Organic foods healthier? -- First, Let's Cut the Bullshit Over Chemicals.
"And we all know that chemicals, in this case mainly pesticides, are bad for you."
Are they? What an almighty sweeping statement (but so typical and commonplace today). So let's spent a moment analysing its implications.
If all those years studying chemistry taught me anything, it is that you cannot generalise in this way about chemicals. So what does it mean to say 'pesticides are bad for you'?
For starters, in the philosophical sense, 'bad' is an unqualified simple notion in that it has no extent or measure. Thus grouping all pesticides under 'bad' is both foolish and confusing. It (a) further condemns all pesticides into a single 'bad' basket in the minds of the lay public, and, (b) grouping all pesticides into one classification is potentially dangerous. For instance, if all pesticides are classified as equally 'bad' then we're saying (or at least implying) that:
Pyrethrum – (very mildly hazardous, mainly just irritating to humans),
Malathion – (moderately hazardous to humans), and,
Dichlorvos – (highly hazardous to all animal life)
are essentially one and the same and should dealt with together (thus obviously stupid). And it only reinforces the public's misconception that all chemicals are 'sort of equally' dangerous—some muddleheaded idea that's entered the public consciousness only in recent¹ years.
We must always determine* what chemical pesticides are being used (hence know their properties); know when they were applied to crops and in what concentrations, and know the safety criteria such as the minimum duration from the last application/spraying to the harvesting and eating to ensure pesticide residues are within safe/acceptable limits. Other issues also arise, such as when multiple pesticides are used together, as there are potential dangers which might arise from synergistic effects. Moreover, if synergistic effects did occur and were found to be harmless to healthy humans, then is may not be the case for vulnerable humans who are already suffering from other conditions.
* This rule applies for any event involving chemistry/chemicals. One often watches TV reports of almost comical responses to chemical events/spillages etc. as it's very clear those responding have little knowledge of chemistry. To be fair, I know they're having to apply HAZMAT/Hazchem rules, but even so it's often clear from what is said that their practical chemistry knowledge is wanting. Perhaps if the public was more knowledgeable in such matters then the HAZMAT/Hazchem rules might be more flexible.
Beware the prophets of doom.
Concentration² is just about everything in chemistry but alarmists regularly make more of a chemical's actual presence than they do about its concentration. Just because you can detect a dangerous chemical doesn't mean that it will harm you if concentrations are low enough. Other issues are also important such as is the chemical processed easily by the liver etc., or is it cumulative, a la Hg, and heavy metals etc?
Unfortunately, the ready availability of very sensitive mass spectrometers etc. in recent years has often meant that the matter of concentration seems to have been lost in the 'look what we found' hype. Detecting a molecule serves no useful purpose unless the effects (and relevance) of its concentration are also known (or its value put into perspective, which is often not the case).
For example, detecting a few molecules of dioxin downwind of one's campfire hardly constitutes a pollution crisis, despite dioxin's toxicity. Just because campfires produce tiny traces of dioxin doesn’t mean we should ban them. It's clear that there's often much hype and abuse associated with these chemical/pollution statistics and that this has further led to the common notion in the public's mind that most chemicals are 'bad' (and very frightening).
Applying science and objective logic.
At the extremes of argument, nothing seems simple, as issues become clouded through emotion. Unfortunately, this is how the 'Organic Brigade' and Greenies regularly run anti-chemical debates, which often degenerate into emotional slanging matches without much substance.
Looking at the scientific and technical data makes considerably more sense. Still, one must be wary of 'facts' claimed in the name of science. Especially if the scientific evidence comes from the likes of multinational chemical companies such as Monsanto. Thus, when analysing evidentiary data/information, it is (a) important to know both its provenance and the authority under which it was produced, and (b) use other sources to corroborate such information.
Applying these principles to a practical case.
The problem in the public discourse today is that so much reporting is given to inaccuracy and exaggeration to the extent that the public doesn't know what to believe. Moreover, nothing is worse than the fear that's been developed in the public's mind over chemicals (clearly, school chemistry has monumentally failed to educate the public about chemicals).
Here's an example of such a statement and how I would go about verifying it (without getting bogged down in too many technicalities):
"If the organophosphate pesticide Malathion is applied sufficiently early in the crop cycle to ensure the recommended minimum time must pass before the food is consumed, then it has been shown to be essentially benign to humans. That is, if Malathion is applied to food crops then a recommended minimum washout period must be observed before the food is deemed safe and fit to eat."
The case against this statement (as taken from the public discourse):
* Those opposed to the use of Malathion cite that it causes everything imaginable including--of course--cancer (an always obligatory inclusion).
* Evidence of these effects is usually anecdotal and there is no shortage of them (and they are often not stated in detail, nor peer reviewed). (However, often they are exaggerations and inferences projected from actual instances of excessive overexposure to Malathion (those mixing and spraying it).)
* Most of those stating the case against Malathion are not qualified to so do but blatantly so do.
* The organisations behind those making claims against Malathion usually have political agendas that would dovetail neatly with a ban being placed on the product. (The philosophy being that most chemicals are as dangerous and thus ought to be banned.)
The case for the statement:
* A search shows that this statement reflects the current view of most regulatory authorities today over many (but not all) jurisdictions.
* This view of safety hasn't changed significantly in over 50 years (Malathion having come to market in the mid 1950s). There has been no appreciable changes to safety since then.
* CAS (Chemical Abstract Service) data essentially confirms what regulators say.
* For decades, there have been claims that Malathion causes cancer. Despite more than 50 years having passed together with much research, there is still no actual evidence let alone conclusive proof that it does cause cancer.
* Whenever Malathion has been applied to crops according to rules, no cases of people being harmed has been reported.
* Whilst Malathion is both an organophosphate and dangerous, it has only shown to be so under conditions and in concentrations that would not be found in normal use.
* Personal (anecdotal) experience. Malathion has been around a very long time. As a kid in the 1960s, I had the job of spraying fruit trees with Malathion to protect against codling moth and fruit fly and we suffered no obvious ill back effects then.
Thus, on a reasonable analysis and assessment of the evidence before me, I would have to conclude that Malathion when applied according to rule is essentially safe to use.
Whether Malathion when used under the recommended conditions, is completely and totally harmless is another matter. But given the evidence and circumstances, the issue is hardly relevant.
¹ In many ways, our grandparents had a better practical working understanding of chemistry than do people of today. For instance, my grandmother knew that cloudy ammonia was alkaline, thus highly useful for taking the scum off the bath, cleaning very dirty paintwork etc. whereas those properties were ill suited to cleaning the toilet and that for this sodium hypochlorite was superior. She made soap from scratch—lye (NaOH) was everywhere in large tins around the laundry. Reagents, cleaning agents and various other chemicals used for various purposes were commonplace, these included HCL, Oxalic Acid, Sodium Carbonate, Mag Sulphate/Epsom Salts and others including thallium and phosphorous which were used as rodenticides. Neither my grandparents or parents were the slightest bit scared of chemicals but they respected them. For instance, the thallium, phosphorous and oxalic acid were locked in a special cupboard and marked 'poison'.
My-my, how the world has dumbed-down.
² To the pernickety, don't question my over-simplification, you know what I mean.