New Agreement Yields New Regs for Weed Killer Dicamba

An end-goal of damage reduction leads the EPA and three major biotech firms to agree to stricter regulations for a popular herbicide, but is it enough?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reached an agreement with agricultural and chemical manufacturers, including Monsanto, to reduce damage caused by a weed killer that can drift and hurt nearby crops, deciding that new requirements were appropriate. But, some scientists aren’t so sure that it goes far enough.

According to the new agreement, products made with the weed killer dicamba must have their labels altered to “restricted use.” Now, anyone who uses it will need special training or supervision and a certification that complies with EPA standards. In addition, record-keeping in relation to usage will be required.

But an NPR article reports that weed scientists from across the Midwest are worried and wish that they had been allowed to do more testing prior to the herbicide going to market.

Dicamba, a weed killer, is used on cotton and soybeans grown from genetically modified seeds. Genetically modified soybean seeds were designed by biotech firms to be resistant to dicamba, allowing it to be applied to fields to kill weeds later in the growing season. Reuben Baris, the acting chief of the herbicides branch of the EPA, said that 2,708 complaints had been reported to state agriculture officials about dicamba crop damage as of mid-October of this year.

What is the Issue for Farmworkers?

The issue is pesticide drift and volatility of the product. Pesticide drift can occur when a pesticide is sprayed in the air over one field and then carried by wind to another field. Farmworkers and plants in the nearby field, unaware that they are being exposed to this harmful pesticide, are left defenseless to protect themselves. When a pesticide is volatile, it can quickly vaporize becoming far more dangerous than a sprayed mist that drifts from its intended target.

The newly reached agreement calls for limiting the application of dicamba to when conditions aren’t windy, along with other provisions, according to the EPA. However, Arkansas farmers who filed suit against the company claim Monsanto knowingly misrepresented the safety of dicamba and that the herbicide caused “significant harm” to the soybean crop in Arkansas and other states in both 2016 and 2017.

Bob Scott, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas, along with other colleagues performed dicamba field tests over the summer. The weed scientists found their worst fears discovered, the dicamba was evaporating from the soil and damaging nearby vegetation that had not been sprayed.

What are the Health and Safety Issues?

Pesticides and herbicides don’t just have the possibility of harming plants; they can harm people as well. Many contain toxic chemicals that can cause birth defects in children whose parents were exposed through commercial agricultural work, groundwater contamination, or airborne drift. Parents who work in the fields for the farming industry — or simply live near an agricultural area — are at high risk of exposure to toxic pesticides and herbicides used on the fields. Pesticides may damage the parents’ chromosomes and lead to birth defects among children who are conceived during or just after exposure. Birth defects and complications linked to pesticides include:

  • Brain cancers
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Neurological disorders
  • Lower birth weight and size
  • Premature death

Consumers and individuals depend on companies catering to the commercial farming industry to make safe products and to provide warnings when necessary. However, it is the responsibility of labor contractors and farm owners to provide a safe working environment for their laborers and farm workers. The labor contractors and farm owners are frequently aware that chemicals used on their fields can be a cause of birth defects, but may fail to adequately warn or protect the workers from these dangers. No one should have to be exposed to hazardous pesticides due to an unsafe work environment.

With regards to the hazards of dicamba, Scott reportedly told NPR that ‘If this [dicamba] were any other product, I feel like it would be just pulled off the market, and we’d be done with it.”

Pineapple, Water, and Pesticides–Not the Most Ideal Cocktail

History shows a chemical once used in Hawai‘ian pineapple fields has been seeping into Maui water wells.

Pineapple, the fruit that many say wears a crown, has a lasting legacy that may not appear as beautiful as its golden flesh. If one spends time tracing history, you may see what some refer to as a troubling pattern of contradiction in reference to the pesticide-contaminated wells of Maui, Hawai‘i. Here is a brief recounting of the timeline.

1950s Dibromochloropropane Development

Dibromochloropropane (DBCP) belongs to a class of pesticides called persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  POPs, such as DBCP, remain in the environment for extended periods of time and can be harmful to human health. DBCP was specifically developed for use in Hawai‘ian pineapple fields and became the preferred method of controlling nematodes, or root worms. Health hazards linked to DBCP include kidney and liver damage, infertility, testicular atrophy, and potentially cancer.

