Those Old, Reliable Farm Poisons – Anyone Still Driving an Edsel?

I’m sure there are offices where people are talking around the water cooler about the latest American Idol or what Snookie is wearing, but not at CEH. Here we tend towards more nerdy topics, like pesticides and health. In one such conversation just a couple of weeks ago, my colleague Caroline Cox, who has worked to eliminate health risks from harmful pesticides for more than 20 years, pointed out the chemical industry’s continued reliance on tired, old pesticides. “What other industry,” she said, “Could get away with selling products using technology that hasn’t been updated in decades?”

So I was not too surprised to read this recent article boasting about some “classic” farm poisons developed long ago but still in wide use. More surprising was today’s NPR report describing how genetically modified (GMO) crops have resulted in widespread superweeds, creating a treadmill that keeps farmers dependent on GMOs and pesticides and forcing a return to older chemicals (see our 2010 piece on the subject from last year).  In the lengthy piece, NPR failed to mention any of the health or environmental risks associated with these outdated but resurgent pesticides. Even worse, the national radio spot completely ignored the potential for organic alternatives that avoid the pesticide/GMO treadmill and can produce crops without any deadly chemicals.

These media failures made me wonder how we would view other industries if they were still pushing products they introduced for my grandparents’ generation. For example, the 2nd-most widely used herbicide in the U.S. today is the farm poison atrazine, which was first introduced in 1958. Of course, atrazine is a possible hormone disruptor and reproductive toxin that’s been linked to an elevated risk of breast and prostate cancer. But 1958 was a great year – if I was driving the car of 1958 I’d be taking the kids to school in a Ford Edsel. Sure it has no seatbelts (air bags, what are air bags?), gets about 13 mpg, and smogs up the air like no one’s business. But man look at those wings!

Below, some other “classic” pesticides, along with technologies from the same era that only the chemical industry could still love.


Monsanto introduces glyphosate, which today is used widely on the company’s genetically modified (GMO) crops and rivals atrazine for the most widely sprayed farm plant poison. Animal studies have linked exposureto sperm damage and other reproductive problems. Also, glyphosate has caused genetic damage in both human and animal cells. HP introduces the “Kitty Hawk” programmable calculator, with large keys (wouldn’t want anything small!) and a bright LED display.



The herbicide 2,4-D, later used in making Agent Orange, is first marketed. A suspected hormone disruptor and mutagen, 2,4-D has also caused birth defects, fertility problems, and sperm damagein animal tests. Think your smart phone is pretty snazzy? Folks in 1946 were making the first mobile phone calls. Sure the equipment weighed 80 pounds and only three people in any one city could be on the line at once – but with no national TV, you never had to see those annoying  “Are you there?” commercials.



Alachlor introduced. Another bad actor chemical, it is a known carcinogen, reproductive toxin, and ground water contaminant. Fans of the Madden NFL video game have nothing on the gamers of 1969. Electronic football (a metal tray that jiggled uncontrollably when switched on) brought minutes of fun to thousands of kids — fun until the kids realized that the tedious gathering of players from the floor and setting them up after each weird, unpredictable and anticlimactic play just wasn’t worth it.  


Pendimethalin, now marketed as Prowl, is listed by the EPA as a possible carcinogen, and is also a suspected endocrine disruptor. Schwinn releases its latest Stingray bicycle, the “Apple Crate,” with a 5-speed “suicide” shifter stick shift (sadly, those joy-killers at the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of stick shifts on children’s bikes later that year, for fear kids might suffer life altering groin injuries).  


Metolachlor was first synthesized in ’72, and is now sold as Dual herbicide.  A bad actor that causes birth defects and genetic damagein laboratory tests. Who didn’t love Pong? Atari’s arcade version was an early eye-blurring classic.  


Dicamba introduced. Despite the risks of reproductive harm and possible ground water contamination, industry plans to soon market GMO crops that tolerate high levels of spraying with this old farm poison. Today’s teen may be into hip hop, but it’s hard to believe that the 1967 dance craze “The Tantrum”didn’t last.