I’ve spent more time than most reading the use labels on pesticides. I can tell you that it has nothing to do with a riveting plotline or excellent character development. Instead, it is because of where we live (Iowa) and what we do here (small-scale, diversified farm).
No, we have not decided to use pesticides on our farm – but that would have been a better reason for us to spend time reading these labels. That would have meant that we were researching a tool that we thought we might use. It would mean that we were intent on following those instructions and that we were considering the possible harm we might cause by using them.
Instead, I find myself reading the labels because our farm is susceptible to many of the chemicals that are applied to the neighboring row crop fields. We aren't always entirely sure that applicators read these labels carefully, and if they do, it feels like too many of them seem to misunderstand or ignore whatever is inconvenient for them to follow.
These chemicals are poisons and are dangerous if not managed correctly. For that matter, they can be dangerous even if they are managed properly. Shouldn’t that be enough to encourage a little reading and a healthy dose of caution?
The hazards are real
Warnings on a typical herbicide use label
Shown above is one of the chemicals that was used on a field near our farm in 2018. It was applied with other pesticides on a day when the wind was strong and coming our direction. Once I determined the product, I looked up the use label. Since a big part of my job as a grower of food has me spending time outside, I think it makes sense that I want to avoid being coated with any product that has First Aid warnings if it gets in my eyes, if I breathe it in, or if it gets on my skin or clothing.
Did the applicator, on this particular day, do anything to make sure any of the workers in our fields were not exposed to this chemical? No, they did not – but we made it our responsibility once they started spraying. I did not have confidence that they had read the use label themselves.
And what about collateral damage?
One important responsibility that comes with any potentially dangerous tool is to use it in a way that ensures it does its job without collateral damage.
For example, many agricultural chemicals are known to cause problems if they enter the water system. If you don't think this matters to you, consider this tidbit about my home state: 20% of Iowa's drinking water comes from surface water. While much of the rest comes from various aquifers, they too can be impacted by chemical run-off. If it is not enough for you that allowing run-off harms other living (but non-human) beings, then maybe knowing it can get into our drinking water would be enough to encourage a person to be careful with pesticides.
The label for the pesticide used on this particular day made it clear that it should not be applied prior to a rainfall within 48 hours. It rained that night. I don’t think they met the suggested period for dry weather.
When is it safe for me to be where pesticides were sprayed?
Most pesticides not meant for residential use have an Agricultural Use Requirements section. This is typically where information is kept that could be important to you even if you do not use these chemicals yourself.
There is a 24-hour "do not enter" period for workers/humans for the pesticide applied on this windy day (you can find it in the middle of the text of the image above). This is called the Restricted Entry Interval (REI). If the chemical goes 'off-target,' that increases the "Do Not Enter" zone to the drift area. If you find that you are in a drift zone, you need to remove yourself from that area if at all possible for this period of time. And, yes, that could include your home.
Applicators should be aware of who may be in the drift zone and they need to:
Cease application if they witness people in the spray zone
Inform anyone who might enter the spray zone that they need to stay out and give them information about the chemicals used.
Sadly, it has been our experience that if an applicator was willing to apply a chemical in conditions that were not optimal, they were just as unwilling to let us know that we should vacate the area until the REI period was cleared. And, we have rarely witnessed an applicator stopping once they have started if they see people nearby.
Defend yourself by knowing proper conditions for applications
Pesticide labels provide specific guidance for proper weather conditions at the point of application. Most pesticides have limits for wind velocity and many put restrictions on temperatures at the time of application. There is often guidance for everything from sprayer nozzle types to how long you have to wait before you harvest and consume a crop that has been sprayed with a given pesticide – this is called a setback period.
Setback periods for food products often require that you look through a multi-page document that will include the number of days after application before the food crop is deemed safe to eat. These setbacks can be anywhere from 48 hours to a month (or more) depending on the crop. And, if that crop is not listed, that means the pesticide shouldn’t be used on that crop at all.
We had snap beans in the drift area that were going to be ripe for harvest in seven to ten days. If you look at the setback period shown above, we had to wait for thirty days before it was safe to harvest and provide to our customers. That crop was a loss for us because they were going to be ripe and ready to harvest well before the setback period was completed.
There is more to this puzzle than just the current crops in the ground. Herbicides that are applied can impact future crops because these chemicals linger in the soil (this is known as carry-over). In our case, we knew that the products being sprayed were herbicides. Their purpose is to kill or prevent the germination of anything except the cash crop currently in the field. Now that our ground had chemical residue on it, we had to consider whether we would have to deal with carry-over effects in future crops.
Our green bean and pea crops were among those we lost in 2018 to this chemical trespass. That meant we had to accept that loss and look at the possible options for our next crop in that spot. Unfortunately for us, the remaining growing season was too short for any of the options listed. And, if you look at the portion of the label above, you will see that we had to consider what we could plant in that area during the next growing season as well.
The perspective of a food producer
I am a grower of safe, good-tasting foods for our customers. I read pesticide labels frequently, even though I do not intend to use them. Pesticides are dangerous even if they are used properly. And I do not understand why so many of us are willing to accept uses that result in what amounts to chemical trespass?
We believe part of the problem is that others do not understand exactly WHY chemical drift is a problem for farms like ours. First and foremost, it is a FOOD SAFETY ISSUE.
Some might say, "hey, the leaves on your cucumbers had spots on them, but the fruit look fine." The implication is that we are over-reacting and that we should just continue as if nothing happened. That's all fine until someone gets ill, I suppose. But, you tell me, should we ignore it and give everyone cucumbers that we know have pesticide residue on them – and that pesticide is not rated for use on cucumbers? If someone has a reaction, who is responsible? That would be me, the grower of the food product.
Second, and at least as important is that it is a PERSONAL SAFETY ISSUE.
These chemicals were not created with the intent that workers meander around in the fog of the spray without protective equipment on. That should also be true for the family living on the edge of town next to a soybean field, and for me and the young workers we often employ.
Third, it is an ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE.
That environment includes any surrounding crops, such as our peas and cucumbers. It includes the waterways and natural areas. It includes your garden and your yard and the nearby stand of trees.
What makes me most upset about pesticide use is the fact that they are used nonchalantly. Too many people seem to believe that if you didn't see anyone get violently ill immediately during/after the point of spray, it must all be ok?
Well, it is not ok.
Change is needed and we need everyone on board. You can start by becoming aware of what exactly is on the use label so you can talk intelligently about the risks and the responsibility that come with pesticide use. This is one path of many toward becoming aware of the real costs of pesticides so we can move away from our unhealthy reliance on them.