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Pesticide Myths

Council members, esteemed guests and citizens of Fort Bragg: My name is Marc Lappe. I direct the not-for-profit Center for Ethics and Toxics in Gualala. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to talk with you about public and private concerns over the use of pesticides. First, I would like to clear up a misconception some persons have about “opposition to pesticides.” People like myself who oppose the unbridled use of chemical controls for pests and unwanted vegetation are sometimes thought to be espousing a radical, leftist line. In my own case, nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to pesticides, I am an arch-conservative. Let me explain.

As I understand it, a conservative holds the view that personal freedom is the most important value. This freedom plays out with the right for self-protection, use of one’s own private property and the right to be free of governmental intrusion. These views start from the principle of Liberty. The strongest supporter of Liberty was the philosopher John Stuart Mill. His view was that the greatest liberty is that liberty which is consistent with liberty for all. The only restriction on liberty is that its operation not harm others. Mill also argued forcibly against anyone giving up his own freedoms. I believe that the present pattern of laissez faire pesticide use in our County jeopardizes each of these principles of liberty.

At first glance, permitting individuals to use whatever pesticides they want on their own private property would seem to be totally consistent with the conservative agenda. Use of chemical killers under one’s own control is akin to the right to bear arms. But, like having a gun, using a pesticide is a tightly circumscribed “right.” I am free to carry a gun as long as it is not concealed, it is used in self-defense or for lawful taking of game, and I don’t harm anyone. The myth is that pesticides, like guns, never killed anyone — only people who use them recklessly or with disregard of the safety of others. Using pesticides — any pesticide — is very much akin to carrying a loaded gun.

There is virtually no one who can use pesticides in the environment and respect Mill’s definition of Liberty. No one can use pesticides on the scale presently intended by most in the timber industry and secondarily by wine grape growers without risk of harm to others. That harm is both direct — to users and unsuspecting persons downstream or downwind of “private land” operations — and indirect, through the contamination of the environment generally. No one can use a pesticide on a large scale and absolutely guarantee that it will not escape their own property. Pesticides do not respect fences or any other artificial boundary. Pesticide drift, percolation into the water supply and build up in tissues of fish, fowl or wildlife is the rule, not the exception. Pesticides are intended to increase personal liberty by freeing use from unwanted agricultural pests, fungal blights, or structural pests. But if that freedom is at the risk of compromising the freedom of others, it is an empty freedom.

Historically, the manufacture, transport and use of even so-called “essential” pesticides including the atrazines, certain fungicides and chlorinated herbicides have been shown to pose a clear and present danger to water supplies, workers, homeowners and children. Pesticides which timber industry spokespersons deem essential to their operations, notably 2,4-D, Tordon, Garlon and Garlon 4a, are among these “permissible” pesticides. So are pesticides widely used in the wine industry like metam sodium and methyl bromide. The chlorinated herbicides in the first group have been firmly linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a lethal malignancy. The last two chemicals have killed fish and people. Before a farmer can use a pesticide it has to be manufactured and transported.

The people who are on the front lines in making pesticides are at increased risk for malignancies. Workers as a class who fabricate pesticides are at increased risk for certain malignancies: so are pesticide applicators, including forest workers and golf course superintendents. These last individuals have been shown by studies in Sweden by Hardell and more recently by others in this country, to be at increased risk for soft tissue sarcomas and lymphomas. If this were not proof enough, the pets of homeowners who use lawn treatment chemicals also get too many lymphomas. It is in part for these reasons that the City Council of Ukiah recently suspended all use of herbicides in their city and asked Caltrans to forego its use.

The drivers and applicators of certain chemicals are also at increased risk. For both drivers and residents, the transport of chemicals like metam sodium and methyl bromide can be dangerous and, in some cases, lethal. Metam sodium was the chemical involved in the notorious Dunsmuir spill, in which a tank car overturned on a hair-pin curve and sterilized 40 miles of the Sacramento River, killed vegetation and wildlife, and seeded a whole community with fear and panic over chemical contamination. Methyl bromide, widely used by wine grape and strawberry growers as well as fumigators, has killed workers and residents.

