Friday, December 21, 2007

Close the year with a letter to the EPA

Federal agencies are notorious for doing their dirty work over the holidays, when the rest of us are busy warming up the egg nog and putting our feet up by the fire. It looks like 2007 will be no different, as EPA is looking for public comment on a proposal to allow cause-related marketing on pesticide containers - due date: December 31st.

This is not a joke. Imagine browsing the pest control aisle at the big-box home improvement store, and along the aisle you notice bottles of Spectracide with the UNICEF logo on them, bags of Weed & Feed with a symbol that says "10% of this purchase goes to the US Youth Soccer Association!," or bottles of Clorox with the Red Cross logo. Sound fantastical? Confusing? Potentially dangerous? That's exactly what EPA is proposing. You can read all the sordid details on Beyond Pesticides website, and you'll find the EPA's proposed rule on Regulations.gov.

Seven state Attorneys General have already spoken out against this plan, and EPA is taking public comment over the holidays (think they're expecting many letters?) If you've got a few minutes before the egg nog is ready, consider sending a letter to the EPA about this one.

Here's what Toxic Free NC will be saying in our letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson:
  1. Placement of the Red Cross and other safety or environmental symbols on commercial poisons is inherently misleading and violates federal and state laws and EPA guidelines. The symbols themselves may imply health and environmental benefits that conflict with the product's actual properties and regulatory status.
  2. Extraneous claims and symbols may distract consumers from safe usage label instructions. It is critical that consumers be able to understand and carefully follow label instructions in order to prevent serious harm from pesticide misuse.
  3. The proposal inappropriately involves a regulatory agency - the EPA - in corporate marketing schemes. Cause-related symbols may imply an endorsement of the product by either the EPA or the charity.
  4. We request a 30-day extension of the comment period to allow for adequate public participation in this important regulatory decision.
To send your comments in to the EPA, go to Regulations.gov, and remember to reference Docket ID #EPA-HQ-OPP-2007-1008. And enjoy your egg nog!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Taming termite terrors, plus some concerns over chlordane contamination

I recently bought my first home - yay! As many of you homeowners know, a pest inspection is one of the first and most important conditions on home financing. My new home's pest inspection came back clean at present, but with signs of past infestation by both termites and powder post beetles. Eek!

A pest to fill every homeowner with dread - termite!!
Then, at my closing, the attorney (who had no idea what I do for a living) said, "your home showed signs of past termite infestation. I strongly recommend you get a contract for semi-annual termite treatments..." Oh gosh! Holding off on the chemicals was an easy choice when I was just dealing with the occasional cockroach at my old apartment, but it's quite a different matter when thinking about bugs that could literally EAT my house, by far the most expensive thing I have ever owned in my life!

So, one big question I have is this: Since the buggers were in my house before, it must have been prone to infestation in some way, and may still be. How can I prevent future problems, without resorting to pesticide treatments?

So, I checked out Beyond Pesticides' factsheets on alternatives to pesticides for termite control, and particularly liked this article - Taking the Terror Out of Termites (link downloads 152 kb PDF file). You can check it out for their recommendations. In a nutshell, termites like moist wood, so moisture reduction is a major component of preventing termites. And, there are several least-toxic and non-toxic treatment methods available, so a chemical arsenal really shouldn't be necessary.

Another big question on my mind has to do with the past infestations in my house, and how they were treated. This house was built in 1950, and I have no idea when termites were an issue in that nearly sixty-year history. From 1948 to 1988, a common method of treating termites in the US was a chemical called chlordane, an organochlorine pesticide related in structure to the likes of DDT, aldrin, lindane and endosulfan. Chlordane was applied to the soil around and under the house to act as a chemical barrier to wood-boring insects. It was banned for use on food crops in the US in 1978, and for use as a termite treatment in 1988, due to rising concern over health and environmental impacts. Exposure has been linked to increased risk for a host of health problems, including some types of cancer, neurological problems, and fertility disorders. A really worrisome finding from an article in today's Vancouver Sun:

"(...) Researchers found people with the highest levels of a certain type of insecticide in their blood had 2.7 times the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma as those with the lowest amounts.
That strong link involved a metabolite of the insecticide chlordane. (...)"

Some highlights (or lowlights, in this case) from the ATSDR public health statement for chlordane (emphasis is all mine):
"Chlordane is known to remain in some soils for over 20 years. Persistence is greater in heavy, clayey or organic soil than in sandy soil."
"Today, people receive the highest exposure to chlordane from living in homes that were treated with chlordane for termites. Chlordane may be found in the air in these homes for many years after treatment. Houses in the deep south and southwest were most commonly treated."
"You may come into contact with chlordane while digging in soil around the foundation of homes where it was applied to protect the homes against termites."
Oh no! So along with all the fumes from the glues, finishes, paints, and carpet in my house, I may also be breathing fumes from pre-1988 chlordane treatments that are seeping up through my floorboards! I'm trying not to panic - after all, stress is bad for your health, too, and every house I've ever lived in (and that most Americans have lived in!) was built before 1988 and probably carries some level of chlordane. It's a common, though no less unfortunate contaminant of the home environment.

Based on what I've read about chlordane and other similar chemicals, I have a few ideas for ways to reduce my risk of exposure at home, and to improve my indoor air quality overall:
- Ventilation. I've got window screens and ceiling fans, so I'm ready for lots of fresh air in the spring, summer and fall...and also on freak 80-degree days in the winter, like today!
- Cleaning - especially dusting. This could be more of a challenge - I'm not exactly a neat freak, but I understand that chemical contaminants in indoor air settle with the dust in a room onto the floor and surfaces. So, mopping and dusting regularly with natural cleaners like borax, baking soda, and Dr. Bronners soap will be helpful to get rid of any chemical residues, and to prevent cockroaches, dust mites, and a bunch of other pests and allergens too.
- Mulch. While having mulch in direct contact with the side of my home is a bad idea, since it can harbor pests and trap moisture along the foundation, laying mulch over some of the possibly-contaminated soil around the perimeter of my house is sounding like a better and better idea. I have a dog who will be spending a lot of time digging around in the dirt in my yard, and she can't exactly take off her shoes before entering the house to avoid tracking in contaminated soil! Mulching over the soil that's most likely to be contaminated could be a good way to prevent her from digging in it and tracking it in, and will also help to keep down weeds.
- Soil mitigation. I'm planning for a little herb and vegetable garden in the backyard, not too far from the back wall of the house. I might need to get a soil test to check for chlordane contamination before planting edible plants, or at least put in some relatively "clean" compost or topsoil to reduce contaminant levels in the soil.

