When you see an airplane spraying a field with a cloud of pesticides, or when you squirt a roach with an over-the-counter insecticide, you’d like to think that someone, somewhere has studied the ingredients to make sure they’re safe.

Turns out, that’s not always the case. A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has revealed that, for the past 40 years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relied heavily on a fast-track pesticide approval process that requires no safety data or testing whatsoever.

The process is called “conditional registration,” and it was introduced in 1972 by Congress as a way to get pesticides to market quickly without manufacturers needing to do full health- and environmental-impact studies, with the understanding that the data from those studies would be submitted soon after the conditional registration was granted. The process was supposed to be used sparingly, and only in the event that the chemical would cause no adverse health effects or that use of the chemical was in the “public interest,” for instance, to deal with a bedbug outbreak.

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But, not surprisingly, the process has been woefully misused, says Jennifer Sass, senior scientist at NRDC and author of the report. “Everybody expects that pesticides are regulated and reviewed,” she says. You can buy any number of products containing active ingredients listed as “EPA Registered,” but, says Sass, “we don’t know whether the EPA had, or has, all the data required to approve it.”

As Sass was digging through EPA pesticide approval databases, she turned up some more disturbing facts about pesticides:

#1: A majority of new pesticides have been approved without proper safety reviews. According to NRDC’s report, a full 65 percent of the roughly 16,000 pesticides approved since 2010 have been approved under conditional registrations. This includes some highly toxic materials including nanosilver, approved in 2011. These microscopic particles of silver are antimicrobials and can kill bacteria in soil and water, which is why they’re considered pesticides, but they’ve been added to more than 1,000 consumer products, including “anti-odor” workout clothes, towels, and bedding, and even baby blankets, despite the fact that they’re known to damage cells in the brain, liver, stomach, testes, and other organs, as well as pass from pregnant mothers to their developing fetuses. Research has shown that nanosilver leaches from clothing into wash water and can be absorbed by the skin.

Protect Yourself: Avoid any products advertised as antibacterial, antimicrobial, or anti-odor because they could contain nanosilver or other unhealthy antimicrobial chemicals.

#2: EPA assumes that “different” equals “safer.” One of the major uses of conditional registrations, Sass says, is with new pesticides that can take the place of older ones that are considered unsafe. For instance, organophosphates, a class of chemicals widely used on food, have been linked to lowered IQ and increased rates of ADHD in children. “Now the EPA is conditionally registering everything that is claiming to be an alternative to organophosphates. Just because it’s an ‘alternative,’ it’s considered to be safe.” Why is that bad? One of the “safer” alternatives approved as an organophosphate alternative is clothianidin, which belongs to a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids that are strongly linked to the massive die-offs of bee colonies, called colony collapse disorder, that are driving up food prices; bees are responsible for pollinating 80 percent of U.S. food crops. This past winter, nearly 55 percent of commercial beehives died off, and environmentalists and food activists are now demanding that the EPA ban these toxic pesticides.

Protect Yourself: Neonicotinoids are systemic, meaning they’re absorbed into the tissue, roots, pollen, and nectar of a plant. Eat organic food to avoid them and dozens of other bee-killing pesticides.

#3: Conditional registrations lead to serious problems. In addition to massive bee die-offs, the public can thank conditional registrations for a recent calamity involving dead evergreen trees. A pesticide called Imprelis, made by DuPont, was conditionally approved based on the “public interest” of controlling nuisance weeds—think dandelions and clover—in lawns, school athletic fields, and golf courses that “no currently registered pesticides control,” according to Dupont’s application. Thousands of homeowners and landscape professionals bought the herbicide, only to find out that it kills white and Norway spruce trees. The company faced a class-action lawsuit in 2011 from angry homeowners who claimed it killed thousands of trees nationwide. The EPA subsequently banned Imprelis.

Protect Yourself: Opt out of the flawed EPA process with organic lawn management so you don’t find yourself killing trees (or worse) with improperly approved pesticides. We’ve compiled a list of easy organic lawn-care tips.

5 Surprising Ways to Dodge Pesticides



#4: Even the EPA admits its process is flawed. In 2011, the EPA conducted its own review of the conditional registration process, in response to NRDC’s requests (Sass began looking into the issue in 2010) and concluded that conditional registrations were misused 98 percent of the time. “Even EPA’s staff was surprised at how much was going through the conditional registration process,” Sass says. Part of the problem, she adds, is that the databases that track pesticide approvals are so disorganized and user-unfriendly. In fact, she adds, when asked, the agency couldn’t provide her with information that details which conditionally registered pesticides had, eventually, been officially approved after all the health and environmental safety data had been submitted.

Protect Yourself: Practice nontoxic pest control around your house with our tips for natural insect control.