In produce departments around the country, I often overhear customers' conversations about why they buy organic. One of the most often mentioned reasons is a fear of pesticide residue on their family's food.
That concern is valid. What happens when pesticides sprayed on crops miss their mark? Do they go away? Break down quickly in the environment? Absolutely not, according to a summary I recently read of a report by the Pesticide Action Network North America, in conjunction with Californians for Pesticide Reform, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the Pesticide Education Center.
In "Secondhand Pesticides: Airborne Pesticide Drift in California," PANNA reported that several of the most widely used pesticides were routinely found off-site in higher concentrations than considered safe by California's Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the report, the dangers of pesticide drift are similar to those of secondhand smoke—acute poisonings and chronic illness may affect those even indirectly exposed to the toxin. Farm workers and children are most at risk. The report defines pesticide drift as "any airborne movement of pesticides away from the intended target."
Between 1997 and 2000, pesticide drift accounted for a quarter of all pesticide poisonings and half of all agriculturally related pesticide poisonings. And that's just counting the incidents that were reported. Often, such illnesses are not identified, because neither the victims nor their doctors connect their symptoms with exposure to pesticides.
While pesticide application can often appear as a cloud or an unpleasant smell, it can just as frequently be odorless and invisible. It can also persist in the environment long after being sprayed—for days, weeks or, sometimes, months. The wind can carry it for miles from its target.
Some of the chronic illnesses that the report links to airborne pesticide exposure include asthma, cancer, neurological disorders, birth defects, miscarriages and sterility.
In 2000, the EPA, in an effort to protect people and nontarget sites from drift, created language for pesticide labels. Unfortunately, drift was not clearly defined, and the language also suggested that low levels of drift were inevitable.
Still, pesticide manufacturers, applicators and conventional growers think the language is too restrictive and are lobbying for a change that would prohibit drift only if it causes "unreasonable adverse effects." Hmmm, let's see how vague we can get.
The EPA has not made a final decision about which language to use. In California, where the studies were conducted, new drift regulations cover liquid pesticides but not pesticide dusts or fumigants. The rules establish criteria for droplet size, minimum and maximum wind speeds and the like. Because these are difficult to measure, let alone enforce, these rules merely represent, at best, a good first step. But we are still a long way from the protection consumers need.
Consider this: An organic farmer I know showed me evidence of contamination on his farm from an aerial herbicide application on a neighboring farm—even though the neighbor had the required buffers in place. My friend didn't report it because the last time it happened, he found it very hard to prove; by the time the agricultural inspector arrived, the spraying was finished and the wind conditions had changed. Only the damage was left to review. And, my friend was the one who suffered the consequences. His organic certifier required him to pay for testing, and eventually determined that he would have to take the affected crop out of production for that season.
We are all affected by the use of pesticides. If you would like a copy of the PANNA report, or more information about how you can help, go to the Pesticide Action Network's Web site at www.panna.org.
Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 76