1977 Dibromochloropropane Ban

California banned all further uses of DBCP, citing concerns over health effects on exposed workers. It was also known to cause cancers in test animals and was suspected of causing cancers in humans. Workers exposed to DBCP were experiencing reduced fertility and lower sperm counts. Not long after California implemented its ban, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a schedule for phasing out most uses of the pesticide. Hawai‘i pineapple plantation owners conducted special pleadings with the highest officials in state government, and the use of DBCP was allowed to extend past 1981.

1979 Dibromochloropropane Levels in Water Tests

Water quality tests show DBCP in five out of 10 sites around Hawai‘i ranging from 0.26 parts per billion (ppb) to 2.23 ppb. In comparison, drinking water sources in to California were being closed when concentrations greater than 1 ppb were found. Local residents were not aware of the testing.

1981 Dibromochloropropane Ban is Lifted

A settlement was reached on appeal lifting the EPA’s ban on DBCP and putting in place strict protocol for continued usage. Although the EPA administrator who overrode the initial recommendation said that EBCP “does not result in unreasonable adverse effects to man or the environment,” field workers were required to wear full-body protective gear and applications had to occur at least 270 days before harvest. The EPA administrator is quoted as saying, “I find that the economic benefit to Hawai‘ian pineapple growers outweighs the remaining risks associated with the use of DBCP.

1985 Maui Residents Reject Continued Use of DBCP

A joint panel reports that 15 pineapple fields could be treated with DBCP, with little likelihood that further water contamination would result. During a lengthy public meeting on the matter, most speakers testified in fervent opposition to continuing use of DBCP. Many of the Maui residents complained that their island was to become the dumping ground for a chemical deemed too dangerous for use elsewhere in the United States.

1986 Remaining DBCP Stock Is Shipped Out

The last stocks of unused DBCP known to remain on the islands were shipped out through a hazardous waste disposal company.

While use of DBCP on Maui effectively ended in 1984, tons of the chemical remain in the soil. According to studies done at the University of Hawai‘i Water Resource Research Center, DBCP and ethylene dibromide (EDB) can and do work their way through the topsoil, through the underlying basalt, and into the freshwater lenses that serve as drinking water sources.

1992 DBCP Turns Up In Maui County Water Well

DBCP was found in a well that supplied Maui County’s water system with some levels above the state maximum contaminant level.

1994 Discontinue Use of the Well

Department of Health directs Maui County to discontinue use of the well at Napili.

2003 DBCP Continues to Exceed Safe Levels

Testing of the wells shows high levels of DBCP at 230 parts per trillion. The maximum containment level for DBCP in Hawai‘i is 40 parts per trillion.

How are Birth Defects Caused by Pesticides?

Pesticide residue can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. When a future parent is exposed, the toxin can damage his or her chromosomes. If a child is conceived before or soon after the mother or father is exposed to pesticides, the unborn child may inherit abnormal DNA and later suffer from a birth defect. Pesticides have been known to cause a number of illnesses in humans:

  • Spina bifida
  • Gastroschisis
  • Heart defects
  • Reproductive disorders
  • Deformed or missing limbs
  • Reduced fertility and infertility
  • Testicular atrophy and lower sperm counts
  • Developmental delays and neurological problems

Research has linked many of these birth defects and illnesses to pesticides once heavily used on the old sugar and pineapple plantations as well as other crops.

Asbestos Ban Can Eliminate Confusion and Danger

A proactive approach to banning and eliminating asbestos on ships prevents exposure and unnecessary illness and death.

Lack of uniformity can often lead to confusion, but when it involves a dangerous carcinogen such as asbestos, the likelihood of danger significantly increases as well. According to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), there are two options for ships:

  1. If built after July 2002, the vessel’s flag registry, in conjunction with its classification society, issues a non-extendable exemption certificate, providing the owner with a three-year window in which to remove the asbestos.
  2. If built prior to 2002, ships may contain asbestos but must have a hazardous materials’ register and management plan in place to cover any maintenance or repair work involving asbestos.

These two opposing options create a challenge in defining across-the-board safety standards to protect anyone working on or near sailing vessels. However, consistency and uniformity can be achieved by enforcing a complete ban of asbestos on all sailing vessels.

