Friday, February 20, 2009

Ag-Mart receives a slap on the wrist in worker endangerment case

The North Carolina Pesticide Board has completed their deliberation on the case against Ag-Mart, the tomato company accused of the largest pesticide violations case in state history.

More than 200 charges of worker endangerment were at issue in the case. On Thursday, 2/19, The Pesticide Board found Ag-Mart guilty of just six charges of sending workers back into fields before the “re-entry interval” (REI) had expired, for a total fine of just $3,000. The hundreds of charges originally filed against Ag-Mart first came to light in 2005 when three babies with severe birth defects were born to Ag-Mart workers who worked in tomato fields in North Carolina and Florida during their pregnancies.

Get the full details from the Raleigh News & Observer's article.

The $3,000 fine highlights just how low the penalties are for cases of worker endangerment, and how difficult such charges are to prove. The state does not require pesticide applicators to keep records of compliance with the re-entry intervals that are designed to protect workers from hazardous pesticide residues in the field. Without these records, there was no documentation to corroborate the charges brought by state investigators resulting from Ag-Mart’s spray tickets and worker testimony.

The Pesticide Board’s judgment underscores two very serious shortcomings in North Carolina’s pesticide laws and regulations:
  1. At just $500 per violation, fines for companies who violate the state’s pesticide regulations are far too low. In a case where workers were put directly in harm’s way, a $3,000 total fine is a pittance, and a shameful conclusion to a case with such serious consequences.
  2. North Carolina needs a robust record-keeping requirement in order to be able to enforce its worker protection standards. Without clear records, it is next to impossible to know whether or not growers comply with the law.
Unless the NC General Assembly and the NC Pesticide Board correct these critical problems, bad actors have no incentive to comply with North Carolina’s pesticide laws and regulations that are intended to protect workers and the public. Ag-Mart has shown just how flimsy those laws can be.

Toxic Free NC will be fighting hard this year, together with our allies in the Farmworker Advocacy Network, to win this campaign so that another Ag-Mart case will never be repeated in North Carolina. Donate now to support this fight.

More background

In 2008 the NC Pesticide Board found Ag-Mart in violation of 42 counts of improper pesticide use, such as improperly mixing pesticides, and using pesticides that were not labeled for use in North Carolina. The Board fined Ag-Mart $21,000 for those violations, and revoked the farm manager’s pesticide license as a result.

Ag-Mart is also facing close to a million dollars in fines for hundreds of new charges of pesticide misuse and worker endangerment in New Jersey. In addition, the company has already paid out a civil settlement to workers who contend that pesticide misuse led to the severe birth defects in their son, who was born with no arms or legs after both his parents worked in Ag-Mart fields in North Carolina. The amount of the settlement is undisclosed, but it is believed to be in the millions.

by Fawn Pattison

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Government report slams EPA for poor regulation of chemicals

Guest post by Toxic Free NC volunteer Christopher Grohs.

The financial meltdown isn’t the only crisis resulting from poor government regulation facing the American public right now.

In its 2009 High Risk priority report released January 22, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) sharply criticized the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) track record of safety testing for hazardous chemicals. This includes, of course, pesticides, which EPA is charged with regulating.

Recent articles from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and AScribe Newswire explain the numerous problems the EPA has had providing accurate and timely information to the American public. From the Journal-Sentinel article:

"The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lacks adequate scientific information on the toxicity of many chemicals that may be found in the environment - as well as on tens of thousands of chemicals used commercially in the United States," the GAO said. "EPA's inadequate progress in assessing toxic chemicals significantly limits the agency's ability to fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment."


"The EPA's ability to protect public health and the environment depends on credible and timely assessments of the risks posed by toxic chemicals, the GAO found. Its Integrated Risk Information System, which contains assessments of more than 500 toxic chemicals, "is at serious risk of becoming obsolete because the EPA has been unable to keep its existing assessments current or to complete assessments of important chemicals of concern."

The EPA urgently needs to streamline and increase the transparency of this assessment process, the report says."

Weaknesses in EPA's system of chemical regulation ultimately hurt American families who are exposed to a plethora of toxic chemicals through their use of everyday household products - pesticides, cleaners, plastics, cosmetics, and more. The public is also exposed to a variety of chemicals in our food, water and air because of their use in agriculture and industry.