I'm going to keep looking into both questions over the next couple months, and will report back with my findings and keep you all posted on what I end up doing. In the mean time, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter, and any tips you have for either preventing termites without toxic chemicals, or for getting chlordane and other chemical contaminants out of my home and garden. Please leave me a comment with your suggestions. Thanks!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Premature puberty, pesticides, and breast cancer

A special report by PESTed hero Sandra Steingraber was released by The Breast Cancer Fund a few weeks ago, called The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls. Early onset of puberty in girls is a major risk factor for breast cancer, as well as for a host of other emotional and physical health issues related to body image and self-esteem, drug abuse, early sexual activity, and even likelihood of physical abuse. The report is a comprehensive review of the literature on premature puberty with analysis and recommendations that point to some really important themes -
* This is not a normal or natural trend. Average age at puberty for girls fell from the late teens to the early teens over 19th and 20th centuries, mostly due to improvements in nutrition and health care. However, current trends do not follow with the historical trend - average age of onset of menstruation has fallen only by a few months over the past 40 years, while average age of first breast development has fallen by 1 - 2 years. And, both numbers have fallen farther and faster for African American and Hispanic girls than for Caucasian girls.
* This is a racial and socioeconomic issue as much as it is a women's issue. Early-onset puberty is connected to a complicated matrix of other health issues that affect our hormones, including obesity, stress, pre-term birth and birth weight, level of physical activity, and exposure to chemical pollution in the environment. The result is that early-onset puberty and the health and emotional risks it brings are more common for people of color and low-income communities, who suffer disproportionately from all those other health risks.
* A precautionary approach to endocrine-disrupting chemicals - including pesticides - is needed! Compared with girls 40 years ago, girls today are exposed to a host of chemicals in their environment that may affect the functioning of their hormones in childhood and puberty, and that they may pass on to their own children during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Not least among these are pesticides, which contaminate our drinking water and food, and may also contaminate our homes, schools, childcare centers, and workplaces. We simply cannot afford to wait around to find out exactly how and why these chemicals could be hurting us before we take action to reduce or eliminate them from our environment. To do so would not only be imprudent, but unfair to our children, and to the socioeconomic groups that are most heavily affected.
Taking this report together with evidence that boys are also being negatively affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment, I feel all the more concerned, and strengthened in my resolve to work to reduce children's pesticide exposures in my community and my state. Looking at information like this should remind us that environmental responsibility isn't just about the environment - it's about social justice and fighting back against the very real health effects of racism and poverty, and it's about feminism and fighting for the sexual and reproductive health of girls and boys.

Please join me in making more responsible decisions about what you buy for your holiday celebrations, and all year round. For those of you here in North Carolina, here are some important ways to take action to reduce pesticide use at your child's school or childcare center, and to speak out for just and sustainable local agriculture. Also, check out The Breast Cancer Fund's ideas for "What You Can Do Personally and Politically."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

organic holidays

This week, as we gather with friends and family to give thanks for life's blessings, we also begin a frenzied holiday season. Chances are, the Thanksgiving holiday has got you thinking about gifts, parties, holiday baking and decorating, and a million more to-do list items. We've put together some resources to make your to-do list a little more sustainable, starting with organic Christmas trees:

Looking for an organic or sustainably-grown Christmas tree or wreath? Look no further than PESTed's annual guide, a great place to start your search.

PESTed also has a great archive of recipes for locally-grown North Carolina produce. Check out these tasty concoctions like sauteed collards, baked winter squash and apple crisp. Most of these great recipes come from our friends Anne Everitt and Susan Spalt, who both draw their ingredients lists from the Carrboro Farmer's Market.

Bloggers from around the environmental community are compiling resources for sustainable holiday celebrating and gift-giving this year. Check out this great sampling:
...and of course, one of the greenest gifts of all is a gift to PESTed. Check out our donations page to find out how to support our work, and how to make a donation in honor of a friend.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Good news! Envelopes stuffed, Dole workers to be compensated

Good news: PestEd volunteers stuffed 1200 envelopes in about two hours last night. Good work, team! I'll include some pictures, below - when your fundraising appeal letter comes in the mail in a couple weeks, you'll know how it got stuffed.
Volunteers Maggie and Robyn stuffing envelopes on the left - check out that blur of envelope sealing action! New staffer Ana and volunteer Lee Ann stuff a monster stack of enveopes on the right. Great job, team!

And, the real good news: Nicaraguan farmworkers have been awarded $3.2 million dollars in a lawsuit against American company Dole Food, Inc. for exposing them to pesticides they say made them sterile. From a Nov 6 story in The LA Times:
A Los Angeles jury on Monday awarded $3.2 million to six Nicaraguan farmworkers who had sued Dole Food Co. Inc., arguing they had been rendered sterile some three decades ago by the international corporate giant's application of a banned pesticide on the plantations where they worked.

Jurors return today to consider whether Dole, and codefendant Dow Chemical Co., should be punished with more monetary damages. They will decide whether Dole acted maliciously in failing to warn its workers of the danger, and
whether Dow engaged in gross negligence in manufacturing the chemical. (...)
From Beyond Pesticides:
(...) The lawsuit accused Dole and Standard Fruit Co., now a part of Dole, of negligence and fraudulent concealment while using the pesticide 1,2-Dibromo-3-Chloropropane (DBCP) to kill rootworms on banana plants. Until 1977, DBCP was used in the United States as a soil fumigant and nematocide on over 40 different crops. (...)
More information on DBCP from pesticideinfo.org.

You may also be aware that Dow Chemical is implicated in the Bhopal disaster, but according to a recent story from Agence France-Presse, Dow may finally settle with the Indian government on a clean up plan.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Envelope Stuffing Party this Weds!Come on down.

PESTed's having it's semi-annual Envelope Stuffing Party this Weds, Nov 7th, between 5 and 8 pm at our office in downtown Raleigh, and we're looking for volunteers to come help out! You can come for the whole time, or just a portion of it (whatever works best for you). We'll have some delicious food and drinks, and music too. It's a fun and easy way to support PESTed's work, and meet some other like-minded people who volunteer for us.

To RSVP, or for more information, please email us, or give us a call at (919) 833-1123.

Thank you!


Monday, October 15, 2007

EPA v. science: the fumigant debacle

You may have read in the news last week that the US EPA recently approved an extremely toxic pesticide for widespread use, despite outcry from the scientific community. A group of 53 scientists, including 6 Nobel laureates, had asked the EPA to reconsider, calling the decision to approve such a toxic pesticide "astonishing."

EPA has been dealing with a tricky situation in the global phaseout of the pesticide Methyl Bromide (MB). MB is extremely toxic, and is a potent destroyer of the ozone layer. It was marked for a global ban under the Montreal Protocol, which was designed to stop - and repair - the giant hole in the earth's protective ozone layer. The protocol has been highly successful, except for MB. American farmers just don't want to give it up, and EPA has had a hard time replacing it.

Why is MB so hard to replace? Because it's a silver bullet. MB is a soil sterilizer. Farmers inject it into the soil before planting, where it sterilizes the soil, killing every insect, seed, nematode and microbe it reaches. You might guess that something so toxic must be an older-generation chemical - and you'd be right. MB has been around since 1962, and under today's health and safety standards, you'd be hard pressed to find a chemical that could do the same kind of deadly job.

So instead of finding one that meets today's health and safety standards, or better yet, encouraging ecological alternatives, the EPA found Methyl Iodide, which is every bit as dangerous for farmers, farmworkers and farm neighbors as MB was, except that it doesn't destroy the ozone layer. Hence the astonished scientists.

Maybe they shouldn't be so astonished. Last year, EPA rejected Methyl Iodide as an MB replacement, but then their pesticide department got a new staff person in charge of the project: Elin Miller. Miller is the former CEO of a pesticide company, Arysta Life Sciences. Care to guess which pesticide Arysta manufactures? If you guessed Methyl Iodide, don't worry, you're not a conspiracy theorist - that's what really happened. After Miller came on board, EPA reconsidered their decision, and decided that Methyl Iodide wasn't so bad after all.

There has been quite a lot of media coverage of this debacle, but if you like listening to internet radio I recommend the story by NPR's program, Living on Earth. You can read the transcript and listen to the audio here.

