(Beyond Pesticides, June 22, 2011) Exposure to two herbicides, atrazine and 2,4-D, commonly used in lawn care and forest management will be studied by Oregon health officials after they were found in the urine of residents of the Triangle Lake area of the Coast Range west of Eugene, Oregon. The State Department of Agriculture is directing health officials who are part of the state’s Pesticide Analytical Response Center to take the lead in studying the matter.
Triangle Lake area residents and a group of activists called the Pitchfork Rebellion have been complaining for more than seven years about the possibility that herbicides being aerially sprayed on nearby private forests may be drifting onto their land. The group in the past has asked the state to investigate their concerns, staging rallies and protests, and attending meetings of government agencies, including the pesticide response board and the Oregon Board of Forestry. At an April 2011 meeting of the forestry board, when the group presented proof of chemical exposure, the state agreed to take a closer look. The board regulates logging and related practices on private timberlands in Oregon.
At that meeting, Dana Barr, PhD, a research professor at Emory University’s Environmental and Occupational Health Department, told board members that she had found atrazine and 2,4-D ””powerful herbicides”” in the urine of all 21 residents who submitted samples to her lab. The samples were taken by a doctor, who forwarded them to the research lab. Dr. Barr suggested that the next step should be conducting a follow-up study. Since the April meeting, another 13 area residents have been tested for exposure and all of them showed traces of the same two herbicides. Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has taken an interest in the issue and has directed health officials who are part of the state’s Pesticide Analytical Response Center to take the lead in the study.
State officials have not yet said how they will do the study, but they expect a yearlong effort to examine the risk of exposure of area residents. According to state records of pesticide use, atrazine and 2,4-D, were among the most common herbicides applied in Oregon 2008, the last year the state funded its reporting program. On the list of the 100 most used pesticides, 2,4-D ranked seventh and atrazine 18th.
There have been periodic disputes for years over the use of toxic herbicide sprays on private forestlands in Oregon, with the Pitchfork Rebellion emerging as perhaps the most persistent critic of the spraying. Private forest landowners have said they need herbicides to ensure quick regrowth of Douglas fir and other tree crops on lands that have been logged.
While herbicide label guidelines urge users to minimize pesticide drift, a seemingly impossible task, there are no state regulations requiring buffers near property boundaries between forested and nonforested lands. The state does have such pesticide buffer zones along fish-bearing streams, however. The Department of Forestry requires private landowners to give the state advance notice when they plan to spray, but the state does not track which chemicals actually are sprayed. Timberland owners keep those records themselves. The state requires them to make the information available upon demand.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and state agency partners finds that agricultural workers and residents in regions where pesticides are routinely sprayed have the highest rate of pesticide poisoning from drift exposure. Pesticide spray drift is typically the result of small spray droplets being carried off-site by air movement. The main weather factors that cause drift are wind, humidity and temperature changes. Aside from poisoning people and animals, drift can injure foliage, shoots, flowers and fruits resulting in reduced yields, economic loss and illegal residues on exposed crops.
Recently, measures by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to monitor where and how much pesticides are sprayed near waterways from forestry, mosquito and aquatic uses (pesticide drift is excluded) have been undermined by Congress and industry special interest groups. In March 2011, HR 872 passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 292-130 which is a bill amending FIFRA and the Clean Water Act (CWA) to eliminate provisions requiring pesticide applicators to obtain a permit to allow pesticides to enter waterways. It would reverse a 2009 Sixth Circuit court decision which ruled that, under FIFRA and CWA, EPA must require such permits. In the Senate a similar bill was introduced and adopted by the Senate Agriculture Committee on June 21, 2011, S.718 which would eliminate CWA permits, or permits mandated by any other environmental law, that are required for the application of pesticides. This bill would mean that pesticide applicators will be able to discharge pesticides into U.S. waterways without any government oversight.
The dangers associated with the use of 2,4-D and atrazine are very well known. Atrazine is a widespread contaminant in drinking water and is linked to various birth defects, endocrine disruption and cancer, even at concentrations below EPA standards. Although it has been excluded from re-registration in the European Union because it is found above allowable thresholds in groundwater, it is still one of the most widely used herbicides in the U.S. and around world. One study, published found that the general rate of birth defects in the U.S. population; it found that atrazine upped the risk of nine birth defects in babies born to mothers who conceived between April and July, when surface water levels of the pesticide are highest. Another study also found that atrazine triggers the release of stress hormones, leading researchers to believe that this may explain how the popular weed killer produces some of its harmful reproductive effects.
2,4-D has been linked to cancer, reproductive effects, endocrine disruption, kidney and liver damage, is neurotoxic and toxic to beneficial insects (such as bees), earthworms, birds, and fish. Scientific studies have confirmed significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for farmers who use 2,4-D than those who don’t; dogs whose owners use 2,4-D on their lawns are more likely to develop canine malignant lymphoma than those whose owners do not. Despite the known health and environmental effects of 2,4-D, it is the top selling herbicide for non-agricultural use, such as lawns, in the United States. It is also the fifth most commonly used herbicide in the agricultural sector and total annual usage in the U.S. tops 40 million pounds.
Please take action today to help defeat legislation in the U.S. Senate that would remove critical legal protections from toxic pesticides sprayed into the environment. Ask your Senators to oppose S. 718, the pesticide industry’s latest move in their assault on our environmental laws. Companion legislation has passed the House and it is expected to move quickly in the Senate.