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!