You may be interested in a petition to EPA to rescind this decision and focus on more sustainable agricultural techniques. The Pesticide Action Network has one you can sign on to here. And if you're a gardener or a farmer who uses sustainable practices and the idea of sterilizing soil makes you shudder, you're not alone. We think soil is pretty amazing, living stuff - check out this great diagram of the nitrogen cycle in healthy soil from Science Daily.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Updates from PESTed HQ

Hello dear fair ground readers! Several updates for you:

* Welcome to our (new and hopefully improved) blog. We apologize that we were looking so shabby there for a while, and hope you'll hang in there with us for a few more weeks while we work out the kinks with our new system. I'll let you know when it's time to update your links.

* We're proud to introduce PESTed's newest staff person to the blogosphere: Ana Pardo, Communications Coordinator. She's working to expand PESTed's Spanish-language outreach and organizing work, and improve media coverage of our work in both English and Spanish. You'll also get to hear from her on fair ground - look out for future posts authored by "Ana."

* Today (Weds, Oct 10th), several North Carolina public school systems are being honored for their progress in implementing least-toxic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs at a ceremony in Raleigh. PESTed's Fawn Pattison will be speaking, along with Fuquay-Varina High School environmental science teacher Randy Senzig, and several state officials, most notably NC Superintendent for Public Education, June Atkinson. Congratulations to all the honorees!
>>For a complete list of today's School IPM honorees, click here (downloads a PDF file).

>>Don't see your school system on that list, and wondering what they're up to? Take Action!
Check out PESTed's most recent Action Alert - Readin', Writin' and Riddin' of Bugs - for information about the rights of parents and teachers under the NC School Children's Health Act, and a sample letter you can send to your school system.

>>For more information
on School IPM and PESTed's Toxic Free Kids program, click here.

* The latest news on the Ag-Mart case is not so great, and not actually all that new, but still very frustrating. From the Raleigh News & Observer, dated Oct 9:
A judge has recommended that the state Agriculture Department drop nearly all its 369 charges of pesticide violations against tomato grower Ag-Mart, the company announced Monday.

In a ruling issued last week, an administrative law judge said Ag-Mart should pay $6,000 in fines, down from an original fine of nearly $185,000.

But, as the article notes: "The final decision on the case still rests with the state Pesticide Board, as the judge's ruling is only a recommendation."

>>Full article from the Raleigh News & Observer

>>Don't like what's going on? Take action - you can start by writing a letter to the editor. Visit a PESTed Action Alert on Ag-Mart for tips - it's a little out of date, but the advice for writing a letter to the editor is still a-o-k. You may also be interested in other ways of taking action - just contact us for more ideas.


* Last, but definitely not least - Buggin' Out! Our first of three screenings of this zany reel of vintage film strips about bugs and pesticides took place in Raleigh last Sunday night, and was a huge success. Thank you very much to A/V Geeks' Skip Elsheimer, Tír Na Nóg Irish Pub, volunteers Heather, Robyn and Kate, and especially to everyone who came out to enjoy the evening and donate to PESTed. We really appreciate your support!

>>Did you miss the show in Raleigh? It's not too late to see Buggin' Out! in Greensboro on 10/20 or Chapel Hill on 10/21! More information here - please save the dates, and tell your friends and family to come join us.

>>Can't make it, but want to contribute towards making Buggin' Out! a success? Contact us to find out what we currently need in the way of volunteer help and supplies, or make a donation any time on our website.
That's all the latest news from PESTed HQ. Have a great week!

Friday, October 5, 2007

freaky friday

There are two great articles in the news today that ought to make most of us sit up and pay attention:

First, from the UK: Is your make-up killing you? The Daily Mail profiled two young British women who agreed to have their cosmetics indexed and tested as part of a television documentary. The article cites a recent study that found that "British women are one of the heaviest users of cosmetics in Europe and, as a result, we ingest through our skin, and occasionally through the mouth, up to 5lb of chemicals a year." I can't imagine American women are too far behind. As for Charlotte and Emma, the two women featured in the article, the levels of phthalates and pesticides in their urine dropped dramatically during their 8-day stint without standard cosmetics.

Dolly Parton once said that it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. It takes a lot of chemicals, too.

And okay, this one is from two weeks ago, but somehow I missed it. Grist published this excellent consumer's guide to endocrine disruptors: Sex Education, a primer on chemicals, fertility and reproduction. The 7 heavy-hitters that Grist covers in the article (bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), perchlorate, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and alkylphenols) are commonly found in our food, cosmetics and a host of other consumer products.

The take-home message from these articles is that we can shop safer by eating organic foods or buying clean cosmetics, making our own non-toxic cleaners and the like, but that's only a small fraction of our exposures to these nasty contaminants. As with most crises, shopping will not solve the problem. We need our government regulators to heed the red flags and get them out of the manufacturing chain entirely.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

frogs, frogs and fewer frogs

Oh, the beleaguered frogs. You probably already know that amphibian species are declining around the world. You have probably seen the depressing photos of deformed frogs trying to get through life with too many (or too few) legs. You may even have seen Dr. Tyrone Hayes' breathtaking presentation on how the herbicide atrazine turns boy frogs in to hermaphrodite frogs.

This week the N & O ran a story about a new study that reinforces the theory that farm runoff is causing the deformed limbs. Excess nutrients in the water lead to lots more parasites in the water that turn normal tadpoles into sickly, deformed adult frogs.

One of the questions about this research is, how come the trematodes make frogs so sick? They're not a new pathogen - they've always been in the frogs' environments. It's just that lately the frogs can't seem to fight them off. Another stumper: if it's one disease deforming the frogs, why does it affect so many species? Leopard frogs, bullfrogs, wood frogs, and many others have shown up with the deformed limbs, in many different parts of the U.S. and Canada.

The answer may actually lie in the frogs' immune systems: one of Tyrone Hayes' experiments found that wild frogs who live in pristine waters are easily able to fight off common infections, while wild frogs who live in waters containing agricultural runoff die at astonishing rates from the same exposure to disease. Distinguished researchers around the world have pointed at all sorts of explanations for the frog decline, deformities and hermaphrodism: climate change, habitat destruction, parasites, pesticides, and more. The sad answer may be that there is no smoking gun, but that an alphabet soup of environmental changes have over-burdened the frogs' immune systems to the point of destruction. Parasites and infections that formerly posed little or no threat to amphibian populations become deadly.

Biologists like to call frogs a "sentinel species," because they are so sensitive to their environments and serve as indicators for problems that can grow to affect other species as well. I hope we're paying attention.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Toxics: Adding it up

Have you ever kept a food journal? It goes something like this:

Monday

  • Breakfast: Glass of OJ, bowl of cheerios with soy milk, black coffee (X calories, X grams of fat).
  • Lunch: Microwave burrito (X calories, X grams of fat).
  • Afternoon snack: Half a box of Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies...

...you get the idea. I'm stopping before I get to the second afternoon snack. What if we kept toxics journals, that charted our various exposures all day long?

Monday

  • Overnight: polybrominated flame retardants (mattress), volatile organic compounds (carpeting).
  • 7:00 AM. Shower: Nitrosamines, triclosan (soap), fragrances, methylisothiazolinone, benzoate (shampoo), toxaphene, copper, trihalomethanes (water), 1,4-dioxane (deodorant).
  • 7:30 AM. Breakfast: Trisodium phosphate (cereal), plant-based phytoestrogens (soymilk), phthalates (milk container), ethion, carbaryl (orange juice), caffeine, chlorpyrifos (coffee).