This requires that ships be assessed to ensure compliance. In the European Union alone, there are 30,000 ships requiring an IHM (Inventory of Hazardous Materials). Estimates are that 80% will contain some form of asbestos. The amount of asbestos found onboard depends on several factors, including where the ship was built. Ships can also be contaminated through items brought on board by the owners, despite assurances that they are asbestos free.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral known for its insulating and fire-retardant properties. For these reasons, asbestos was once a staple in most insulating products and many industrial and construction products. It was used in abundance at shipyards from coast to coast and on U.S. Navy ships such as those found in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. In addition to widespread use across the United States, asbestos was also used around the world, including in the Middle East. The most deadly asbestos-related conditions among naval veterans and maritime workers or family members are malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer.

What Does “Asbestos Free” Really Mean?

Because of varying international standards, the term “asbestos free” can be quite misleading. In the USA, for instance, it is up to a 1.0% content, while in the EU it is 0.1% and 0% in Australia. China has no official standard at all. This is a concerning issue because a lot of material and equipment originates from China where it is still legal to use asbestos (See crayons and cars). Chinese manufacturers may set up a production line to supply ”asbestos free” materials, but they could also be unaware of cross contamination in their factory emanating from other production lines that are producing items containing asbestos.

How to Ensure an Asbestos-Free Ship

  1. Hire an accredited asbestos contractor to inspect for asbestos, or engage a qualified laboratory to test any materials you suspect may contain asbestos.
  2. If asbestos is found, have a properly trained and accredited asbestos contractor or accredited company remove the contaminated materials.
  3. Once your vessel is determined to be asbestos-free, initiate a quality management system that tests materials supplied to the ship to ensure that they are safe.

Veterans and Asbestos Exposure

Thirty percent of those diagnosed with mesothelioma annually are military veterans. Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Asbestos-containing materials were used extensively in U.S. Navy shipyards and military bases. Veterans with a history of long-term or intensive navy asbestos exposure are particularly susceptible to this life-threatening cancer. When asbestos dust is inhaled into the lungs, it starts a chain of events within the body that can lead to the development of mesothelioma over time.

Contaminated Hawai‘ian Shorelines Leave Locals Vulnerable

Inland waters are thought to be polluted by nearby facilities operated by international agrichemical firms.

As the waves continue lapping onto the western shores of the Hawai‘ian island of Kauai, there is increased concern by local residents that these seemingly beautiful waters are full of more than just fish. The inland waters where children surf and swim and subsistence fishermen rely on their catch to take care of their families is thought to be polluted by nearby facilities operated by the international agrichemical firms Syngenta and DuPont-Pioneer. The biotech giants BASF and Dow also operate in the area, and Monsanto has facilities elsewhere in the state as well. On Kauai, the four companies take advantage of the island’s former sugar and pineapple plantations and three growing seasons to develop and produce varieties of seeds that are bred or genetically engineered to resist pests and pesticides and increase yields.

But high demand on the mainland has made biotech corn and other seeds one of Hawai‘i’s top agricultural commodities. Hawai‘i is the world’s leading producer of corn seed, which accounts for 96 percent of the state’s $247 million biotech agriculture industry, according to the Hawai‘i Crop Improvement Association, which represents biotech companies. Virtually every genetically engineered seed variety has spent some time in development on a Hawai‘ian island.

How does Pesticide Exposure Occur?

The once ubiquitous sugar plantations and pineapple farms of old have given way to biotech companies and the agrichemical business. Because the GMO seeds they produce on Kauai are not considered food items, the agrichemical companies are allowed to use more pesticides than traditional farmers. When these pesticides are sprayed over crops, the pesticides can become airborne and blown by the wind away from the intended agricultural field. This is called pesticide drift. The pesticide drift can be carried downwind into nearby neighborhoods contaminating homes and exposing residents to toxic chemicals.

Some of the 22 restricted-use pesticides in use on Kauai, such as atrazine, are linked birth defects and other to serious health problems and are banned in European countries, and federal law requires that they be applied by or under supervision of workers with special training.

Other exposures are a result of contaminated dirt. Some agricultural fields are often sprayed with pesticides, even when they lay fallow. This is especially true of the genetically modified organism (GMO) agricultural fields throughout Hawai‘i where GMO seeds are produced and where genetically engineered corn, soy bean, and other GMO crops are grown. When the wind blows, it kicks up the loose top soil and lingering pesticide residue from these fields. This toxic dirt is blown into the communities that border the agricultural fields, again contaminating homes and further exposing the families that live there.

