Column: Pesticides linked to cancer, Parkinson's, so why keep gardening with them?

The EPA doesn't "approve" the chemicals applied to lawns and landscapes, the agency simply registers them and notes they are not 100% safe.
The EPA doesn't "approve" the chemicals applied to lawns and landscapes, the agency simply registers them and notes they are not 100% safe.

Not so long ago, Palm Beach was home to a plethora of delightful songbirds: painted buntings, song sparrows, palm and yellow rumped warblers, purple martins, cardinals, marsh and house wrens, kinglets, gnatcatchers, meadowlarks, woodpeckers, finches, and Baltimore orioles were all common visitors here; the island was alive with their music. Now, we are lucky to see the occasional dove or house wren.

Our irrational desire to create pristine, perfect landscapes has instead produced barren, poisoned soil, polluted air and contaminated water; we have forgotten to include in our landscapes the original inhabitants of Palm Beach: the birds and wildlife.

We all love to recreate outdoors but the continual spraying of pesticides is poisoning the air we breathe. It’s actually a health hazard to jog, bike, or take our children and pets for walks where pesticides are sprayed, and they are sprayed everywhere, everyday by our neighbors and friends.

We came to Palm Beach to live in a tropical paradise — why are we so intent on destroying it?

The symposium recently held at Town Hall was the third in the series entitled “Where have All the Songbirds Gone?” Drs. Ray Dorsey and Bruce Lanphear described connections between pesticide use and the increase in numerous diseases, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, cancer, and Parkinson’s, the fastest growing brain disease in the world.

Dorsey’s studies show that 90% of Parkinson’s cases are manmade and could be avoided if we eliminated the use of carcinogenic neonicotinoid and organophosphate pesticides. Lanphear, who is working with childhood disease, provided studies proving there are no “safe” levels of toxins in our environment; our health and that of our children is inextricably linked to these chemicals, even if they are registered in the smallest amounts.

A monarch butterfly on salvia.
A monarch butterfly on salvia.

Children’s developing neurological systems and rapidly growing cells are far more susceptible to toxic chemicals than those of adults; childhood leukemia is 35% more prevalent now than 30 years ago. Autism has increased 70% since the introduction of glyphosate in 1974. This chemical exposure is permanent and can have lasting effects on brain development and neurological function, leading to other disease in later life such as Alzheimer’s and ALS. Almost all of us, including our children, have organophosphates and neonicotinoids in our blood.

Bees, the world's pollinators, are susceptible to the toxins in pesticides. This one is working on white salvia coccinea.
Bees, the world's pollinators, are susceptible to the toxins in pesticides. This one is working on white salvia coccinea.

Both doctors believe we should look to prevention as well as to cures. Prevention means eliminating the cause and we can all act together to make this happen, at least on Palm Beach.

Most people believe that the chemicals applied to their lawns and landscapes are EPA approved, but the EPA simply registers these pesticides, and admits that they are not 100% safe. Only a tiny fraction are tested; the testing methods are sketchy at best and often performed, with no oversight, by the agency applying for the permit.

Paraquet, the most toxic pesticide in the United States, has been banned in 32 countries, including China. Paraquet’s main ingredient is the nerve toxin Chlorpyrifos, which was finally banned in 2022 after over 30 years of lawsuits and legal battles proving it was unsafe. It has been associated with a 150% increased risk of Parkinson’s. Less than a year later, the ban was overturned by the Eighth Court of Appeals and Paraquet is now back on the market. The EPA is “reviewing this decision.”

All of us have probably been exposed to the ubiquitous household and industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) used in cleaning grease and in dry cleaning. TCE has been associated with a 500% increased risk for Parkinson’s and studies have shown it also causes liver and kidney cancer.  Thirty percent of America’s drinking water has been contaminated with TCE, and while it has been banned in Europe and in Minnesota and New York, it is still widely used in Florida.

Many of you might have seen “Dark Waters” at the Four Arts a few weeks ago describing the coverup of PFOA’s, the forever chemical, by DuPont beginning in the 1960s. DuPont was aware of the dangers of this chemical, which caused birth defects and numerous cancers, for decades.

More: Editorial: 'Songbirds' III offered lots to think about

The take-away from the film was that if we want something done, we must take action ourselves. As residents of Palm Beach and South Florida, we should set the example for our neighbors and for our community. If any of us are using pesticides on our landscapes, we should find out what exactly is being applied, how often, and what it is for.

A dragonfly on purple salvia. Garden insects, even the beneficial ones, suffer from toxic pesticides.
A dragonfly on purple salvia. Garden insects, even the beneficial ones, suffer from toxic pesticides.

No one should be on a “maintenance” schedule. Applying chemical pesticides on a regular basis simply kills every insect, including all the essential pollinators we need to survive. These beneficial insects also play a large role in eliminating the pests you’re spraying for in the first place.

Roseate spoonbill
Roseate spoonbill

If you see a specific problem, it can almost always be treated with a natural remedy. Neem or horticultural oil works on scale, baking soda works on weeds and fungus, and diversity planting will eliminate the cause of most issues. Many of us have had beautiful gardens here in Palm Beach for years without ever using pesticides. Americans add 80 million pounds of pesticides to their landscapes each year, killing 15 to 20 million birds and untold millions of pollinators. Let’s not have Palm Beach residents add to this statistic.

Pesticides threaten the health of humans and the ecosystem.
Pesticides threaten the health of humans and the ecosystem.

In December 2023, New York’s governor signed the ‘Birds and Bees Protection Act’ which will ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides for outdoor ornamental plants and turfs and prohibit the use of corn, soybean or wheat seeds treated with neonicotinoids. When birds eat these seeds, or when insects visit the resulting plants, their neurological systems are fatally compromised. Knowing these genetically modified seeds are killing insects and birds, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to eat the products they produce either.

Florida could follow New York’s lead in passing a similar act; by discontinuing pesticide use in our landscapes, Palm Beach could lead the way in protecting pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.

If you read only one book this year, make it Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring." It was published in 1962, but is still completely relevant today, perhaps even more so because so many of her precautionary warnings have come true. The introduction to "Silent Spring" states, “In spite of decades of environmental protest and awareness and in spite of Rachel Carson’s apocalyptic call alerting Americans to the dangers of toxic chemicals, reduction of the use of these pesticides has been one of the greatest policy failures of the environmental era. Global contamination is a fact of modern life.”

Gardens and their inhabitants, like this caterpillar of orange barred sulphur on Bahama senna, can thrive without toxic pesticides.
Gardens and their inhabitants, like this caterpillar of orange barred sulphur on Bahama senna, can thrive without toxic pesticides.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Column: Palm Beach should protect birds, bees by banning pesticides