Are pesticides evil, or awesome?

Are pesticides helpful things that allow us to produce more food, and keep us safe from deadly diseases? Or are they dangerous things that kill animals and could possibly be hurting us in ways we haven't even totally figured out just yet?

Actually, they're both.

This week, scientists released a research paper looking at the health benefits (or lack thereof) of organic food—a category which largely exists as a response to pesticide use in agriculture. Meanwhile, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which forced Americans to really think about the health impacts of pesticides for the first time, was published 50 years ago this month.

The juxtaposition really drove home a key point: We're still trying to figure out how to balance benefits and risks when it comes to technology. That's because there's no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. Should we use pesticides, or should we not use them? The data we look at is objective but the answer is, frankly, subjective. It also depends on a wide variety of factors: what specific pesticide are we talking about; where is it being used and how is it being applied; what have we done to educate the people who are applying it in proper, safe usage. It's complicated. And it's not just about how well the tools work. It's also about how we used them.

“It is not my contention,” Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.

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Going Under: What we don't know about anesthetics

The majority of people reading this sentence will, at some point in their lives, undergo a medical treatment that requires general anesthesia. Doctors will inject them with a drug, or have them breathe it in. For several hours, they will be unconscious. And almost all of them will wake up happy and healthy.

We know that the general anesthetics we use today are safe. But we know that because they've proven themselves to be safe, not because we understand the mechanisms behind how they work. The truth is, at that level, anesthetics are a big, fat question mark. And that leaves room for a lot of unknowns. What if, in the long term, our anesthetics aren't as safe for everyone as we think they are?

The only way to know for sure is to figure why anesthetics cause unconsciousness, and how one drug differs from another. Roderic G. Eckenhoff, MD, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. He's one of the people trying to figure out what general anesthetics really do inside the human body, and how we can use that information to discover even safer drugs than the ones we already rely on today. How does he study that? By drugging tadpoles.

This week, Chemical and Engineering News published a profile of Eckenhoff and his work, written by journalist Carmen Drahl. That piece inspired me to call up Eckenhoff and find out more about what we think we know about anesthetics, why it's taking medical scientists so long to understand such a commonly used class of drugs, and why tadpoles make an ideal model animal. Read the rest