The notion that licensing protects homeowners or residents from danger is a dangerous misconception. Sometimes pesticides intended for one limited use, such as the highly toxic methyl parathion, are misused. In 1996, over 1,500 homes in a small Mississippi town were treated with methyl parathion to control roaches or termites — and the homes had to be abandoned as homeowners succumbed to organophosphate pesticide poisoning. And the manufacture of what may eventually be a relatively benign pesticide can be highly dangerous. In 1984, almost the entire township of Bhopal — some 200,000 persons — was poisoned by the release of a pesticide intermediate known as methylisocyanate.

While nothing of this magnitude is likely to strike Fort Bragg, highly toxic chemicals like pentachlorophenol that used to be used in wood preservation have certainly put it in harm’s way. It is also a dangerous misconception to believe pesticides will always be “safe” when they are always used according to label instructions. Such protections are often more to be wished for than obtained. Sometimes those labels require that there be no contact with the pesticide at all. Forest chemical workers are often required to wear protective equipment, including chemically impervious gloves, goggles or — if mixing the chemicals — respirators. But logging crews whom we have learned commonly use permeable latex gloves or none at all, wear no goggles and have no protective clothing. Purple residues of Garlon commonly saturate their clothes, and their purple stained gloves have been found on the forest floor. We have followed crews that have left ugly purple stains over yards of forest soil where they washed out their pesticide contaminated containers with river water. And the water is the ultimate receptacle of the chemical wastes that go with most timber operations, either from runoff or direct contamination.

The destruction of safe water supplies is not necessarily a result of a single catastrophic accident like the metam sodium disaster. It is much more insidious than that. And here I am concerned that Fort Bragg is missing the Big Picture. I have reviewed the November 12, 1997 memo from David Goble, your public works director. Presently, your water purveyor tests your water supplies for a chemical mix that is outdated, unrepresentative of what you use in your area, and insufficient in both frequency and scope. The chemicals include many like heptachlor and chlorodane that have not been permitted for years. Industrial chemicals are widely represented while agricultural and timber industry ones are missing. Herbicides like Garlon and triflourofen and widely used fungicides like mancozeb, benomyl and captan are not tested for.

While your director says “water users should take comfort in the safety of the water supply,” I am less sanguine. I have seen no evidence that he has actively dissuaded anyone from using chemicals like atrazine and simazine which pose imminent threats to water integrity, or the timber industry from using Garlon which can compromise water quality — especially for migratory salmonid fish — at levels as low as 50 parts per billion. I am concerned that misuse of pesticides will lead to insidious and chronic contamination of your water, the atrazine group for human consumption and the Garlon group for your fisheries. As was belatedly discovered in the midwest where thousands of wells were rendered unfit for human use by simazine, chronic reliance on pesticides for controlling insects or fungi can destroy water quality over a period of decades.

But, you might say, the government permits untrammeled use of some pesticides and carefully regulates the use of others. But even this so-called regulated use carries clear caveats and controls. An apartment owner is not “free” to spread even mildly toxic pesticides like Roundup around his property without first notifying tenants, offering them a chance to object, and providing a safe haven when the application is made. Even the proposition that pesticides are “safe” because they stop having toxic effects below a certain dose is coming under intense scrutiny. If this proposition were true and we knew what the “thresholds” really were, there probably wouldn’t be 60,000 veterans with Gulf War Syndrome. Recent studies have shown that organophosphate pesticides akin to the commonly used malathion produce lingering damage to the central nervous systems of animals at levels far below those previously thought to be safe. As the 12,900 workers whose injuries have been reported between 1984 and 1994 can attest, pesticides can be harmful at sometimes unexpectedly low doses.

Now the Fort Bragg City Council has to grapple with the proposition that it cannot regulate the private use of pesticides; it cannot usurp or pre-empt the right of the State to set Standards; and it cannot tell licensed pesticide operators what to do. What should you do? Here’s what I would include in my thinking: 

• pesticides that stray from the premises or property of individuals constitute a public nuisance that you can regulate;

• water quality is your special province: expand and extend water testing and install monitoring wells where appropriate; 

• take seriously the claims of private citizens who believe their personal freedoms are being compromised when they are exposed to noxious chemicals they neither intended to use nor consented to have invade their person. And finally,

• make sure children who are especially vulnerable to pesticides’ harmful effects are shielded from those whose private gains may make them overzealous in their use. 

Personal freedom includes the proposition that we not harm others — especially those for whom the resulting damage can be lifelong. John Stuart Mill would have you do nothing less.

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