9 Ways Pesticides Affect the Environment In 2024

Pesticides are chemicals that are deliberately intended to control, repel, and kill pests that damage or cause a nuisance in agriculture or domestic life.

Unfortunately, while effective, a large percentage of pesticides meet a destination other than their target.

This means that the rate of pesticide contamination is high, and they drastically affect the environment.

Here are 9 ways pesticides affect the environment and the ways you can reduce their impact on your land.

1. Surface water contamination and pesticides

Surface water is water that collects on the surface of the ground.

This includes any body of water above the ground such as lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, reservoirs, and creeks.

Soluble pesticides — those able to be dissolved in water — can be picked up by water molecules.

This most often occurs during precipitation events when stormwater runoff percolates into soil layers.

Eventually, this pesticide-contaminated water reaches bodies of surface water.

The pesticides can then gravely affect water quality and reduce the supply of clean water.

Drinking water that has been contaminated with pesticides can cause cancer, birth defects, and damage to the nervous system.

It’s also worth noting that one of leading causes of surface water contamination is nutrient pollution (namely nitrates and phosphates).

These nutrients are important for plants and animals to grow, but they have become a major pollutant between farm waste and fertilizer runoff.

2. Groundwater contamination

Groundwater is contained in subterranean aquifers within the rock layers below the water table.

So, unlike surface water that is found where the human eye can easily find it (lakes, streams, wetlands, etc.), this water is underground.

So, how do pesticides find their way into groundwater and contaminate it?

Pesticides primarily reach groundwater through runoff and leaching.

Each year, farmers and homeowners apply 1 billion pounds of pesticides to agricultural land, non-cropland, and urban area throughout the country.

This has helped the U.S. become the largest producer of food in the world.

However, pesticides have also negatively affected the land and contaminated groundwater that lies below the surface.

This is problematic because groundwater is used as drinking water by about 50 percent of the US population.

If you live in an area with lots of agricultural land, then you’re more susceptible to groundwater contamination.

Prior to the mid-1970s, it was believed that soil acted as a protective filter and stopped pesticides from reaching the water.

We now know that isn’t the case.

Pesticides can easily seep through the soil and contaminate groundwater.

However, it’s important to note that it can take a long time for chemicals and pollutants to become present in groundwater.

Thus, even if harmful land practices stopped years ago, it doesn’t mean that the groundwater won’t be impacted.

There can be some lag time between the application of pesticides and fertilizers and the arrival of these chemicals in the water.

It is incredibly problematic when groundwater becomes contaminated because it’s expensive to remedy.

Thus, it’s generally just cheaper and easier to not pollute it in the first place.

3. Soil contamination

In what ways do pesticides affect the environment when it comes to soil contamination?

The U.S. applies more than 1 billion pounds of pesticides every year.

After this application, pesticides can linger in the soil for years or decades afterward and harm soil health.

Additionally, because farmers typically apply more than one pesticide at once, a mixture of toxic chemicals is left in the soil.

For instance, the USDA estimates that Washington apples are treated with an average of 51 different pesticides over 6 to 17 applications every single year.

Because the application is constant, the soil doesn’t have time to recover.

Furthermore, because the soil is contaminated, seeds can become coated with pesticides.

This increases an organism’s exposure to toxic chemicals.

4. Soil fertility and pesticides

Pesticides can also affect soil fertility.

When the soil is heavily treated with pesticides, it causes populations of beneficial soil microorganisms to decline.

Scientists will compare chemical fertilizers and pesticides to antibiotics for humans.

When they are used correctly and in moderation, they are a helpful tool.

However, when overuse occurs, it can have a negative effect.

Initially, a farmer may see success using lots of pesticides.

However, this overuse will eventually catch up with them because it will affect their soil fertility.

The pesticides will kill off essential soil microorganisms, which are highly necessary for the following:

bulletNitrogen-fixation

bulletPhosphorus solubilization

bulletSuppression of pests and pathogens

bulletImprovement of plant stress

bulletDecomposition that leads to soil aggregation

Soil microorganisms are also necessary to hold onto the nutrients that help to grow plants.

Always follow the instruction when it comes to how much of a particular pesticide to use.

You won’t typically make a pesticide more effective through overuse.

You’re more likely to make your land less effective at growing.

5. Air contamination

When you think of pesticide contamination in the environment, you may think of where the pesticides are being applied: the soil.

However, pesticides also emit pollutants into the air.

These are hazardous air pollutants (HAP) and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

If you live in a neighborhood or community that uses pesticides, then you can be affected by the pollution.

Here are the symptoms and medical outcomes that you’re most likely to see from air contamination:

bulletNose, eye, and throat irritation

bulletDamage to the central nervous system, liver, kidneys, endocrine system, and central nervous system

bulletHeadache

bulletDizziness

bulletMuscular weakness

bulletNausea

bulletIncreased risk of cancer

bulletAllergic skin reaction

bulletDifficulty breathing

bulletThe decline in serum cholinesterase levels

bulletVomiting

You must always be careful when using pesticides around your home.

When pesticides are sprayed from a can, the droplets can settle onto surfaces like rugs, furniture, and counters.

These droplets will build up and cause harm to humans and pets if they encounter them in some way.

