Synthetic Pesticides

A synthetic pesticide is a poisonous chemical or mixture of chemicals that is intended to prevent, repel, or kill any pest. In agriculture, pesticides are used to kill insects, weeds, or fungi. However, synthetic pesticides present hazardous impacts far beyond their intended targets.


Synthetic pesticides evolved from the chemicals like mustard gas and nerve poison developed for chemical warfare in World Wars I and II. Seeking an outlet for their toxic chemicals after the war, manufacturers touted them as a way to control insects, fungi, bacteria, plants and other undesirable creatures (ie, "pests").

These new products provided some short term benefits, but came with many unintended consequences. Pests rapidly gained resistance to the chemicals, making them even more difficult to control than before. Also, pesticides killed many non-target organisms beyond pests; as their use increased, biologists noticed dramatic declines of beneficial insects and other animals.  We continue to find ways synthetic pesticides are also toxic or carcinogenic to humans.

Synthetic Pesticides are Poisons

Pesticides have inherent toxicity because they are designed to kill living organisms that are considered "pests." Many pesticides are known to pose significant, acknowledged health risks to people—including birth defects, damage to the nervous system; disruption of hormones and endocrine systems; respiratory disorders; skin and eye irritations; and various types of cancers.

  • Exposure to persistent organic pollutants through diet has been linked to breast and other types of cancer, immune system suppression, nervous system disorders, reproductive damage, and disruption of hormonal systems.1
  • Male Reproductive Development: Hormone-disrupting chemicals in commercial pesticides have been linked to testicular cancer and low sperm counts in men, and to birth defects in baby boys.2
  • Public health costs associated with pesticide-related acute poisonings and cancer alone, add up to an estimated $1.1 billion dollars per year.3
  • Parkinson's disease has been linked to pesticide exposure.4

Impacts on Children

Pesticide exposure poses special concerns for children because of their high metabolisms and low body weights.

  • More than 1 million children between the ages of 1 and 5 ingest at least 15 pesticides every day from fruits and vegetables.
  • More than 600,000 of these children eat a dose of organophosphate insecticides that the federal government considers unsafe.
  • 61,000 eat doses that exceed "unsafe" levels by a factor of 10 or more.5

Prenatal Exposure

Most babies today are born with persistent pesticides and other chemicals already in their bodies, passed from mother to child during fetal development. 21 different pesticides have been found in umbilical cord blood, suggesting tremendous potential damage at a critical developmental time. Since a baby's organs and systems are rapidly developing, they are often more vulnerable to damage from chemical exposure.  The immature, porous blood-brain barrier allows greater chemical exposures to the developing brain.6

Early and pervasive chemical exposures are suspected in the sharp rise of health problems including autism, obesity, asthma, brain cancer and certain other childhood cancers. 

We Keep Getting More

  • Every year, new research is published demonstrating the toxicity of pesticides to human health and the environment, often at doses previously declared "safe" by the pesticide industry and the government. 
  • Over the years, many pesticides that were once allowed by the EPA have eventually been banned—yet in some cases the damage remains. DDT still exists in the environment and in the cells of Americans, 30 years after it was banned in the United States.
  • The risks of exposure to any single synthetic pesticide grow exponentially, and unpredictably, when combined with other environmental chemical exposures. 
  • There are over 600 registered pesticides in use at the present time. Due to increasing pest resistance, both the volume and the toxicity of these chemicals continues to rise.
  • 940 million pounds of chemical pesticides were used in 2000. That’s more then 3 pounds for every person in the U.S.7
  • U.S. consumers experience up to 70 daily exposures to residues from persistent organic pollutants (POPs) through their diets.

The Organic Difference

Organic farmers do not use synthetic chemical pesticides.

USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regulations strictly prohibit the use of synthetic chemical pesticides. Organic growers use biological and cultural practices to handle pests, including  crop rotation, the selection of resistant varieties, nutrient and water management, the provision of habitat for the natural enemies of pests, and release of beneficial organisms to protect crops from damage. Organic farmers may use natural pesticides from a list approved by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

Choosing organic foods significantly reduces your exposure to pesticides.

Multiple studies have shown that organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to pesticides. One University of Washington study analyzed urine from children ages 3 – 11 for organophosphorus (OP) pesticides and found that children consuming conventional foods had concentrations in their bodies that were on average nine times the EPA-established safe level for human health. When the children’s conventional foods were replaced with organic equivalents, their organophosphate levels dropped significantly. When the children resumed a conventional diet, the chemical concentrations in their bodies went back up to original levels. Scientists concluded that, "An organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to organophosphorus pesticides that are commonly used in agricultural production.”8,9 


  1. "Nowhere to Hide: Persistent Toxic Chemicals in the U.S. Food Supply," by Kristin Schafer, Pesticide Action Network North America, 2000 (
  2. Sharpe, Richard. "Men under threat: The decline in male reproductive health and the potential role of exposure to chemicals during in-utero development." Briefing by ChemTrust:
  3. "Promoting Sustainable Food Systems through Organic Agriculture: Past, Present and Future," Christine McCullum-Gomez, C., and Riddle, J. HEN Post: Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association, Spring 2009.
  4. Costello, et al., "Parkinson's Disease and Residential Exposure to Maneb and Paraquat From Agricultural Applications in the Central Valley of California," AMerican Journal of Epidemiology, published Jan 6, 2009.
  5. Environmental Working Group, "Overexposed: Organophosphate Insecticides in Children’s Food," Jan 29, 1998.
  6. Environmental Working Group. "Body Burden: Pollution in Newborns" July 14, 2003.
  7. U.S. EPA Report, "About Pesticides," 2000-2001.
  8. Curl, CL, Fenske RA, Elgethun K. Organophosphorus pesticide exposure of urban and suburban preschool children with organic and conventional diets. Environ Health Perspect. 2003 Mar;111(3):377-82.
  9. Lu, C. et al. “Organic diets significantly lower children's dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides.” Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 114, No. 2:260-263. 2006. abstract:

See also "What's on my food?" Pesticide Action Network North America



"Can any one believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called 'insecticides' but 'biocides.'"

—Rachel Carson

Beyond the Plate: Pesticides and Family Health

Mothers for Organic

"Organic agriculture = good prenatal care."
Thoughts from a biologist-mom

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