What are the Effects of Pesticide Exposure?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a statement on children and pesticide exposure, citing scientific evidence linking early life exposure to pesticides to preterm birth, neurological defects, low birth weight, asthma and cancer. Representatives for the biotech companies have said repeatedly that pesticide applicators follow federal and manufacturer guidelines to prevent exposure to the public and use the chemicals only when necessary.

Local doctors report seeing more than 10 times the national rate of birth defects, like heart malformations, in the state of Hawai‘i and say that more study is needed. However, many of the pesticides being heavily used on Kauai, Maui, and throughout the neighbor islands have been linked to a number of birth defects including:

  • Gastroschisis (birth defect of the abdomen)
  • Limb abnormalities and missing limbs
  • Serious cardiac conditions or heart defects
  • Spina bifida (birth defect of the spine and spinal cord)

To date, some residents report seeing whole streets where children have birth defects. As such, locals continue their efforts in raising awareness and support for their campaign to hold the biotech companies accountable and to make the west side of Kauai a better place for their children.

Paradise at War: How GMOs are Tearing People Apart

Opposing views on GMOs have the state divided.

To some, including many natives of Kauai, Hawai‘i, the facts are stacked high against GMOs.

  • 88 percent of corn and 94 percent of soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified
  • The FDA has approved genetically modified (GM) crops for consumption
  • There has never been a universally accepted study that has found GM food to be unsafe.

According to state pesticide records, 18 tons of 22 Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs – pesticides that require special permits) are sprayed each year on Kauai. The American Cancer Society and American Academy of Pediatrics have linked 15 of those to cancer in recent studies. Factor in the general use variety, and 63 different pesticide compounds are sprayed in the island’s cornfields annually, and nobody knows exactly how that cocktail may impact the land and surrounding communities.

However, even with those strong facts, GMOs have their proponents, agrichemical companies, who argue that GMOs saved the big island’s papaya growers and have the potential to significantly aid other states’ agricultural industries as well. According to the Hawai‘i Crop Improvement Association (HCIA), together, the companies account for $260 million of the state’s GDP, while claiming indirect responsibility for an additional $280 million, via employee-driven commerce, annually. They employ 2,000 workers, maintain valuable irrigation infrastructure, and make use of the land that would otherwise remain abandoned.

While the pesticides sprayed on GMOs may be seen as a savior to some, to the residents of Lower Waimea, they are turning their community into a place where asthma, severe skin rashes, nose bleeds, allergies, and migraines are rampant, and where area residents claim there are 37 cancer cases in a neighborhood of just 800 people. It is an alarming statistic that, if it holds up under scrutiny, is over 10 times the cancer rate statewide.

How are Neighborhoods Exposed?

When pesticides are sprayed over crops, the pesticides can become airborne and drift away from the intended agricultural field. This is called pesticide drift. Pesticide drift can float downwind into exposing nearby communities to toxic chemicals.

Other exposures are a result of contaminated dirt from year round pesticide spraying. GMO growers are particularly generous with pesticide application, even when their fields are fallow. The loose top soil and pesticide residue are easily picked up picked up by the wind and blown into neighboring areas that border the GMO fields, again contaminating homes and further exposing the families that live there.

How Pesticides Cause Birth Defects

Although small plots of drought- and saline-tolerant seed are being developed on the island, the primary cash crop on Kauai is a corn seed known as Round Up Ready, an herbicide-resistant plant that allows growers to blast an entire cornfield with Round Up, or Glysophate, to kill weeds but not their crop. One resident states that, “they’re spraying endocrine disruptors which are very volatile with kids at a vulnerable age. We’re talking about kids between sixth and eighth grade, going through puberty, and getting chronic exposure.”

These kids will one day grow up and potentially be parents. Pesticides can cause birth defects in children whose parents were exposed through airborne pesticide drift, groundwater contamination or farm work. The toxins in pesticides can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the mother’s (or father’s) skin and may then damage the parents’ chromosomes. If a child is conceived before or soon after a mother’s or father’s pesticide exposure, the unborn child may inherit abnormal DNA and suffer from a serious heart condition or other birth defects once born.