Destigmatizing the Word “Pesticide”

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Katoria Gibbs, an agricultural research chemist who works on evaluating and approving pesticides for human consumption. During the interview, I had the opportunity to ask her about some of the most pertinent issues in her field. Her answer was the necessity to destigmatize the word “pesticide.” Most people associate pesticides with a negative connotation and one of the largest parts of her job is trying to break that association. Beyond just consumers, she also faces the task of convincing authorities in political positions to consider the science rather than the perception of the science. A common phrase used in toxicology is “the dose makes the poison,” so much of Dr. Gibbs’ job is investigating at what quantity do the pesticides she works with become poisonous. It is in this process that she is able to assign a level of risk associated with the pesticide. When she then presents these findings to consumers or authorities and speaks on the level of risk, they often automatically think “if it has a risk, it is unsafe,” rather than truly listening to science. Everything has risk, even water in high amounts can be poisonous. When she addressed this issue, it made me think of safe ways of combatting this problem. I think one of the easiest ways is to come up with marketing terminology that is used for sales and reserve scientific terminology for scientists. Instead of referring to a chemical as a pesticide, rename it before moving forward in the process. Instead of referring to a pesticide’s “level of risk,” use a percentage to represent the likelihood of harm or a color system to make things more approachable. Another thought I had was possibly making informational commercials for the company to reach the general public and change attitudes about pesticides. Overall, when I began the interview this was not an issue I expected her to mention. Often, as someone who is in the sciences, I forget that scientific terminology can be intimidating to those who are not familiar with it. For example, some people still associate “chemical” with a bad connotation, but everything is made of chemicals. This aspect of the interview provided a lot of insight that will be beneficial in how I proceed with communicating the science I am working with.