You’re likely to see the above symptoms if you ingest, inhale, or touch the residue in some way.

6. Non-target vegetation

Pesticides are intended to protect plants in many cases.

They are supposed to control various pests and disease carriers so that plants can grow without interference.

These pests could be everything from weeds and insects to mosquitos and ticks to rats and mice.

Yet, because they’re so strong, they can also be toxic to non-target plants that are nearby, either the plant they are intended to protect (often in agriculture) or plants that are entirely unaffiliated with the process.

For example, pesticides can change crop physiology.

What does that look like?

bulletAffected development of reproductive organs

bulletGrowth reduction

bulletAlteration of the carbon and/or nitrogen metabolism

bulletLower nutrient availability for plant growth

bulletDelays in flowering times

bulletReduction in flower production

7. Non-target animals

Pesticides are regularly found on non-target organisms in urban landscapes.

These non-target animals are generally regarded as soil microorganisms, insects, fish, birds, and other wildlife in an ecosystem.

While they may not get there intentionally, once there, they harm plants and animals present where the pesticide is used.

For example, chlorpyrifos is an insecticide, acaricide, and miticide that’s used to control foliage and soil-borne pests.

It’s also commonly seen in urban streams, and it often kills fish and aquatic organisms.

Likewise, herbicides, such as trifluralin, can be toxic to fish as well.

Aside from aquatic animals, non-target birds can also be killed if they accidentally ingest poisoned grains.

These grains are sometimes set out as bait for pigeons and rodents (pests).

Regardless of the non-target organisms that are affected, pesticides have a drastic impact on ecosystems in this event.

They are killing off animals unintentionally in large numbers, and in many cases, it can be difficult to counteract the result of the pesticide quickly.

Because pesticides remain in the soil or water for long periods (even years) after they are used, they will continue to create these outcomes.

So, it’s important for people using pesticides to be vigilant about their use.

8. Bees

Although bees are technically a non-target organism, they deserve their own section entirely because of how pesticides affect them.

Additionally, because bees are so critical to our ecosystems, the negative effects even more of a problem.

Studies have shown that honey and solitary bees are impacted twice by pesticides — first as larvae and then as adults.

For instance, take the worst type of pesticide that can be used around bee populations: neonicotinoids.

These are either coated on seeds or sprayed on the soil before they permeate the tissues of plants and show up in pollen and nectar.

This category of pesticide has several impacts:

bulletImpacts learning and memory

bulletChemically impairs reproduction (Ex: reduces the viability of sperm which leads to fewer offspring)

After conducting studies, bee ecologists believe that pesticides can at least partially explain the decline of bees worldwide.

Over two generations, the damage to bee fertility is evident.

Compared to bees never exposed to pesticides, those who have been produce about 44 percent fewer offspring.

This drastic reduction in fertility is a significant issue that must be remedied.

Overall, bees support the growth of trees, flowers, and other plants.

They help keep ecosystems running by ensuring that food and shelter can be created by and for other animals.

They are part of complex and interconnected ecosystems, and without them, nearly every other aspect is negatively impacted.

9. How to Reduce the Environmental Impacts of Pesticides

Pesticides are useful in controlling pests like insects, rodents, weeds, molds, and germs.

If you own land, you may be looking to use pesticides for agricultural purposes or even in a home garden.

However, even when used for innocent purposes, pesticides can have drastic and negative effects on the environment.

What’s more, pesticides only serve their intended purpose in the short term.

Their drawbacks stick around for years and years. 

Here are some ways that you can reduce the negative impact of pesticides.

bulletIdentify the pest so you can understand the right method and products to use – or never use pesticides

bulletUse non-chemical management methods on your lawn and garden

    1. Introduce beneficial insects and wild, native plants
    2. Use physical methods including hand weeding, mulching, or setting traps
    3. Reduce chemical use outdoors

bulletUtilize mechanical traps such as snaps traps and sticky traps as well as flyswatters inside

bulletEmploy a vacuum during a flea infestation and dispose of vacuum contents in an indoor trash can immediately

    1. Be sure to wash all pet bedding using hot water if you have fleas

bulletChoose only the best pesticide products (if you must use a pesticide) for your specific infestation

bulletAvoid using broadcast or total-release aerosol applications indoors when possible

bulletAlways review the directions before using a product

bulletDo not use more products than directed

bulletTake plants outside when applying pesticides (even if it’s an indoor plant)

bulletApply pesticides outdoors when there’s no wind or at most a light breeze

    1. The best weather for application is a cool temperature with minimal windows. Think early morning or evening as this will reduce the travel of pesticides to nearby areas where they are not needed

bulletSelect a pest control company carefully

Final Thoughts

When it comes to agriculture, pesticides are necessary for the end result, but their impacts are far-reaching.

In fact, some studies have stated that as little as 0.1 percent of an applied pesticide interacts with its targeted weed or pest.

The other 99.9 percent contaminates the soil, air, and water, which has a significant impact throughout a given ecosystem.

There you have it!

The numerous ways pesticides affect the environment as well as how you can mitigate this impact.

This is an important factor to think about as you treat your land for agriculture or other uses.

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

Erika

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