eating fish.

Because the chemicals are stored in fat, health problems, like those of the girls in Germany, might not be identified immediately.

“It’s just something that needs to be quantified a little bit more,” Asakevich said. “It’s something that people might want to look into.

“The other way it would become a huge issue again would be if they used DDT again.”

As an alternative to pesticides, some area farms use natural sources of pest reduction.

Growing In Place Community Farm, in Mason, uses mulch, healthy soil and special placement of plants for immunity to avoid insect problems.

About 18 representatives from pesticide-using countries will visit the farm Monday as part of a short course offered through MSU.

Laura DeLind, an academic specialist for MSU’s Department of Anthropology, said pesticide use isn’t necessary for all food.

“Food does not have to be that picture-perfect,” she said. “The pesticides used to create that kind of perfection can be very severe. If your cabbage has a hole in it, so what, if your kale has a hole in it, so what?”


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