(Beyond Pesticides, September 17, 2012) Citizens in rural Oregon are concerned for their health after discovering that several major timber companies —Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Resources, Stimson Lumber, Seneca Jones and others— have been spraying millions of pounds of herbicides on their private forestland since the 1970s. The pesticides were aerially sprayed after the area had been clear-cut of Douglas fir. This process of clear-cutting and aerial spraying for lumber production is ubiquitous on private forest land in Oregon’s $13 billion timber industry. In practice, pesticides are sprayed twice a year, usually in the fall and spring, and the spraying can last for several hours. It is unclear how many residents have been affected by the spraying, though a rough estimate based on U.S. Census data shows about 100,000 residents live near these privately owned forests.
Many of these herbicides are turning up in very concerning places. Over the past year, forty one residents, including several children, have submitted their urine to be tested for pesticides, and every sample has tested positive for the chemicals 2,4-D, and atrazine. The presence of atrazine is particularly concerning because it is very mobile in the environment, and should be able to pass through the body very quickly unless these residents are coming in contact with a constant source of this chemical.
Atrazine is used nationwide to kill broadleaf and grassy weeds, primarily in corn crops. Atrazine has shown to be harmful to humans, mammals, and amphibians even when the amount used is less than the government allows. Atrazine is specifically associated with infertility, low birth weight, and abnormal infant development in humans. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service acknowledges that the chemical may also harm the reproductive and endocrine systems in fish species. There have been other reported cases of it leaching into drinking water both nationally and in Oregon. The effects of atrazine are so detrimental members of Congress are looking to ban its use.
2,4-D is a chlorophenoxy herbicide, and scientists around the world have reported increased cancer risks in association with its use, especially for soft tissue sarcoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Research by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that babies born in counties with high rates of chlorophenoxy herbicides application to farm fields are significantly more likely to be born with birth defects of the respiratory and circulatory systems, as well as defects of the musculoskeletal system like clubfoot, fused digits, and extra digits. These birth defects were 60-90% more likely in counties with higher 2,4-D application rates.
Experts argue the way in which these pesticides have been sprayed is unsafe. The mountainous terrain forces pilots to fly at heights that would not be tolerated in crop agriculture. Regular cropdusters typically fly at 10 feet above the field, but in this the case planes have flown at 50, 70, or even 80 feet above the trees, which increases the drift. These companies also spray while snow is still on the ground. Even when used correctly, aerial pesticide spraying is notorious for drifting off-site as the chemicals are picked up by wind currents. According Stu Turner, whose father pioneered crop-aviation insurance in the 1950s and who investigates cases of misapplication of pesticides, “When that snow melts, it’s ”¦ runoff.”
An even bigger concern to Mr. Turner is the timber companies spraying herbicide on forestland at more pints per acre than would be acceptable in crop agriculture. On average, timber companies spray a reported 1.1 million pounds of chemicals per year in this area, which is merely a fraction of the total spray because the figure represents only the active ingredient of the herbicides in undiluted containers. It does not include the diesel fuel or kerosene, for example, which are often mixed when spraying the herbicide triclopyr. It also does not include the so-called “inert” chemical agent mixed with glyphosate to make a version of Roundup that tenderizes a leaf’s defenses so that glyphosate can enter the plant. These additives have been shown to make Roundup more dangerous for living things than Roundup’s active ingredient alone.
It has been hard for residents to determine what specific chemicals private forest owners are spraying. Federal and state law does not require timber companies to notify residents of the compounds being sprayed. Even government agencies, such as the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), can find it hard to get information on what chemicals are being sprayed. Because of state law, OHA must request Oregon’s Forestry and Agriculture Departments to ask the timber companies which herbicides they are using. This indirect route of information can be slow to yield results. It took eight months for the health authority to receive the records after having to request them. Residents can pay a fee for the Oregon Department of Forestry to send them notifications when timber companies plan to spray, but the time frame for spraying is so wide —several months, even a year— that it’s difficult to judge when to stay inside.
Beyond Pesticides has long advocated for healthier and more environmentally friendly forestry practices. What is promising is that the U.S. Forest Service, the other major timber grower in Oregon, gave up nearly all herbicide use in the Northwest back in the 1980s. Making this transition can be economically possible, according to Jim Furnish, who managed the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon in the 1990s. “It was more costly, more labor intensive. But forestry in Oregon is profitable under many different scenarios,” said Mr. Furnish, who later became deputy chief of the Forest Service. “The Forest Service just saddled itself to a different horse and rode off into the future.”
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.