For tips on how to reduce your exposure to pesticides and other toxics at home, from eating locally to staving off annoying bugs, check out the many resources available on our website. Toxic Free NC provides useful information for parents, resources for getting involved in the pesticide-free movement and a list of toxins commonly used on our crops (so you can make the healthier decisions!).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Triclosan - the secret pesticide

Guest post by Toxic Free NC volunteer Amy Freitag.

Ever wonder what makes "antibacterial soap" antibacterial? Since the 1960’s, triclosan is often the active ingredient, working to keep you healthy and safe.

Or is it?

Triclosan is actually a pesticide that should be handled as the dangerous chemical it is. And yet, it can be found in regular old hand soap, and a whole mess of other consumer products.....pretty much everywhere! Just take a look at this list of places triclosan is commonly found:
- cosmetics
- children’s toys
- toothpaste
- plastic utensils
- deodorant
- shoes
- mops
- kitchen accessories
- bedding
- mattresses
- food storage containers
- sponges
- phones

Triclosan is considered nontoxic to humans because large doses are necessary to show negative effects. However, a few cases have been reported where ordinary daily use of a product containing triclosan caused the skin become photosensitive and break out in a rash. According to the CDC, the chronic effects of triclosan exposure can include interfering with thyroid hormone metabolism, which could cause hypothermic effects and central nervous system depression. Research has also shown that triclosan is a major contributor to antibiotic resistance because of the specific mechanism it uses to kill bacteria, and its widespread use in almost every household and workplace.

How does it work? According to General Chemistry Online, the molecule enters the cell and binds to an important bacterial enzyme called the enoyl-acyl carrier protein reductase, which is crucial to the production of fatty acids needed for building cell membranes and molecules for communication. What all that chemistry boils down to is basically that triclosan gums up the keyhole necessary to lock the cell up, leaving the bacteria wide open, like a house in a bad neighborhood with the front door hanging open. However, all it takes for the bacteria to escape this bad fortune is to alter the keyhole a bit so that the triclosan can’t fit. Once one figures out how to do this, it survives to reproduce a population of resistant bacteria.

Although it may be less than totally effective at killing the offending germs that cause illness, triclosan and related antibiotics are highly effective at wiping out entire populations of natural, healthy bacteria that are necessary for the ecosystem and even human health. By removing the normal bacterial flora from our environments, we aren’t exposed to normal parts of the ecosystem, and then when we finally are, the result may be.... achoo! Seriously, one theory of allergy formation is that exposure to bacteria (within reason, of course) is actually a normal and necessary part of developing a healthy immune system.

As for the ecosystem, those bacteria fill niches in food webs, nutrient cycling, and disease resistance that contribute to the resilience of the environment in the face of threats such as global warming and development. The story with algae in streams and rivers is similar – they show drastic negative effects in the presence of triclosan, often downstream of wastewater treatment plants that don’t treat for pharmaceuticals. These algae provide the base of the aquatic food web that supports the entire system. If we remove that protection through our use of hand soap, we exacerbate the other environmental problems humans have come to bear on earth.

As if that all weren't bad enough, triclosan itself is not the only threat associated with triclosan use. How, you might ask? When exposed to sunlight, triclosan converts into carcinogenic dioxins. Research on the effects of triclosan and metabolites such as dioxin is still ongoing, which begs the question why the chemical is allowed to be so widely used without full knowledge of its impacts. That is a policy question that could take a book to analyze the answer to, but the future of these effects is in the hands of the consumer at this point.

So, convinced you want to avoid this ubiquitous chemical? Good luck! Heres's a "cheatsheet" with tips on avoiding products with triclosan from Environmental Working Group. It's a lot of information to digest, but there are two main changes you can make quickly and easily that will help a lot:

1) Wash your hands with good old fashioned soap and water. According to an epidemiology group out of the University of Michigan, it's the best way. The FDA is also beginning to figure this out, finally.

2) Read ingredient labels for soaps and cosmetics. Don't buy stuff that lists triclosan or the closely-related triclocarban.

No matter what type of soap you use, most germs are removed from your hands by the simple act of wiping them off. Soap and water help a lot, but you don’t need to go beyond that. If the germies are already off your hands and down the drain, does it really matter if they're also dead? For regular handwashing and personal hygiene, the relative ineffectiveness of antibacterial products combined with the very real threat of antibiotic resistance from their over use mean that antibacterial soaps could actually be doing more harm than good.