...okay, let's stop right there, before we get out onto the highway and have to try to write down all the ingredients in diesel exhaust.

Everybody knows that we are not exposed to chemicals one-by-one, but in a chemical soup, all day long. Congress first tried to get their regulatory minds around this problem with the Food Quality Protection Act, in 1996. The FQPA suggests that kids don't just eat one apple with chlorpyrifos residue in it, but also carrots, peaches, strawberries... so when performing risk assessments for pesticides, EPA should have to consider that the residues might add up.

The problem with that is in the toxicity testing itself. Even though we know that we are exposed to mixtures, we don't test the mixtures for how their toxicity differs from the parent chemicals. We test single chemicals, one-by-one , and our chemical regulations are based on the results of isolated exposures to different levels of isolated chemicals. That's pretty unrealistic.

Here's what happened when Earl Gray, a toxicologist at the EPA's research labs in Research Triangle Park, started adding two fungicides together. Gray's research was featured in a recent article on chemical synergies in New Scientist magazine:

Gray... and his team also tried exposing pregnant rats to vinclozolin and procymidone. When they exposed the animals to the compounds individually, they too saw no effect. But when they combined the two, half of the males were born with hypospadia [a birth defect of the penis]. Gray calls this phenomenon "the new math - zero plus zero equals something".

Gray saw similar results when he mixed two kinds of plastics together - neither of them had any effect when given to pregnant rats on their own, but given together, all the male rat pups were deformed. Believe it or not, he got the same results when he mixed the unrelated plastic and fungicide compounds, which attack the developing organism through totally different mechanisms.

Okay, so we know that mixtures are a problem. So let's get some people together and study the effects. All we need to do is find a group of exposed people, and then an unexposed group, and compare... oh wait. There is no unexposed group. Again, from the New Scientist article:

"Everyone has exposure to chemicals, even people living in the Arctic," says John Sumpter, an ecotoxicologist at Brunel University in London. "We can't go to a group with a mixture of nasty chemicals and then go to another who have had no exposure and compare their rate of breast cancer risk or sperm count. We are doing a scientific experiment by letting these chemicals accumulate in our bodies, blood and wildlife."

So what do we do? Well, here in the U.S., we're mostly still taking the whack-a-mole approach, and regulating troublesome chemicals like flame retardants, lead, and individual pesticides one by one. In Europe, new legislation called REACH went into effect on June 1. REACH stands for registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemical substances.

The aim [of REACH] is to cut health risks associated with everyday chemicals by forcing chemical manufacturers and importers to register their compounds and provide safety information to the new European Chemicals Agency, based in Helsinki, Finland. This information must be provided before the chemicals are sold. The new law shifts the burden of responsibility for the health effects of chemicals from government to industry and is also intended to encourage the use of less harmful alternatives for the more toxic chemicals.

The REACH legislation is a whole new approach to chemicals regulation. Unlike the "innocent until proven guilty" approach that we use in the U.S., REACH makes manufacturers prove safety before letting these chemicals out the door. It's based on a concept called the Precautionary Principle. Look before you leap. Better safe than sorry. You get the idea.

REACH isn't the whole solution, but it's a powerful regulatory incentive for manufacturers to start phasing out the worst chemicals, and to find safer solutions. Many of us work hard to limit our own exposures to potentially harmful toxics in any way that we can - but we have to rely on government to control the toxics pouring out of smokestacks, tailpipes and products that we can't control.

It will take a tremendous amount of expensive research to understand exactly how all the toxics we're exposed to all day long affect us when they're mixed together, and who is most vulnerable to long-term harm. The regulators have a choice: they can sit back and wait until the results are in, or they can heed the red flags we see now and take precautionary action. The REACH legislation took option #2. It's up to us to decide how the U.S. will act.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Don’t let the bed bugs bite

Are you scared yet?

Search "bedbugs" on Google News and you will find hundreds of news stories about mysterious itchy rashes, traumatized homeowners and frustrated pest control operators. Bedbugs are making a major comeback around the world, fueled by a massive increase in global travel that is spreading bedbugs way beyond their traditional stomping grounds of overcrowded housing and into the hotel rooms, luggage and even the homes of people who have never encountered them before.

Last week Saudi Arabia's Arab News reported that a pair of young Egyptian girls were killed by the pesticide treatment their father used to kill bedbugs in their bedroom. The whole family became ill, and the youngest girls died before reaching the hospital.

A recent NPR story exclaimed that "drenching the mattress with pesticides" is the only way to get rid of them. The good news is, this isn't the only way. Steam is extremely effective at killing bedbugs and their eggs - in fact, steam may be more effective than sprays, which can only kill the adult bugs. Pest control operators are reportedly using beagles to sniff out exactly the areas where bedbugs are hiding, to ensure good control.

While bedbugs are an extremely irritating pest - and a new one just emerging for most Americans - they do not spread disease, and should not be viewed as an emergency. In fact, while bedbugs are annoying, they pose less of a risk to your family than spraying pesticides inside your house. However, getting on top of the problem right away can spare you from some of the massive frustration that many people are reporting after experiencing an infestation.

Are you waking up in the morning with small, hard, itchy bites on you? Those may be bedbugs. Don't wait until the itching becomes ongoing and unbearable - inspect your bedroom to identify the culprit. Check your bedding carefully for signs of them. Tiny black dots spread around the sheets and mattress indicate bedbug activity.

If you think you have a bedbug infestation, you should immediately launder all the bedding in hot water and carefully vacuum the mattress (throwing away the vacuum bag afterward in your outdoor trash bin), remove all clutter from the room and move the bed away from the wall. For a full step-by-step on safe bedbug control, from prevention to identification to treatment, download this excellent fact sheet (pdf, 388 KB) from the New York State IPM program.

If you decide that you need the help of a licensed pest control operator, make sure that the PCO you call is experienced in dealing successfully with bedbugs. Call around until you find someone who knows how to handle them. They should be able to identify the pest, use technology (like beagles) to find all the bedbugs' hiding places, and then treat the area with the most effective, least toxic remedies available. We recommend specifically asking them about using heat and steam instead of spraying.

Bedbugs are gross, icky, weird, and new to most of us. But they're not a danger, and they can be controlled without poisoning our bedrooms - so don't let the hype get the best of you.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Legislative wrap-up: Organic agriculture

Momentum, excitement... but no money. That's basically the bottom line of what happened for organic agriculture during North Carolina's 2007 legislative session.

You may recall that Senator Janet Cowell filed a bill called the "Organic Economic Opportunities Study" that would have funded a baseline study to understand the current and potential economic impact of organic agriculture in North Carolina. House and Senate members from both parties signed on to her idea, which would have not only looked at the potential impact, but the potential obstacles to organic growth in the state.

Unfortunately, like many other good ideas, the study didn't make it into the General Assembly's budget this year. The study would have cost $125,000, and legislators didn't manage to pull the funding together.

However, organic advocates took heart in the new excitement around organic agriculture at the legislature this year. Legislators heard from organic growers in their rural districts about the economic benefits of organic farming, and many from urban districts heard from their constituents that the demand for locally-grown, organic foods is nowhere close to being met. At a local, organic breakfast sponsored by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association in April, legislators heard from several of North Carolina's organic farmers about the hope, and the profit, that organic can provide for small farmers.

