Be aware of pesticide exposure

Posted May 12, 2010, at 6:48 p.m.

When land managers and neighbors have a simple system to communicate about pesticide spraying, they all benefit. Farmers have no interest in putting human health at risk, and neighbors aren’t trying to burden land managers with complicated and costly notification systems. Both want a system that is easy to understand and easy to use.

To that end, Maine’s Board of Pesticides Control finds itself, once again, struggling to create effective and practical pesticide spray notification rules that work for everyone. Public participation in this process is essential.

The board has scheduled four opportunities for the public to provide input on the development of a comprehensive notification registry for all outdoor pesticide spraying. The first hearing on the prospective comprehensive registry will take place at 9:30 a.m. Friday, May 14, at the Bangor Motor Inn. This is an excellent opportunity for the BPC to hear from residents who want access to information about all outdoor pesticide spraying in their neighborhoods.

Friday’s hearing comes just a week after the President’s Cancer Panel acknowledged that the National Cancer Program has not adequately addressed the carcinogenic harm from environmental contaminants including pesticides. In a report to President Barack Obama, the panel of experts asserted that a large proportion of the 1.5 million American cancer cases diagnosed each year are attributable to chemical exposures. The panel urged that efforts to inform the public of such harmful exposures and how to prevent them must be increased, and that all levels of government, from federal to local, must work to protect every American from needless disease through rigorous regulation of environmental pollutants.

For decades the BPC, which is housed in Maine’s Department of Agriculture, has tried to balance residents’ pesticide exposure worries with industry’s fears about regulation. Concern about pesticide contamination of organic farmland, pollinators such as bees, wildlife, water and air is rising. The public has become more aware of the dangerous health effects of pesticide exposure, even at low doses.

And demand for organic produce is on the increase, as is interest in low-impact forestry practices that don’t rely on herbicides. At the same time, businesses reliant on toxic pesticides argue that additional regulation would bring an abrupt end to forestry operations, mosquito spraying, ornamental tree management and multi-generational farming activities throughout the state.

The BPC has focused on the importance of notification as a way to reduce the conflict that arises when pesticide drift inevitably happens. Lively legislative debates have ensued for the past two years. The Legislature endorsed a free notification registry for people wishing to know about aerial and air-blast spraying in their neighborhoods, then watered it down to exclude nonagricultural applications, then, about two months ago, lobbed the detailed discussion work back to the BPC to figure out how the system actually would work and what would be the scope. And here we are today.

Fortunately, there is widespread support for the establishment of a comprehensive notification registry. Trade associations such as the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, the Small Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and the Maine Farm Bureau all have expressed support for the registry, as have 28 statewide environmental and public health organizations.

The big challenge will be in the details. First, comprehensive must mean what it implies — all outdoor pesticide applications regardless of technology and business sector. Information must be easily available and free. People living on or owning property within a quarter-mile of the intended aerial or air-blast spray area must have access to detailed information about chemicals being used. The BPC must establish notification zones for other pesticide application technologies, ensuring that neighbors have access to information if there is any possibility of drift exposure.

The BPC has dedicated an extraordinary amount of time and effort to this issue. It is time for residents who want strong pesticide regulations to speak out. Public participation in the scheduled hearings will help the BPC come out of the rulemaking process with a clear and unequivocal message for the next Legislature.

Any resident, owner, or lessee of property in Maine is entitled to join the existing notification registry for aerial and air-blast spraying, free of charge. It takes about a minute to register. Enroll online at www.thinkfirstspraylast.org, or call the BPC at 287-2731.

Heather Spalding is the associate director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Meredith Small is the executive director of Toxics Action Center.

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