County should push ahead with health study

As the debate about the effects of pesticide spraying on Kauai continues to fester, Kauai County should be poised to take the next logical step — what, arguably, should have been the very first step—to bring closure to his ugly period in our island’s history.

The divide has been driven by a sophisticated propaganda campaign advanced by the extreme fringe of a political movement to ban GMOs, with arguments built on emotion and largely half-baked science.

There have been countless hours of testimony before the County Council by medical professionals, or paraprofessionals like chiropractors and naturopaths, along the same lines. The testimony has been so raw and reflected such obviously sincerely held concerns that it was, rightfully, impossible to ignore.

It is also clear that much of the testimony, while it reflected what those people honesty believed to be true, was more about anecdote, hearsay or speculation than it was about objective medical science. The recent disclosures that two of the key authorities cited by GMO opponents now say they disagree with blanket assertions made by that side offer key evidence that the anti-GMO juggernaut has foundations of sand.

The county always has had — and still does have — the power to make an unbiased inquiry into what, if any, effects GMO crops and pesticides have had. Although a federal judge struck down Ordinance 960, which placed restrictions on pesticide use and reporting, there appears to be growing consensus within county government that the court’s ruling does not prevent Kauai County from moving ahead with an Environmental and Public Health Research Study (EPHIS) by enacting a limited new ordinance now that would provide for the research to occur. This study was one of the largely overlooked provisions of Ordinance 960. There is no legal reason it can’t be resuscitated as a stand-alone project.

It is critically necessary because many witnesses who testified last year could see no explanation for their complaints other than pesticide exposure and so drew the inviolate conclusion that four seed companies and Kauai Coffee must have been responsible. In so doing, they confused correlation with causation. Kauai is a very small place where drawing statistically reliable conclusions about rates of disease is complicated by the small numbers we can use for comparison here.

Similarly, health workers presented views of the causes of the symptoms they saw—or thought they saw—with equal conviction, and pronounced them pesticide-induced. Yet virtually none of those health care witnesses was trained or experienced in epidemiology or public health research.

So the County Council at once had a lot of information from the testimony, but at the same time it had no information from that same testimony. It had propaganda from the extremes of the GMO/GE agriculture debate, but little solid information. It had many witnesses whose clearly sincere accounts had been gleefully used for political purposes but never subjected to the kinds of scrutiny that could tell those families whatever actually happened and what had caused what — no matter how obvious they may have thought those explanations were.

It is this problem that the two-stage EPHIS process could resolve. First, it would establish a community group assisted by a trained facilitator to try to overcome the tragic divisions that have opened up among Kauai residents. This group would draw up the specifications for a larger study to be done by professional epidemiologists.

Such a study is what has been needed from the very start. It’s even more critical now because its objective results would trump the politics. The County Council’s understandable bowing to political pressure when approving an appeal (when it was ostensibly offered almost free of charge by the law firm defending the county) of the court decision that struck down Ordinance 960 changes nothing about the imperatives of getting at the truth. The appeal is likely to tie this matter up in court indefinitely. The County Council has the authority to move ahead with an objective epidemiology investigation. It should use that authority and get this study under way immediately.

We have arrived at a moment where this conversation is more possible to have than it has been on Kauai since the relentless fear-driven brainwashing campaign of the anti-GMO fringe began. We should seize the moment—whether you call it EPHIS or something else. Beyond that, we need a process of reconciliation in which all perspectives on this issue can meet and discuss the situation.

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Allan Parachini is a resident of Kilauea.

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