We are looking forward to building on this momentum, and the new awareness of organic farming, during next year's legislative session. You can help! Sign up for PESTed Action Alerts (if you don't already get them), and take every opportunity you can to let your elected officials know how important local, organic agriculture is to you.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Organic growth

Last week the nation's largest grocery chain, Kroger, announced that it would be adding lots of organic products to its line of house brands. By the end of 2007, Kroger will add 60 new certified organic products to its "Private Selection" label. The announcement comes as the USDA is considering a rule change to weaken the organic standards to allow food processors to include a list of 38 non-organic substances in "certified organic" food products.

Just a week before, Kroger had already announced that it would be removing all milk produced with synthetic hormones from its shelves, due to - you guessed it - consumer demand. Consumers frequently cite synthetic hormones for their shift to organic milk - and milk is frequently the first organic product that consumers try when they begin buying organic products.

Consumers concerned about unscrupulous foreign producers, synthetic hormones, GMO's, pesticides and other pollutants in their foods, are changing the grocery shelves by voting with their dollars. The organic foods market is growing consistently by as much as 20% annually, according to the Organic Trade Association. Consumers are concerned about the purity of their foods, and those who can are directing their dollars towards cleaner food choices. (See PESTed's recent article, Organic on a Budget, for tips on eating organic without breaking the bank).

As far as this writer can tell, while consumers are paying close attention to all the red flags on food production, the federal government is out to lunch. Country-of-origin labeling? GMO's? Synthetic growth hormones? Atrazine? 2,4-D? Yawn, we'll let the market decide.

Luckily, grocers are paying attention - and responding. I think I'll toast Kroger's decision with a certified organic beer.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Pesticide Free Kids Days - Wrap up

This entry is written by Anna Jensen, who worked in PESTed's office this summer through the Into the Fields Internship program at Student Action with Farmworkers.
“What’s another way you can get rid of bugs in the house?” I prompted the 7-year-old standing in front of me.

With a little more coaxing, she finally remembered: “Squish them!”

“Do it!” the other kids urged, and she pantomimed stepping on me. Like any good cockroach would do, I curled up and died. Our audience of parents laughed and applauded.

The occasion for my transformation into a cockroach was Pesticide-Free Kids Day, an event that I organized in two different small towns in North Carolina this summer. Families in Prospect Hill (near Hillsborough) and Bailey (near Wilson) gathered to talk about pesticide use in their communities and how to protect their children from exposure. PESTed worked with health clinics and Migrant Head Start centers in these areas to organize an afternoon of food, children’s games, and discussion about the risks of pesticides and safe alternatives. During the parents’ discussion, the children created a play about the dangers of pesticides, and other ways to kill or prevent bugs in the house, which was how I ended up crawling around on the floor pretending to have antennae.

Both events aimed to teach safe pest control to parents, with an emphasis on safety for farmworker families who face additional work-related exposure besides the everyday dangers of pesticide drift, household pesticides, and food contamination. Parents had an opportunity for hands-on learning with a “make-your-own nontoxic cleaner” station, and kids learned about safe pest control as well by doing activity booklets, playing the quiz wheel, and creating their own play about safe alternatives to pesticides. Kids and adults alike enjoyed meals made from fresh local food donated by area farmers and stores. We finished off the events with raffle drawings for prizes like phone cards, gift cards, and movie tickets, also donations from concerned community businesses.

Perhaps most importantly, PESTed also had a chance to learn what families’ primary concerns were; whether parents were worried about safe home pest control, pesticide drift, or the pest control plans of their health clinics or daycares. PESTed staff gave the families information about alternatives, and the parents discussed among themselves and with the community partners present what their priorities were in reducing pesticide use in the area. PESTed made connections with parents, health clinics, and daycares who are interested in continuing to work together to ensure “Pesticide-Free Kids” in their communities!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Legislative committee gets an earful on farmworkers

This week the Agribusiness Committee of the NC House of Representatives heard a bill that is intended make it easier for the state to enforce its pesticide laws in major cases. The Agricultural Family Protection Act, H 1818, was filed by Reps Dan Blue (D-Wake) and Grier Martin (D-Wake) in response to the loopholes in NC's pesticide law exposed by the Ag-Mart case.

The committee did not take a vote, but it heard testimony from many supporters of the bill, representing health and worker advocates, as well as opposition from some in agribusiness.

Steve Davis, a clinic outreach worker from Greene County Health Care, described some of the pesticide injuries he has seen among workers and talked about the importance of adequate showers for workers to decontaminate.

Stephanie Triantafillou of the Farmworker Advocacy Network told the committee that although she works in direct services to farmworkers and their children, her agency can not in good conscience recommend to their clients that they report pesticide problems on the job, because the lack of confidentiality and retaliation protection puts the workers' jobs and housing at risk.

Lawmakers also heard from the NC Farm Bureau and the Agricultural Alliance of NC, who stated that the points in the bill were unnecessary because of existing standards.

The Farmworker Advocacy Network (of which PESTed is a member) has outlined the gaps in NC's laws that gave rise to the proposed legislation:

  • NC’s Pesticide Law contains loopholes wherein agricultural employers are not required to keep accurate records documenting their compliance with Worker Protection Standards. While they do have to keep specific information about pesticide spraying for 30 days, that information is not available to the NC Department of Agriculture for inspection and enforcement the way that other pesticide records are.
  • Many agricultural workers live in housing that lacks telephones, making it impossible to seek emergency assistance in the case of pesticide poisoning. Many of these units also lack adequate shower facilities to wash off pesticide residues after work or immediately after an exposure. The current standard is 10 workers to a shower, which can mean long lines and increased exposure at the end of the work day.
  • Agricultural workers are unable to file confidential complaints to the NCDA regarding workplace pesticide safety, and may be subject to retaliation for such complaints because they are not covered by NC's anti-retaliation law.
  • Growers who violate NC pesticide laws pay only $500 per violation in fines, while other violators pay $2,000 per violation. The bill would make the cap $2,000 for everyone, and would explicitly give the NCDA authority to asses lower fines for family farmers.

The flimsy record-keeping provisions have allowed Ag-Mart to argue their way out of the largest pesticide violations case in NC history. Final judgment in that case has not yet been made, however, a judge's December 2006 ruling on the relevant parts of the case make a compelling argument to the legislature for real record-keeping requirements.

The committee chairman, Rep. Bill Faison (D-Orange), stated that he expects the committee to take up this issue during the 2008 short session. Until then, it's business as usual for farmworkers who use pesticides on the job in North Carolina. But you don't hear them complaining, do you?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mosquito misters: solace or toxic rip-off?

At Toxic Free NC we get a lot of questions about how to handle pest problems without resorting to poisons. One of the products that seems to generate the most calls and emails lately is the backyard mosquito misting system, marketed under various trade names such as MosquitoNix, Mister Mosquito and others.

With a price tag in the thousands and soothing advertisements that offer freedom from mosquitoes using "natural botanicals," the mosquito mister is quickly becoming this season's Gucci handbag for homeowners. The question we keep getting is:

  • Do they work?

...and a close second, from some of our long-time supporters:

  • How do I convince my neighbors not to buy this poison-mister?

