Mitigating Agrochemical Impacts

W-2045 (2010 – 2015): This project has advanced our understanding of the fate and effects of agrochemicals and led to mitigation technologies that reduce the risks to human and environmental health.

Agrochemicals include pesticides and other chemicals used in crop and livestock production. W-2045 researchers have  studied how chemical residues that runoff into ground and surface waters may harm aquatic organisms. Photo by Lynn Betts, USDA-NRCS.

Agrochemicals include pesticides and other chemicals used in crop and livestock production. W-2045 researchers have studied how chemical residues that runoff into ground and surface waters may harm aquatic organisms. Photo by Lynn Betts, USDA-NRCS.

Who cares and why?

Agrochemicals (e.g., pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and disinfectants) are used to protect crops and livestock  from pests, diseases, and other stressors. As the human population continues to increase, these chemicals play  an important role in helping farmers meet demands for food production. Agrochemicals are also used on golf  courses, sports fields, parks, and residential lawns and may be used in homes as pest foggers and in pet flea  control products. In these ways, agrochemicals are public health tools, protecting people against diseases—like  West Nile virus—that are spread by pests. Despite many important uses, agrochemicals may pose significant  risks to environmental quality and human health if exposures are too high. Some agrochemicals or their  byproducts may linger in the air or soil and can pollute surface and ground water. Farm workers and their  families are most susceptible to chemical exposure on the farm. Neighboring rural and urban areas may be  exposed to chemicals that can travel long distances through the air, soil, or water. Agrochemical exposure may  lead to a variety of human health problems, and these chemicals can contaminate food, degrade habitat, and  negatively affect the health of many organisms. Therefore, mitigating unacceptable agrochemical exposure is a  high priority, especially in regions where sensitive human populations may be exposed and where species are  protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Dr. Sepulveda has worked closely with native communities in Hooper Bay, Alaska, teaching them how to examine fish health. Photo courtesy of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources and School of Civil Engineering, Purdue  University.

Dr. Sepulveda has worked closely with native communities in Hooper Bay, Alaska, teaching them how to examine fish health. Photo courtesy of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources and School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University.

What has the project done so far?

Since 1956, the W-2045 project has provided leadership in identifying where agrochemicals end up in urban and  rural ecosystems, what effects they can have, and what can be done to mitigate adverse impacts. By supporting  the work of researchers and Extension specialists whose expertise crosses disciplinary and state boundaries, this  project has been able to provide key information to public and environmental health regulatory agencies, natural resource managers, agricultural commodity groups, and agrochemical users across the nation. W-2045 researchers have not only shed light on land management practices that contribute to, and possibly accelerate, the movement of agrochemical residues, but have also helped develop effective mitigation practices and  technologies now commonly used in large scale agriculture. Models developed by W-2045 scientists to test the  impact of agrochemical exposures on aquatic organisms and migratory birds have been successfully applied to  the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Scientists who tested fish, crab, shrimp, and oyster samples found that the  chemical profiles of these organisms were similar to profiles prior to the oil spill and were not cause for concern.  Other researchers have provided new insights into human health and ecological risks from pesticides used to manage mosquito populations and the spread of West Nile virus. W-2045 scientists have also assisted with the registration of safer agrochemicals for the more than 300 specialty crops produced in the U.S. These research findings and recommendations have been shared in numerous journals, workshops, and trainings and have been  ited in popular textbooks.

W-2045 research and models have been used to assess how birds are impacted by exposure to oil spill chemicals. This  research helps ensure that the ecosystem will recover successfully. Photo by Petty Officer Caleb Critchfield, U.S. Coast  Guard.

W-2045 research and models have been used to assess how birds are impacted by exposure to oil spill chemicals. This research helps ensure that the ecosystem will recover successfully. Photo by Petty Officer Caleb Critchfield, U.S. Coast Guard.

Impact Statements

  • Reduced adverse environmental and human impacts of agrochemicals with ways to mitigate unacceptable  exposure.
  • Made it possible to detect and mitigate problems before injury occurs by designing systems that  accurately measure agrochemical exposure and effects.
  • Helped growers maintain crop yields and profits while  meeting environmental protection standards. This ensures consumers have a steady supply of high-quality food.
  • Promoted better public health by determining effective ways to apply insecticides that control diseases like West Nile virus.
  • Ensured effective recovery responses to incidents like oil spills. Informed regulations, including many tests required to register agrochemicals throughout the world.
  • Advanced research, education, and outreach in  the field of environmental toxicology.
Some agrochemicals are neurotoxins and may impair the navigation abilities of exposed birds. In one study, W-2045  researchers attached transmitters to pigeons that were exposed to methylmercury and recorded how long it took the birds to return. To determine if delays were due to navigation difficulties, researchers attached GPS dataloggers to the birds and  traced their flight paths. Photo by Chris Pritsos, University of Nevada, Reno.

Some agrochemicals are neurotoxins and may impair the navigation abilities of exposed birds. In one study, W-2045 researchers attached transmitters to pigeons that were exposed to methylmercury and recorded how long it took the birds to return. To determine if delays were due to navigation difficulties, researchers attached GPS dataloggers to the birds and traced their flight paths. Photo by Chris Pritsos, University of Nevada, Reno.

What research is needed?

Multidisciplinary research on all scales—from organisms to landscapes—is needed to better understand the fate  of agrochemicals and their effects on human and environmental health. Researchers also need to develop ways to  ontrol the movement of agrochemicals through ecosystems. Better options for integrated pest management  are also needed.

Want to know more?

Download the printable PDF!

Administrative Advisor: Ron Pardini

This project was supported, in part, through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture by the Multistate Research Fund (MRF) established in 1998 by the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act (an amendment to the Hatch Act of 1888) to encourage and enhance multistate, multidisciplinary research on critical issues that have a national or regional priority. Additional funds were provided by contracts and grants to participating scientists. For more information, visit http://www.waaesd.org/.