We all know the Kauai seed crop companies use pesticides.
What's far less clear is whether those pesticides are leaving their fields. We've heard claims that toxic chemicals are migrating into surface water during rain storms, and that spray drift and contaminated dust are blowing into homes, schools and hospitals.
Indeed, it's a favorite tactic of anti-GMO activists to don some sort of mask to underscore their belief that the air isn't fit to breathe. (Btw, I have no idea where how they came up with "196,000 pounds," or the concept of "GMO chemicals," but such hyperbole is in part what prompted me to visit the seed fields.)
It always seemed that it would be relatively easy to determine if pesticides were migrating off-site: Simply test the water, the air, the soil, dust in people's homes. County water officials regularly test drinking water sources, and have found no unsafe levels of pesticides — results borne out by federal and state atrazine studies that found "no exceedances of health-based or ecological regulatory standards” for atrazine.
The limited state studies done so far detected only negligible amounts of pesticides in agricultural areas on Kauai, though additional surface water testing was recommended, especially during storms. Ironically, urban Oahu had higher pesticide levels than any rural area in the state.
I know the anti-GMO Hawaii SEED failed to detect airborne pesticides during its own drift monitoring tests, and I haven't seen any water samples from Surfrider that show pesticide contamination. Nor do I recall attorneys presenting any evidence of pesticide contaminated dust in their lawsuit against Pioneer. And though an article by Paul Towers of the Pesticide Action Network claimed “Biotech Giant Found Guilty of Pesticide Contamination,” the verdict against Pioneer dealt strictly with the nuisance effects of dust, and not pesticides at all.
Yet still the fear persists, in part because people like Paul write things like this:
Why the lawsuit? Picture red (pesticide-contaminated) dust blanketing your house and yard, regularly blowing over from neighboring fields.
While the judge directed attorneys to focus only on impacts to physical property, it’s hard to ignore the health effects of pesticides drifting through the air or contained in dust blanketing homes. According to court documents, the pesticides sprayed by DuPont in Kauai have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, birth defects, disruption of the endocrine, immune and nervous systems, liver damage and more.
Yes, we all know pesticides can cause health problems. But first, there must be exposure, either acute or chronic. Is that actually happening?
When I toured the seed companies, I asked for a demonstration of the big Miller sprayer that is used to apply pesticides. I was surprised to discover they use the same machine to apply fertilizers, organic pesticides and even micronutrients. At Dow, at least half the spray time is devoted to the application of micronutrients, according to Peter Wiederoder, director of the Kauai facility.
I also learned that Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura had requested a demonstration of the spray rig, back when the Council was deliberating the pesticide/GMO regulatory Bill 2491, which was later overturned. She was the only member who wanted to see for herself how a spay rig works.
The label for each pesticide specifies a maximum wind speed for safe, effective application — typically 10-15 mph. Dow, however, has its own limit of 10 mph.
Though some residents have complained that the companies spray in the middle of the night to hide their operations, application times are determined by wind speed, rain, the type of pest that's being targeted and other factors, such as whether leaves drooping in the mid-day heat give insects a place to hide. The most favorable times are typically very early morning and late afternoon. Operators have the final say, and they can nix a planned application if conditions aren't right in the fields.
The spray rigs are super high-tech, and computerized to reduce human error. They're programmed to automatically calculate how much of the chemical is released, and they add the pesticide to the water in-line, right before it hits the spray nozzle. The machines can be put away with unused product, so the companies don't dump it just to get rid of it. And since pesticides can cost thousands of dollars per acre, they have a strong economic incentive not to waste.
The spray nozzles point downward, because they're designed to deliver the chemical directly onto the plant's leaves in order to kill the insects. The boom is positioned right above the plant.
On the day I visited, a brisk wind was blowing at least 20-25 mph. The Miller sprayer had been filled with water for the demonstration, and I stood close to the boom. Even at maximum intensity, in a strong wind, the fine mist drifted no more than 5 feet, and remained very low to the ground. It seemed impossible that drift could be blowing hundreds or thousands of feet into inhabited areas, even on a windy day. For significant drift to occur at all would require super strong winds coupled with wonton recklessness by an operator.
As I stood there, my feet drenched with water from the spray rig, I recalled the testimony of one of the spray operators during hearings on Bill 2491. I don't remember his name, or who he worked for, but he was a big guy, and near tears, absolutely devastated to hear people claim the spray rig operators didn't care if they were poisoning their neighbors. My family lives there, too, I recall him saying. My kids go to those schools. I take my job very seriously. I would never do anything to harm anyone.
But even if the companies employed only sociopaths who don't care about their neighbors, they do care about their crops. And from a practical standpoint, they want to minimize drift because they often have numerous small fields, with crops at various stages of maturity, just 10 feet part. “We're confident drift isn't happening,” said Judith Rivera, a Pioneer research scientist and Kauai station manager. “We would see the damage in the adjacent fields.”
So what about Paul Towers' vivid imagery — “Picture red (pesticide-contaminated) dust”? Well, for starters, the dust is red because it comes from clay soil.
And the companies say they're not getting a lot of pesticide on the ground because they're applying it directly on the plants, where the insects are. “You want pesticides to stay on the plant's leaves, where it's effective, not be in the dirt,” Judith said. “The soil is not the target. It's the plant.”
Judith also dismissed concerns about toxins lingering in the soil long after harvest. “Pesticides are now designed to break down with exposure to UV (sunlight) to help prevent them from accumulating in soil, as they did in the past,” she said. The companies also have irrigation on and water trucks operating when they're growing a crop, “so it's not easy for the fields to release dust when pesticides are sprayed.”
Still, it's within the realm of possibility. I reviewed numerous federal agency websites that said pesticides can migrate from agricultural areas via wind and surface water, so a robust environmental sampling program would be useful.
Curiously, though activists have lobbied for stricter pesticide disclosure rules and buffer zones, they have not clamored for additional environmental testing, nor have they used their substantial resources to conduct their own tests. Or if they did, they certainly haven't released the results.
The same government websites also noted that pesticide applicators and field workers are the most likely to suffer exposure. Applicators are required to undergo regular blood tests to ensure pesticides are not accumulating in their bodies. The state Department of Health says there have been no reports of elevated pesticide levels among seed company workers.
Based on data from the Hawaii Poison Center, harmful pesticide exposure most often occurs in the home:
Of the 4,800 human pesticide exposure calls, approximately 90% of the exposures occurred in a residence, 4.4% in the workplace and 1% in a school. The remaining 4% consisted of miscellaneous locations (i.e., other/unknown, public areas, health care facilities, and food service.)
Meanwhile, a company called MyExposome is developing a wristband that “acts like a sponge for chemicals, such as pesticides, endocrine disrupters, and flame retardants,” according to a write up in The Week. Aspiring “citizen scientists” wear it for a week, then ship it back to the lab where it's analyzed for 1,400 different toxins. However, it doesn't tell you exactly how much of each chemical you've been exposed to, or where exposure occurred.
The start-up company is still trying to raise dough through a Kickstarter campaign, offering a wristband and chemical analysis for $995 — $1,495 adds a flame retardant assessment — with an estimated Fall 2015 delivery.
It might be a worthwhile investment for an activist group and/or the chronically fearful and paranoid. Though it could send them into a catatonic state when they discover just how many industrial chemicals are embedded in their smart phones, beauty products, furniture, cars, home furnishings, pet products and other accoutrements of 21st Century American life.
Next up: A look at Pioneer's pesticide container.