Friday, September 25, 2009

Happy National Farm Safety & Health Week

On Monday, President Barack Obama declared this week to be National Farm Safety and Health Week. Here's an excerpt:
Working long hours at physically demanding and often dangerous tasks, farmers and ranchers provide for our Nation and countless others across the world. Even as they have faced risks, they have made our agricultural sector more productive and practiced good stewardship of our country's natural resources. This week, Americans express gratitude for the untold benefits we enjoy from their labor, and we honor their achievements by urging continued commitment to the highest standards of safety and health.
While the proclamation evokes images of rolling wheat fields and overall-clad farmers on tractors, what many Americans don't know is that the bulk of the fresh food we eat is harvested by a mostly migrant workforce.

Nobody disagrees that farm work is dangerous. Agricultural workers have the 2nd highest rate of fatalities in the country. Farm workers also face some of the highest rates of chemical injury and skin disorders, and live in some of the worst housing in the nation.

The glacial pace of improvement, though, is often further hampered by workers' geographic isolation, immigration status, and language and cultural barriers. We at Toxic Free NC want to give a special shout-out in honor of our farm worker friends here in North Carolina for National Farm Safety and Health Week. And we also wanted to remind everyone that, while many farm workers already know the rules of workplace safety, they may not always be in control of what happens down on the farm.

That said, please take a minute to watch our new video below. We made it over the summer with the help of our fantastic Student Action with Farmworkers intern Laura Valencia, and it features farm workers from right here in North Carolina speaking directly to the heart of this issue. Enjoy, ¡y que vivan los campesinos!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Questions about (Toxic) County Mosquito Control in Coastal NC

guest post by Amy Freitag

Glass of cold ice tea, hibiscus and green tea with just the slightest hint of lime. Check.

A good novel, one prepared to take me off to someone else’s world of romance and fantasy. Check.

Hammock, gently rocking in the wind, the taste of the air ever so slightly just flavored by the tomato plants nearby in full summer glory. Check.

I sat down, prepared to have a wonderful, relaxing afternoon to myself when I hear ‘bzzzzzt’. I would know that noise anywhere even if it weren’t directly in my ear. A mosquito.

‘Buzz, buzz, buzzzzzzut’. It tries again to get a good bite and then is joined by a friend. Great. So much for my afternoon.

I hate mosquitoes. I mean, who doesn’t? My afternoon scene isn’t foreign to anyone living in coastal North Carolina, that’s for sure. And apparently, this year’s the worst mosquito year in quite awhile, so the county has stepped up efforts to chemically decrease their numbers, as evidenced by the spray truck that comes by my house about once a week in the early morning under the banner of public health.

Wait, what?

As much as I hate mosquitoes, I’m not sure I’m ready to give in to the sacrifices of this practice that makes me think I’ve been surreptitiously transported back in time to a bygone era. One before Rachel Carson, the EPA, and the general understanding that pesticides are dangerous and should be handled with care.

So what about the cloud of chemical smoke that graced my porch this morning? Did I just become consumed in my little life bubble and miss the announcement that the county was spraying? Or was it really not announced? Did I ever have the chance of voicing concern over the practice?

A little bit of internet searching later, I found the section of the local government responsible for making such decisions: the Carteret County Mosquito Control Division, linked to Animal Control (yep, not linked to the state’s departments in charge of agriculture or pesticides, but entirely under local control). A quick call to their offices asking about the spraying I had observed that morning yielded the following information:
  1. mosquito control is done entirely on a county level, though practices are fairly standard and haven’t changed over the last couple of decades
  2. the control program uses a combination of sprays and pellets distributed in roadside ditches
  3. the following brands are used: Aqua-Reslin, Altosid SBG, Aquabac XT, and Altosid briquettes.
She asked if I had any more questions, but not wanting to get on my activist high-horse quite yet, I politely said no and hung up the phone.

