The team of researchers from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences analyzed how pesticides degrade when exposed to light to create data that trains their new framework program to screen for unsafe characteristics in pesticides that need alteration. The researchers created a model framework blueprint that chemical manufacturers can use to design pesticides with characteristics that will better control degradation.
The study noted the failure to control the degradation of pesticides can have “devastating consequences” for humans and the environment.
More than 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides are used around the world annually, which accidentally poisons about 25 million agricultural workers each year. The United States drops more than one billion pounds of pesticides per year, the second most in the world behind China.
Jakub Kostal – the principal investigator that oversees the study, the co-director of the environmental and green chemistry master’s program and an assistant professor of chemistry – said the program offers a way for chemists to take charge of developing pesticides with safe chemicals. He said the typical process in which toxicologists determine the safety of a pesticide happens after the pesticide is fully developed and commercialized, the program offers a way for chemists to “get ahead” of releasing potentially dangerous chemicals.
Unintended exposure to pesticides can occur through contaminated drinking water, most commonly found in groundwater, spray drift, workers in the pesticide industry and exterminators of house pests.
“We want pesticides to not persist in the environment,” Kostal said. “We want them to be effective, but then to degrade into something benign.”
He said the team of researchers included both undergraduate and graduate students who performed most of the computational research under his direction. Kostal said the students used predictive modeling – a statistical technique to predict future behavior – to characterize aspects of the pesticide like degradation, toxicity and performance that notify chemists about what molecules need to be added or removed to make the chemicals safer to humans and the environment .
He said the study provides a blueprint that applies to other sectors like cosmetics and cleaners. Kostal said regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency can use the screening method to suggest safety changes for certain chemicals.
“What we’re after is not finding out that pesticides might be toxic or that some of them are not degradable but figuring out what changes we could make to these structures, these molecules to change their properties,” Kostal said.
Kostal said the study aims to advocate for designing chemicals not based on the economics and performance of a pesticide but also its environmental safety, toxicity and persistence. He said GW is constrained to using the market’s available pesticides, and the study provides the tools for manufacturers to create safer chemicals.
“GW has some sustainable initiatives, but they need to put way more weight behind some of these initiatives,” Kostal said. “It’s kind of having a vision of what’s going to be needed in the marketplace, years from now, not what maybe the market demands right now.”