Both good questions. Let's start with the 'do they work' question. A recent bulletin from NCSU entomologists Charles Apperson and Mike Waldvogel states: "We have not seen any scientific studies regarding the true efficacy of these systems in controlling mosquitoes." Here are a few reasons why the misters won't work well in North Carolina:

  • The systems don't prevent mosquitoes. They could kill mosquitoes who happen to be flying by when the mist is released. However, once the mist disperses, mosquitoes can fly back into the area safely.
  • Actively killing adult mosquitoes is most conducive to human comfort during the time and in the area where humans are present. Clearly, "when humans are present" is not the appropriate time and place to be applying a fine insecticide mist.
  • The system is timed to release a cloud of insecticide in the morning and again in the evening. Our most active mosquito species, the Asian Tiger mosquito, is active all day long, so the system would miss the vast majority of our nastiest mosquito pest's activity.
  • Futhermore, spraying the same insecticide over and over, day-in and day-out, is a good way to experiment with inducing insecticide resistance in your local mosquito population. A system that might have provided temporary relief in the beginning would lose effectiveness over time.

Now, on to the implied "are they safe?" part of question #2. The "natural botanical" you keep hearing about in the MosquitoNix commerical is pyrethrin. While pyrethrin is derived from chrysanthemums, that doesn't make it benign. Pyrethrin is also just one of the ingredients in the insecticide formulation, which also includes chemical synergists, propellants, and other "inert" ingredients. Pyrethrin is a broad-spectrum insecticide that will also kill any other flying insects that happen to be in the path of the mosquito mist -- including butterflies, bees, dragonflies... get the idea? It's not a mosquito seek-and-destroy weapon.

A few weeks ago at a backyard cookout, I witnessed an asthmatic child have a frightening wheezing episode after he inhaled the mosquito repellent mist that an adult was applying to herself nearby. Inhaling a fine mist - even one that contains "natural botanicals" - can be dangerous, especially for children.

If you ask an entomologist how to prevent mosquitoes in your backyard, they will undoubtedly give you the tried-and-true methods: remove standing water, wear long pants and sleeves when you can, choose a safe insect repellent if you're outdoors when mosquitoes are active, and for areas with standing water that can't be drained, use mosquito dunks made from Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis) to prevent larvae from becoming adults. More on mosquito prevention.

In summary: mosquito misters seem to be a really expensive way to kill a handful of random flying insects twice a day. If you want to avoid mosquito bites, you don't have to spend a lot of money or use a lot of chemicals - just some common sense.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What does the EU know that we don’t?

This week a court in the European Union banned the herbicide Paraquat (also known as Gramoxone) from use in the EU, citing the chemical's toxicity to the human nervous system. One of the court's reasons for the ban was the failure of the chemical's manufacturer, Syngenta, to provide the court with information regarding Paraquat's link to Parkinson's disease in humans.

The ban came in response to a petition from Sweden, where the chemical was banned in 1983 due to human toxicity concerns. Joining the EU in 1995 forced Sweden to accept some of the EU's weaker environmental provisions - such as the use of Paraquat. This ban was a victory for them.

Paraquat is one of the world's most popular herbicides. Here in North Carolina, it is applied to crops like apples, blueberries, corn, peaches, peanuts, soybeans and squash. An estimated 127,000 pounds of Paraquat were applied to NC crops in 2005, according to data gathered from the Census of Agriculture.

A 1997 re-registration review of Paraquat by the US EPA found no need for neurological review: "There is currently no evidence to suggest the need for these studies." (Paraquat Re-Registration Eligibility Document (pdf), US EPA 1997).

So what do Sweden and the EU know that the US EPA doesn't? One clue may be this: when assessing the human and environmental risks posed by specific chemicals, the EU considers independent scientific data, not just what's provided by the manufacturer. The EPA only requires manufacturer safety data for its re-registration process.

Seems like maybe we're missing something important, doesn't it?

Monday, July 9, 2007

Children of Men

Happy (ahem, very belated) Father's Day to all out there!

I've just stumbled upon an excellent report from the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and the Environment called A Father's Day Report - Men, Boys and Environmental Health Threats (thank you to Rachel's News for covering it). The report looks across current medical research on several types of childhood illnesses for which exposure to chemical pollutants (such as pesticides, flame retardants, plastics, diesel fumes, etc) is thought to play a role. For childhood cancer, asthma, several types of learning and behavioral disorders, and many types of birth defects (especially defects of the reproductive tract), rates are significantly higher for boys than for girls in Canada (and in most industrialized countries). Boys also have unique risks, including "Testicular Dysgenesis Syndrome," which refers to a cluster of male reproductive tract disorders including certain birth defects of that system and poor semen quality.

Add to this the declining male to female birth ratio in many industrialized nations, and you paint a very striking picture - not only are childhood environmental health problems on the rise overall, but they've risen more for boys than for girls! What is going on here?

The report shares some theories that are out there about why boys may be at greater risk for environmental health damage than girls. For one thing, many common chemical pollutants are "endocrine disruptors," meaning that they mess with normal hormone functions in living things. Many of this class of pollutants are particularly damaging to the pathway for testosterone production in mammals (including humans!), thereby putting males at increased risk for related problems.

For another, the development of the male reproductive system in utero is a more complicated process than the development of the female reproductive system. With more developmental steps, there are more opportunities for chemical exposure to interfere and cause something to go wrong.

Another difference that may make boys more prone to asthma is that they tend to have smaller airways relative to their lung size than girls do, and they tend to have higher rates of allergies.

So, what can we do to protect our boys? The Father's Day Report provides an excellent list of tips for reducing children's exposure to chemicals in the environment, especially geared for Dads. Fathers' exposure to toxic chemicals has been connected to environmental health problems for their children, and the report provides an excellent analysis of the different types of exposure risks. Many of the report's tips for Dads revolve around protecting themselves from exposure to chemicals at work, and taking precautions to keep work- and hobby-related chemical residues out of the family environment. Simple things, like handwashing, showering after work, good ventilation, and washing work clothes separately from family clothes. The report also recommends that Dads take responsibility for ensuring that their home and their child's school or childcare center are using safer alternatives to pesticides and other toxics whenever possible. PESTed recommends Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, as a kid-safe approach to pests for schools, childcare, and home, too. Find out more about IPM for schools and childcare centers.

I think this report is a really important wake-up call for families, and especially for Dads, to be extra careful to protect themselves and their children from exposure to chemical pollutants. Remember, it's not just our own health at risk when we breathe in chemical fumes or work with pesticides, solvents, and other hazardous chemicals. When those chemicals get into our bodies or onto our clothes and skin, our families can get second hand exposures that pose very serious health risks, especially for children, and it seems more and more, especially for our boys. So, please be careful, Dads and everyone!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Go organic to fight global warming!

Need another reason to buy organic food?

According to findings from the ongoing Farming Systems Trial at The Rodale Institute, organic grain farming, including low- or no-till soil preparation and cover cropping, actually increases carbon sequestration in the soil by 15% - 28% compared with conventional farming techniques. Translation: 15% - 28% percent less carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere because it's bound up in the soil. This is in addition to reduced carbon dioxide emissions from farm equipment on organic farms (no-till means fewer passes over the field with a gas-guzzling tractor and about one-third less carbon emissions), and from the production of petroleum-based fertilizers. Add to that buying local AND organic, and you eliminate still more greenhouse gas production from food transport. Wow!