After a bit more time poking around the manufacturers’ websites (,, and, I could identify the active ingredients and start connecting them to other information I knew in terms of impacts to human health and the environment. Like other chemicals, these pesticides are required to have a comprehensive label describing all the potential risks that come along with use and giving specific directions for proper handling in order to minimize those risks. This sheet was a good first stop for information – these sheets are federally required and under strict federal oversight to report all known risks. All of the products said to wash eyes or exposed skin for 15 minutes and to contact poison control if swallowed (do not induce vomiting or give them water). Here’s more specifics from what the labels say, my reactions and comments follow:
  • Aqua-Reslin: Active ingredients are permethrin and piperonyl butoxide. It’s intended to be a space spray for adult mosquitoes. It is not to be applied within 100 feet of lakes and streams and exposed drinking water (such as fountains or cattle troughs). My favorite is the environmental hazards section: “This pesticide is extremely toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates. Do not apply directly to water, to areas where surface water is present or to intertidal areas below the mean high water mark… This pesticide is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment on blooming crops or weeds. Do not apply this product or allow drift when bees are actively visiting the treatment area.”
  • Altosid SBG/briquettes: Active ingredient is s-methoprene, designed to kill larvae as dosed in their breeding pools. They mention no particular risks other than “do not contaminate water when disposing of rinsate or equipment washwaters”.
  • Aquabac xt: Active ingredient is Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that kills larvae of a wide variety of insects. They include the same statement about contaminating water as Altosid. These directions seem innocuous enough, easy to follow, and targeted at the nuisance. However, upon closer examination of the coastal environment upon which these chemicals are being applied yields a number of questions followed by surprise that these chemicals are standard practice considering the total effects.
First, we assume the good sense of the applicators and people exposed to the spray to give themselves the 15 minute shower flush and maybe even check in with poison control, consequently avoiding direct exposure the next time. There are even classes for applicators to take from EPA to minimize their risk of exposure. However, the labels give no information on the length of time after application the chemicals remain active. What if I had not noticed the truck go by at 7am and then sat down on the porch swing at 7:15am to enjoy my breakfast? What kind of exposure did I just put myself through?

Second, I’d like to tackle the 100 feet of lakes and streams directive. I live pretty close to the center of a fairly small island, surrounded by water on all sides just a few blocks from my house. Presumably, also, the spraying truck also covered the streets closest to the estuaries where some of the densest housing is located. Did they stay 100 feet from bodies of water that contain productive fisheries? Not if they went over a bridge.

Third, related to the question of bees. Most people by now have heard of colony collapse disorder (CCD) occurring across the country in honeybee colonies. These colonies are critical to agriculture, bringing pollen to stamens everywhere and allowing us to enjoy squash, tomatoes, eggplant, apples, peaches, and the list goes on. I’ve personally noticed a lack of honeybees in my personal garden this summer, rendering my beautiful vegetable plants sterile. I’ve even tried to do the job myself, out in the early morning with a q-tip trying to think like a hungry bee, but to no avail. I’ve had one tomato out of a plot of 3 tomato plants, 4 squash, 4 eggplants, and a more wildflowers than I can count. CCD (see for more information) is as of yet unascribed to any particular cause, but I have my guesses.

Finally, the more general point about “do not contaminate water” with the anti-larvals. Although this sounds simple, a couple of considerations may require a second thought. The area is comprised of soil made up almost entirely of sand, which allows water, pesticides, and any other runoff to directly enter the drinking water supply that sits directly below our island. Also, the tablets are applied to roadside ditches and puddles that connect directly to…you guessed it, bodies of water! Work by Costlow and Bookhout, professors at the Duke Marine Lab, in the 1970’s established that methoprene and permethrin directly kill blue crabs, shrimp, and other invertebrates in the estuaries. This not only disrupts the ecology of the estuaries (which, incidentally are federally protected preserves, the Rachel Carson Estuarine Research Reserve and the Lookout National Seashore), but directly costs the area jobs in terms of declining fisheries.

I encourage everyone to look into their local pest control programs and find out what the operating practices are. You might just be surprised.

guest post by Amy Freitag