Week of 8/1/2004

Dear EarthTalk: How are pesticides, particularly malathion, dangerous?—Mary J. Russell, Fort Peck, MT

Organophosphate pesticides (OPs), which include the widely used insecticide malathion, are chemically related to nerve gases developed during World War II. For decades, scientists have been debating whether such pesticides cause birth defects, cancers and other health problems. Studies have shown links between regular exposure to malathion and various human maladies, including non-Hodgkins lymphoma, childhood leukemia, anemia, chromosome damage, and weakened immune systems. Meanwhile, aerial sprayings have been known to cause allergic reactions or flu-like symptoms for people inadvertently exposed.

Malathion was developed by the Swiss chemical giant Ciba-Geigy back in the 1950s as an agricultural crop insecticide and for pest control in homes and gardens. Today, more than 15 million pounds are applied annually in the U.S., according to the Pesticide Action Network. While such OPs are used to control crop-damaging insects, they kill beneficial bugs as well. OPs are found in hardware stores under names like Dursban, Diazinon, Sevin Dust and Baygon. They"re also widely used by exterminators.

Malathion and other pesticides are especially dangerous to children, who are more vulnerable to neurotoxins than adults, notes Kert Davies, pesticide specialist for the Environmental Working Group. "We recommend avoiding the use of any organophosphates in the home or garden," he says.

To protect your family from pesticide residues on foods, eat organic food as much as possible. If organic offerings have not yet made it into your supermarket, the online informational resource Local Harvest provides a national online directory to help you find organic stores and farmers" markets near you.

To control lawn and garden pests, use the least-toxic method you can find, and pull weeds the old-fashioned way: by hand. The organization Beyond Pesticides maintains an online searchable database, called "Safety Source for Pest Management," for locating pest management companies around the U.S. that use non-toxic and least-toxic methods. Also, The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides has several informative fact sheets on pesticide-free solutions to various types of pest problems.

If your kids" schools are not using least-toxic pest management methods, lobby them to start immediately. Beyond Pesticides" "Safer Schools" report provides online case studies of hundreds of schools across the country that have controlled pest issues successfully without exposing students to pesticides.

While malathion and other OPs undoubtedly can wreak havoc on human health, its producers, many scientists, and even some environmentalists believe the problems pesticides solve—that is, the curbing of infestation outbreaks—outweigh the risks of using them. But regardless, taking precautions against unnecessary exposure is our best hope for preventing ill effects..CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group, (202)667-6982, www.ewg.org; Pesticide Action Network North America, (415) 981-1771, www.panna.org; Local Harvest, www.localharvest.org; Beyond Pesticides, www.beyondpesticides.org; Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, www.pesticide.org/factsheets.html#alternatives.

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly are "fuel cells" and what can they power that will end or reduce our dependence on oil and gasoline?—Alex Tibbetts, Seattle, WA

First developed as a power source for NASA’s Apollo missions, fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into usable electricity, with heat and water as byproducts. While gasoline engines like those found under the hoods of today"s cars harness energy by burning fossil fuels, fuel cells derive power much more efficiently via chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen.

Fuel cell technology is extremely versatile, and can be used to run everything from laptop computers to power plants. Cities in the U.S., Europe and China currently operate public bus fleets powered by hydrogen fuel-cell engines. King County in Washington State is using fuel cells to power its new water treatment plant. And eight of the world"s top automakers are developing prototype cars and trucks powered by fuel cells.Ballard Power, United Technologies (UTC Fuel Cells), Plug Power and other companies are vying for dominance in the newly emerging global fuel-cell market. Meanwhile, governments and automakers are supporting the research and development with various investments, grants and subsidies. In 2002, President Bush launched the FreedomCAR program, a public-private partnership between the Department of Energy and the "Big Three" automakers, to fund development of fuel-cell technologies for American cars and trucks. A year later the White House announced the creation of the Hydrogen Fuels Initiative to offer support for a hydrogen-refueling network throughout the U.S. and beyond.

But environmental critics are suspicious of the Bush administration"s motives, especially since the Energy Department"s priorities lie with generating hydrogen from coal or nuclear power, rather than from sustainable sources like solar or wind power. Late last year, however, the U.S. and European Union agreed to work jointly on fuel-cell development initiatives, which has been interpreted as a positive sign.

The promise of a transportation sector powered by hydrogen fuel cells is appealing for economic and political reasons as well as for environmental ones. Besides the well-understood negative impacts of fossil fuel emissions on our air, water and health, experts are predicting that the peak of oil production will soon be reached, with remaining supplies largely in the volatile Middle East.

Despite their promise, though, fuel cells are not about to take over anytime soon. "Fuel-cell vehicles will not make a significant national impact for at least two decades," says Jason Mark, director of theClean Vehicles Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. But Mark remains bullish on the future of fuel cells. "Given the pressing economic and environmental risks posed by automobile travel, we can"t afford to pass up the tremendous long-term potential of renewable hydrogen fuel cells."

CONTACTS: Ballard Power, (604) 454-0900, www.ballard.com; UTC Fuel Cells, (866) 383-5325, ; Plug Power, (518) 782-7700, www.plugpower.com; FreedomCAR Program, (202) 586-9220, www.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels; Hydrogen Fuels Initiative, www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/02/20030206-2.html; Union of Concerned Scientists, (617) 547-5552, www.ucsusa.org.