So what does carbon sequestration mean, and why do organic farms have more of it? Well, the folks at Rodale have a couple explanations:

One is that organic cultivation focuses on building up carbon-based organic matter, or humus, in the soil. Humus refines soil texture and holds nutrients and water. Soil rich in humus is more naturally fertile, and holds a more consistent level of moisture, even in the face of heavy rains or drought. Plus, humus is made of carbon! On a conventional farm, application of nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizer stimulates soil organisms to break down any humus in the soil very quickly, and when they do, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. On an organic farm, humus is added to the soil and breaks down very slowly, so it feeds the plants over a long period of time, AND releases much less carbon dioxide.

Another reason has to do with mychorrhizae - microbial fungi that are naturally present in organic soil. These mychorrhizae actually work symbiotically with plant roots, helping them to take up more water and nutrients from the soil in exchange for a 12% share of the (carbon-based) energy that the plants make using photosynthesis. This means that plants working together with mychorrhizae are doing more photosynthesis and fixing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil, in addition to being healthier and more disease resistant. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used in a conventional farming system actually kill off some of the mychorrhizae and stop this symbiotic carbon sequestration from occurring.

But how much greenhouse gas are we talking here? Is this enough to put a real dent in global warming? Here are some numbers to put this into perspective:

If all 160 million acres of corn and soy grown in the US were transitioned to organic, they'd be sequestering about 580 billion extra pounds of carbon dioxide per year. That's like taking 58.7 million cars off the road, or about 25% of the cars in the US. Yow! If ALL American cropland went organic, it'd be like taking more than half the cars in the US off the road.

Check out this video (starring Percy Schmeiser) about the Rodale findings, and be sure to add "eat organic food" to your list to-dos for reducing your carbon footprint, right up there next to compact flourescent lightbulbs, carpooling, or riding your bike!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hormone havoc - this is news?

With some fanfare, the US EPA announced this week that it will begin screening 73 popular agricultural & residential pesticides to find out whether they might be endocrine disruptors. The screening would be the initial phase of a multi-stage review that would not consider new restrictions on pesticides until after many exhaustive rounds of testing.

What's an endocrine disruptor? It's a chemical pollutant that, at low levels, can mimic hormones in the human body. This is problematic when the pollutant plugs into our body's hormone receptors during key phases of human development, blocking or scrambling the developmental signal that the hormone should have been sending. The scrambled signal can result in long-term health problems - in lab animals, effects like feminized males, hermaphrodite offspring, low sperm counts and sterility. Endocrine disruption is also being studied as a mechanism in the development of cancer.

We've been hearing a lot about endocrine disruptors ever since the groundbreaking 1996 book, Our Stolen Future, introduced them to a general audience. In 1997, Congress ordered the US EPA to begin looking at whether the thousands of pesticide products it reviews and registers each year might be interfering with the endocrine system. Ten years and tens of thousands of new pesticides later, EPA is finally making a list: 73 chemicals to be reviewed.

Given all that independent researchers have already discovered about endocrine disruptors, and all the red flags that two decades of studies have already sent up about specific pesticides, EPA seems a little behind the curve here. There's already plenty of evidence to warrant their consideration of new restrictions on several chemicals like atrazine, which has been shown to turn male frogs into females at stunningly low doses.

Considering the long-term implications for human (and wildlife) health, it seems absurd that EPA has taken so long to even begin looking at this critical phenomenon. Though I'm sure the pesticide industry has been happier while EPA simply looked the other way.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Blue frogs

Though not actually blue in color (unless they're one of these guys), frogs everywhere are apt to be feeling a bit blue upon hearing last week's news that three widely used organophosphate pesticides (or "OPs") have been found to be even more toxic to frogs than was previously thought.

In a study published last week in the journal Environmental Pollution, scientists at the University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale and the U.S. Geological Survey report that the breakdown products of insecticides diazinon, chlorpyrifos, and malathion are far more toxic to certain native California species of amphibians than the original pesticide chemicals, which are already highly toxic. In other words, these highly poisonous chemicals get even more poisonous to frogs after they enter the body and begin to be digested, or after they've been hanging around in the environment for a while and begin to degrade - 10 times more toxic in the case of diazinon, and 100 times more toxic in the cases of chlorpyrifos and malathion.

Frogs may be a "canary in the coal mine" for pesticides because of their moist, permeable skin, but according to one of the lead researchers on this study, Dr. Gary Fellers, these findings do not bode well for other species, including birds, mammals and humans.

OPs are widely implicated in the declines of several amphibian species in the California Central Valley and in downwind mountain areas that are prone to pesticide drift. U.C. Berkeley scientist Tyrone Hayes has also found that the nation's #2 most popular herbicide, atrazine, can cause hermaphrodism and other serious health effects in male frogs, even at very low levels.

These findings implicate pesticide contamination in a widespread decline in amphibian populations across the country, and even worldwide.

People must heed the warning of these green (and increasingly blue!) canaries in the proverbial coal mine, since we depend on the same water that frogs do, and a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that we are also being affected. Consider the recent finding from a researcher at Indiana University School of Medicine that rates of premature birth in humans are highest each year during the same months that pesticide and fertilizer levels spike in surface water, and lowest in the months when pesticide and fertilizer levels are lowest (link). Or, the finding that that children conceived in Indiana during the months of high pesticide use score lower on standardized tests than children conceived in months with low pesticide use (link).

While municipal drinking water treatment systems kill bacteria that could threaten human health, they seldom remove chemical contaminants - including pesticides and their break down products. Filtering your tap water to remove some impurities is a quick fix, but it is urgent that people act now to keep pesticides out of our waterways. For starters, please support farmers that don't use pesticides by buying locally-grown organic foods whenever you can, and sign up for PESTed's Action Alerts to stay in the loop about pesticide issues in North Carolina, and what you can do to make a difference.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

100 years of Rachel Carson

This week, many of us in the environmental movement celebrated the 100th birthday of one of our founding inspirations, Rachel Carson.

Carson is best known as the author of Silent Spring, the book that first exposed the harms caused to our health and the environment by the widespread use of chemical pesticides. Silent Spring is credited with launching the modern environmental movement, and has inspired many generations of scientists, activists and authors since.

This week Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) held up legislation honoring Carson because her work "turned the public against such chemicals as DDT." The resolution was sponsored by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD).

Watch this wonderful interview with scientist and author Sandra Steingraber, discussing Rachel Carson's legacy, on Democracy Now.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Happy birthday to a hero

This week one of North Carolina's environmental heroes celebrates her 90th birthday. Jane Sharp MacRae is an inspiring trailblazer for energy, the environment, consumer rights and women in politics. PESTed was lucky to have Jane as a Board member for nearly two decades, and she now honors us as an "emeritus" member of our Board of Directors.

In the photo at right, Jane and her husband Duncan MacRae work with PESTed staff on an air monitoring project at their home in Carolina Meadows. Jane and other members of the Carolina Meadows Recycling Committee used a Drift Catcher to monitor pesticides in the air during spring pesticide spraying by grounds management around their homes and on a nearby golf course.

A lifelong learner, leader and tireless activist for the environment, Jane is an inspiration to us on her 90th birthday. Check out this wonderful article about her in the Chapel Hill News.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Breast cancer triggers

Do chemical contaminants in the environment cause breast cancer? An excellent article in the Los Angeles Times describes the most comprehensive study to date of the evidence linking breast cancer to environmental pollutants (read the whole study here).

