A front-page article in today's The Star-Advertiser makes it clear that state health and agriculture officials have little regard for the $175,000 Joint Fact Finding report on pesticides.
They dismissed many of the recommendations as impractical, expensive, unlikely to be useful and in some cases, exceeding state expertise and authority.
They also pointed out the group's bias. Here are key excerpts from the piece:
“There is an obvious disconnect between what the document reports and shows and what the recommendations are,” said Fenix Grange, program manager for the Hawaii Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office. “Truly, there is no smoking gun in the report for health or environmental impacts.”
Group members reviewed health statistics on low birth weight babies, birth defects, autism, development delays in children, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disabilities, cancer, obesity and diabetes — all of which have shown some association with various pesticides. There were no statistically significant differences in illness rates for west side Kauai residents and residents across the island or statewide.
For example, 7 percent of babies in Waimea, on Kauai’s west side, had a low birth weight, compared to 8 percent of babies statewide in 2012.
Cancer rates on Kauai, including the west side, were also similar to or significantly lower than the rest of state, according to 2000-2009 data from the Hawaii Tumor Registry.
Because of the small population size on Kauai’s west side, it’s difficult for data to reflect any slight increases in illnesses or disabilities. Still, the birth defect and cancer data are particularly meaningful, said Barbara Brooks, the state toxicologist, who also works in the hazard evaluation office.
“If there was an unusual number of cancers on the west side, the (tumor registry) would have picked it up,” she said.
Group members also reviewed hundreds of pages of reports, including 15 sampling studies done on Kauai, related to pesticides in the environment. The reports showed some evidence of pesticide migration, but mostly at trace amounts. Most of the pesticides are believed to be from chemicals used decades ago on sugar cane fields.
A statewide stream study did find levels of atrazine and metolachlor downstream of Kauai seed crop operations that were below regulatory standards, but were slightly above aquatic life benchmarks.
“Given the data that we have, we don’t see a big issue,” said Grange.
Grange said that the department isn’t convinced that the long-term soil and dust sampling recommended in the report would be productive.
“We would not support those measures,” she said.
Given the concern among Kauai residents about pesticide drift, she said the department is planning to do some additional, but limited, air studies to try to confirm past studies that show the air is safe.
The Health Department is also planning to do a statewide surface water study on pesticides, but Grange noted this wasn’t spurred by the findings in the report.
“The state does not have a monitoring program for pesticides in water,” said Grange. “We should be able to know and tell the public whether our surface water meets standards for health and the environment.”
Bruce Anderson, the administrator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources, also said that the group’s recommendations seemed exaggerated given the report’s findings. [Bruce previously worked with facilitator Peter Adler on the JFF.]
“The bottom line was that there were no problems found and it is hard to justify the extraordinary expense involved in long-term monitoring of air, water and other exposures to pesticides,” Anderson said. “There is nothing really unique about the west side of Kauai. It’s an agricultural area, pretty much the same as other agricultural areas.”
He added, “I think they dug deep to try to find problems, but didn’t find any. To their credit, they did look.”
Anderson said all of the monitoring recommended in the report would likely cost millions of dollars a year.
The report recommended that the state allocate $3 million to initiate the effort and tax all pesticide sales in the state to help pay for ongoing testing.
He said that as far as he is aware, DLNR is planning to do water sampling only at Mana Plain, a wetland bird sanctuary on Kauai’s west side that may be at risk of pesticide contamination from the seed corn fields.
Anderson is also a former Department of Health director and served as a member of the joint fact finding group for a short time before leaving to head the aquatics division. He has a doctorate in biomedical sciences, epidemiology and biostatistics.
Anderson and other state officials also said Hawaii doesn’t have the resources to revise EPA standards relating to long-term pesticide exposure, as recommended in the report.
The EPA “has toxicologists who spend their lives doing these kinds of studies and they are constantly reevaluating the data,” he said.
Scott Enright, director of the Department of Agriculture, said that he planned to review all of the recommendations and noted that the department had already begun implementing some of them. But he expressed concerns that the group’s report was laced with bias against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The study, commissioned by the Department of Agriculture and Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho, grew out of heated protests in 2013 over Kauai County Council Bill 2491, now Ordinance 960, which increased regulatory oversight of the seed companies operating on Kauai. The law was later overturned by the courts and is currently on appeal in the 9th Circuit.
The bill sparked emotional social media campaigns and protest marches led by anti-GMO activists and residents concerned about pesticide use. Activists accused the seed corn companies of “poisoning paradise,” and some residents testifying on Bill 2491 warned of west side cancer clusters and elevated rates of birth defects.
The study was aimed at cutting through the heated rhetoric and exploring the existing data.
The group was originally composed of nine volunteer members from diverse backgrounds, including two doctors, an organic farmer, other residents with science backgrounds, and scientists who had affiliations with the biotech industry.
But by the time the final report was released, three members with ties to the biotech industry [actually, only two had biotech ties, the third was independent] had resigned in protest. They, in part, complained that the other group members’ work wasn’t based on scientific evidence and was misleading.
Enright said that the remaining group members were largely supportive of Bill 2491, which is reflected in the report.
“They were sure that there were problems, both human health and environmental on Kauai,” he said. “At the end, the group was dominated by supporters of 2491, people who had a bias, and that is fine. And the bias was that they are going to find something when they looked and they didn’t. And that is significant for the department.”
Adam Asquith, a member of the group and a Kauai extension specialist at the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program, said that any suggestion that the group was biased was wrong.
“That is mind blowing and totally off base,” he said.
Asquith said that he stood by the recommendations and emphasized that the few samples showing elevated levels of atrazine and metolachlor were significant.
“That is a gigantic red flag,” he said.
Finding trace levels is a "gigantic red flag? That's the kind of hysterical hyperbole that fueled the 2491 debate and, unfortunately, carried over into the JFF process. Fortunately, state officials have seen through it.
And given the way Enright used his platform at the Board of Ag meeting last week to scold Hawaii Center for Food Safety Director Ashley Lukens for her group's fear-mongering, it appears they're unlikely to indulge these antics any longer.