Why the facts make our ‘right to know’ more important than ever

In recent months there has been much scientific attention on the dangers of Dow’s pesticide chlorpyrifos, which interferes with brain development and the nervous system of children and fetuses especially (see CHAMACOS and Columbia University studies). Chlorpyrifos is also acutely toxic, causing muscle spasms, dizziness, vomiting, seizures, paralysis and death. Due to its well-documented and severe risks, in 2000, the EPA banned the use of chlorpyrifos in homes, schools and parks.

However, the EPA still allows its use in agriculture — adjacent to homes, schools and parks — for which it is being sued for its “failure to address serious health impacts” to children, farmworkers and bystanders.

On Kauai, chlorpyrifos is sprayed by the chemical and seed companies at a pounds-per-acre rate that is estimated to be 10 times the national average. Chlorpyrifos is particularly prone to drift, especially at warm temperatures, and can continue to linger in the air many days after it has been sprayed.

Dow has sued Kauai in order to keep information about their pesticide use hidden. After more than 10 years of persistent community members’ efforts, Dow and the chemical and seed industry are now releasing monthly summaries of the amounts of restricted use pesticides they apply.

Based on data from this voluntary “Good Neighbor Program,” a report in May estimated that compared with other states, Kauai ranks highest in the nation for per-acre usage of chlorpyrifos and permethrin, second for methomyl, fifth for metolachlor, sixth for alachlor, ninth for paraquat and 23rd for atrazine.

These calculations are not as precise as they could be because the industry has refused to give us precise data.

The estimates are calculated as if the total pesticides used are spread across all leased acres —thus, it is probable that intensity of usage per acre is actually much higher, given that chemical companies do not cultivate all of the land they lease. The industry responded to the report with allegations against its author and methodology, but supplied no data to the contrary.

Regardless of whether Kauai ranks slightly lower or higher in these estimate comparisons — facts we don’t have — the facts we do have show that very large amounts of some of the most dangerous pesticides in use today are being sprayed by the chemical and seed companies. This only further reinforces the urgency of full pesticide disclosure of the extent that would have been required by Ordinance 960.

The industry has disingenuously suggested that full mandatory disclosure and voluntary monthly summaries are synonymous. The tactic of using voluntary action to derail government regulation is a nearly 100-year strategy of the chemical industry (for well-researched histories, reference “Pesticides and Politics” by Bosso, and “The Polluters” by Ross and Amter). The industry remains adamantly opposed to, and sued our county over, the detailed, mandatory disclosure that could hold them responsible for harm.

With the voluntary Good Neighbor Program, people living adjacent to Syngenta fields can now look online to find out that over the past eight months that company alone used nearly 800 pounds of active ingredient chlorpyrifos — an astounding volume given its known dangers and tendency to drift. But residents don’t know when that chlorpyrifos was sprayed, how close to their homes, how hard the trade winds were blowing at that time, what else it was mixed with and what it might be doing in its synergistic effects with other pesticides.

In addition to the practicalities of closing windows and taking basic measures to avoid exposure, more specific and complete information is needed to adequately study short and long-term impacts on people’s health and the environment, and for doctors to properly diagnose and treat those who have been exposed.

Many in our local medical community have raised strong concerns about the intensity of pesticide use and observations of health problems that may be related. In one example, five medical doctors on the Westside (whose names I will leave anonymous, but are in the public record) submitted testimony stating:

“Some of our individual and collective concerns: We have observed a higher than normal occurrence of birth defects and miscarriages. High rates of very severe gout in healthy populations. Rare types of cancers in a higher than expected incidence for our small population of patients. Almost daily reports of respiratory symptoms in patients that have no history of these respiratory illnesses. Many of these respiratory symptoms are not responding to the pharmacological interventions typically prescribed. Hormonal changes including excessive facial and body hair on women and higher levels of infertility. Reoccurring nose bleeds in children. Reports of a ‘metallic taste’ in their mouths and recurring dermatitis.”

While fear is never a good basis for politics, accusations of “fear-mongering” are serving to marginalize very real concerns and shield an industry that does not have the health and well-being of our community as a priority. A lot of misinformation has circulated around this issue, much of it intentionally manipulated by the industry, and some of it genuinely confused by well-meaning people trying to make sense of a scientifically, politically, legally and socially complex situation.

We do not know the extent of current harm, and no single correct answer exists to the question of “what should be done?” But clearly the intensity of pesticide use demands more information, independent study, and greater regulatory protections including mandatory buffer zones.

Things don’t just change for the better in this world because they should — they change because people collectively stand together and demand it. Until families living near fields get some relief and the information they deserve, none of us are absolved from our responsibility to keep working for justice.

A fully referenced version of this article can be obtained from its author.

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Andrea Brower is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Auckland and resident of Kauai.

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