The results? More than 200 chemicals, including industrial solvents, pesticides, dyes, cosmetics ingredients and diesel exhaust, cause breast cancer in laboratory studies. Scientists have long known that only a small minority of breast cancer cases are linked to genetic factors, and that environmental triggers must play an important role. Unfortunately, the study of environmental triggers of breast cancer has taken a back-seat to other factors such as diet and exercise. But because breast cancer has become such a common disease, and because our exposure to these carcinogenic contaminants is so widespread, "if even a small percentage is due to preventable environmental factors, modifying these factors would spare thousands of women," according to the study's authors.

Unfortunately, in the US, government regulators typically wait until they have all the evidence of human toxicity to take action, rather than relying on the red flags raised by animal studies. Tufts University cell biologist Anna Soto, interviewed for the LA Times story, disagrees with this approach and urged preventive action.

"When you look at their list of chemicals, we are exposed to all of it," Soto said. "We will never have the whole picture, and it will take many, many years to collect epidemiological evidence, so we should take some preventive measures now."

So what can we do? States and local governments can adopt stricter emissions and drinking water standards to reduce the exposure of the whole population to carcinogenic compounds like diesel exhaust and dry cleaning solvents. As individuals, we can buy safer products and eat cleaner diets of fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly those that are grown organically. Check out PESTed's Go Organic page for resources, and be sure to visit the new Women's Health and the Environment toolkit for lots of great information that you can share with the women in your life.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Composting with worms

While on a jaunt in Charlotte week before last, I was lucky enough to receive my very own worm bin for vermicomposting kitchen waste. (Thank you Chris North!) This has sparked several realizations on my part:

1 - Vermicomposting is really easy. I can't believe I didn't start doing it sooner. Basically, you make a ventilated bin (putting a few holes in the side of a plastic storage bin works well), load it up with dirt and bedding material (I started with shredded newspaper), keep everything about the dampness of a wrung-out sponge, add worms, and add kitchen scraps (about 1/2 pound a day, or 3 - 4 pounds a week), and presto! You're vermicomposting! There is little or no smell, the worms are totally contained and need very little extra care, save the periodic addition of your food scraps, and some moisture maintenance. Before long, you'll have a bin full of worm castings (i.e. worm poo, but don't worry, it doesn't smell!) that is an excellent fertilizer for potted plants and gardens.

2 - Your town and county probably have resources to get you started. Many NC municipalities (including Charlotte and Raleigh) have programs in their solid waste departments that promote and support vermicomposting. NC Cooperative Extension also has vermicomposting workshops and information. Check out your town website, or your local cooperative extension office, to see if there are programs in your area that you could be taking advantage of to get a cheap or free worm bin, or a starter supply of redworms.

My dog, Indiana, making friends with her new roommates, the worms.

Above, my dog Indiana makes friends with her new roommates, the redworms.

Have a good time. :)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Local farms in the news

Following on the heels of a successful Piedmont Farm Tour, NBC 17 news this week did a great story on how consumers can buy a share in a local farm, also known as "Community Supported Agriculture" or CSA. CSA's are popping up all over North Carolina, and they're a great way for consumers to get a bounty of fresh, locally-grown produce all season long at a good price, and directly from a farmer they know and trust.

Some CSA farmers like Hilltop Farms' Fred Miller, allow members to come out and work on the farm (look for PESTed staffer and Hilltop Farms member Billie Karel weeding organic strawberries in the NBC17 story!). Working at the farm increases a family's connection to the place their food comes from, a welcome change in today's industrialized food market, where one box of cereal might contain ingredients from farms and factories on every continent.

A bill working its way through the NC General Assembly would put some state investment behind local, organic growers in North Carolina. The NC Organic Economic Opportunities Act would fund state research on the current status of organic agriculture in North Carolina, and its potential for growth. Even with CSA's and farmers' markets on the rise in our state, the vast majority of organic foods eaten here were grown someplace else - most often California.

You can support local, organic agriculture in North Carolina by urging your state representatives to support this important bill, and of course by buying locally. Check out this handy list of CSA farms in NC to find out how you can sign up for one!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Since when is a tundra swan a ‘pest’?

Hint: Try reading the Navy's environmental impact statements for the proposed Outlying Landing Field in Washington & Beaufort counties.

Governor Easley recently took issue with the Navy's plan to use a highly-toxic pesticide, Avitrol, as part of its plan to manage "bird air strike hazards" at the site.

The possibility that the Navy may need to resort to using Avitrol, a highly toxic pesticide unregistered for use in North Carolina, underscores how profoundly inappropriate the proposed site is for the OLF.

A pesticide is a poison registered with the EPA for use against pests. Under the EPA’s definition, a pest is an unwanted organism that poses a threat to human health or economic activity. A rat is a pest because it can destroy property and harbor disease. Under the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement, tundra swans and snow geese – species carefully conserved at the neighboring Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge – become “pests” on and around the proposed OLF site. Within the same document, the Navy discusses both conserving and destroying migratory birds – treating them as both desirable and undesirable organisms in the same management plan.

Common-sense pest management relies on preventing the conditions that give rise to pest problems. In the case of tundra swans and snow geese, this would mean removing the food, water and habitat that the pests – geese and swans – rely on.

In the case of rats in a school building, for example, removing food, water and habitat is as simple as repairing leaky pipes, tightly closing garbage cans, and sealing up holes in the wall. In Washington and Beaufort counties, however, removing birds’ food, water and habitat will simply be impossible. While the Navy does have plans to change some land use and farming practices near the site, the Navy cannot change the fact that the proposed site is essentially an agricultural area, full of food for migratory birds, nor the fact that the site is neighbored in three directions by open water. Those very conditions that give rise to the “pest” problem – hundreds of thousands of migratory birds – make low-risk, common-sense management impossible for the Navy. Therefore the Navy will have to resort to drastic measures that are far beyond the realm of common sense, including baiting birds with poisoned bread and pellets to discourage them from living near the proposed OLF site.

This plan does not only pose threats to the targeted bird populations, but to many other species as well. Avitrol is highly toxic to birds and to mammals, and accidental ingestion by non-target species, including songbirds, ducks, coyotes, dogs and foxes would pose a significant danger. If used on neighboring farm fields, Avitrol would put farmers and workers at risk of accidental exposure, and contribute to pesticide runoff to the estuary.

This drastic and wrong-headed approach to problem-solving belies the fundamental problem with the proposed OLF: it doesn’t belong there. The risks posed to pilots, neighbors, wildlife and environmental quality are enormous, and the proposed risk management techniques – like using unregistered pesticides to poison protected species – would only make matters worse.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

PESTed in Greenville, NC

Veggie painting at the Greenville Kids FestPESTed spent last Saturday at KidsFest - The Greenville Convention Center was *packed* with some 7000 children and parents from the Greenville area! PESTed did some fun educational activities with the children, and also spoke with parents about using safer alternatives to pesticides at home, school and childcare.

At left, you see several young children pounding colorful bits of vegetables to transfer their pigments onto squares of muslin fabric in an activity we call "Veggie Painting." Kids work out some energy with all that pounding! They also learn about some new vegetables they might not have tried before, and about the high vitamin content of fresh fruits and vegetables....and when they're finished, they have a beautiful piece of abstract veggie art to take home!

Color-A-Bug at Greenville Kids FestPESTed also has a "Color-a-Bug" station for kids - see some of our young artists, at right.

We're planning to bring the PESTed info & activity booth to several more festivals in different parts of North Carolina this month - check out our calendar for the schedule. Would you be interested in coming to help out at one of these events as a volunteer? Or, would you like to see the PESTed booth come to your town this year? Let us know!