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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Pesticides are a problem.

In August, the Environmental Working Group—a nonprofit “dedicated to protecting human health and the environment”—announced the results of a study it commissioned to test foods made with oats. The group found glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer, in nearly all of them. 

Pesticides are a problem when it comes to marijuana, too.

It’s complicated: Pesticides and herbicides are regulated by the federal government. However, the federal government continues to enforce cannabis prohibition. Therefore, there are currently no pesticides and herbicides approved for use on cannabis plants.

To make things even more complicated, marijuana can be used in so many different ways—smoked, eaten, vaporized, as a salve, etc.—and there is no consensus among scientists regarding safe levels of pesticides with cannabis. A chemical might be safe to consume on food—but highly toxic when exposed to the high heat of smoking or vaping. For example, Eagle 20EW, a common fungicide used on grapes and hops, is not approved for use on tobacco. Of course, this problem goes the other way, too; there is little to no research on what may or may not be safe to be used on cannabis that is eaten as opposed to smoked.

Here in the Coachella Valley, we are seeing the creation of massive indoor grow operations. The Cathedral City Sunniva space under construction, along Ramon Road, is going to be about the size of seven or eight football fields, capable of producing almost 10,000 pounds of cannabis per month. It’s likely that operators of such huge operations will need to turn to industrial-strength chemicals to keep away the molds and mites that can easily destroy a cannabis crop—while adhering to California’s strict regulatory climate.

Let’s face it: Almost all of us already consume pesticide-laden foods every day. Unless you are very committed to “clean eating,” you are already devouring a level of pesticides that the government has deemed safe; as that Environmental Working Group study proves, those oat-based breakfast O’s that you and perhaps your kids have been eating have had cancer causing-herbicides in them for longer than we would like to admit … and we all seem fine with this. Again, the problem lies in the vacuum of research that America’s ill-conceived cannabis prohibition created.

However, now we are finally starting to get some data. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control recently revealed that chemicals and molds are indeed finding their way into the cannabis market: Nearly 20 percent of samples in California showed unacceptable levels of pesticides, mold and bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella, since mandatory testing began on July 1. Studies in Oregon and Colorado have found similar problems. Of course, this is not simply a post-prohibition problem; illegal and medical marijuana has had these same issues for years. However, with full state legality came regulation and testing, which has drawn back the curtain on the extent of the problem.

What does this all mean for consumers? It’s extremely complicated. On one hand, the testing and the removal of tainted products from shelves is driving prices higher—and dispensary prices are already much higher than the costs on the illegal market. On the other hand, we can go to sleep at night knowing the products we are consuming are much safer than they were in the days of complete prohibition; we can now make informed decisions about what we put in our bodies.

The real losers in all of this are low-income medical-marijuana patients. Some of them are returning to the illegal market for economic reasons—meaning the chances they are consuming tainted product is extremely high. Immunocompromised or other sick individuals who are using cannabis as medication need to be very cautious. The irony is that they may be ingesting cancer-causing chemicals while trying to treat the symptoms of cancer.

It is not just pesticides; mold allergies can be deadly. A friend of mine who cannot even eat blue cheese, much to his chagrin, has been advised to avoid cannabis edibles until we know the real extent of mold contamination throughout the industry.

The good news is the Food and Drug Administration may be finally starting to acknowledge that people are legitimately using cannabis. As more states end prohibition—and there is a strong likelihood that at least seven more states will either move to full legalization or decriminalize medical use in the coming year—better science will come to light. We are already seeing substantial growth in the cannabis-testing industry, which should lead to testing becoming less expensive for growers and producers alike. Hopefully as costs go down, the savings will be passed on to the consumer.

Overall, more testing and more information are good things. Whether a person is using cannabis as medicine or as a recreational drug, nobody should have to guess whether or not the product being consumed is laden with toxins.

Published in Cannabis in the CV

Amphibians are vanishing at an alarming rate—even from areas we think of as pristine and protected. California’s Sierra Nevada range is a prime example of this global problem: Five out of seven amphibian species there are threatened. Researchers are still trying to pinpoint exactly why ponds that once held mountain yellow-legged frogs or California red-legged frogs are now devoid of amphibians.

In a new study, a U.S. Geological Survey group focusing on how pesticides affect amphibians tested common Pacific chorus frogs and their habitats, including Yosemite National Park and Giant Sequoia National Monument, for around 100 agricultural chemicals. Even though researchers have looked at pesticides in Sierra Nevada amphibians for years, the new study’s most commonly detected chemicals—two fungicides and one herbicide—have never been found in amphibians until now.

“As pesticide use changes, our studies have to evolve as well,” says Kelly Smalling, a USGS hydrology and chemistry researcher, and the lead author on the study. As new pesticides are approved, it's difficult to keep pace with where they end up in the environment, so the USGS group tested for a large batch of them in seven remote locations. “That’s how we stumbled across the fungicides.”

In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the two fungicides found in the new study, pyraclostrobin and tebuconazole, to combat a new soybean rust—the spores of which may have landed in the U.S. from South America during the 2004 hurricane season.

Pesticides, and diseases like the chytrid fungus, plus habitat loss and climate change, are among the possible reasons amphibians are blinking out in pristine areas. Earlier studies established that pesticides get into Sierra Nevada snow, water and sediments by wafting from the Central Valley, one of the nation’s most intensive agricultural regions. Frogs downwind of the valley are declining more rapidly than coastal or northern frogs.

Researchers also found in previous studies that pesticides commonly applied in the Central Valley—chlorpyrifos,and DDT-like endosulfan (which is being phased out)—showed upin declining populations of Sierra Nevada Pacific chorus frogs, and also in imperiled yellow-legged frogs. Smalling’s study only looked at Pacific chorus frogs, because they are not threatened, and so the population wouldn’t be harmed by a few sampling causalities. Yet the work still may point the way to research that could help narrow down what’s harming more rapidly declining species like yellow-legged frogs.

The next step, according to Smalling, is figuring out how the fungicides could affect, or kill, amphibians. That means a lot of difficult laboratory work, partly because every frog species may respond to pesticides differently.

As for how pathogens like the chytrid fungus might be interacting with pesticides to kill frogs, that remains a mystery.

“I think it’s quite likely that there is an interaction between pesticides and other stressors,” says Gary Fellers, a wildlife biologist on the study who has worked on amphibian declines since the ’90s.

Fellers, who recently retired from the USGS, grew up backpacking in Yosemite, where he still does field work. “I know of frog populations that are entirely gone now,” he says. “I’m incredibly anxious to find what’s causing these declines before we lose entire species.”

Sarah Jane Keller is the editorial fellow at High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment