Protect kids from effects of pesticides

Posted March 30, 2009, at 7:42 p.m.

Were Ben Franklin alive today, he might declare, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and pesticides contamination in our bodies.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that the majority of people in the U.S. have detectable concentrations of multiple pesticide residues in their bodies, while the U.S. Geological Survey reports that 90 percent of all fish, 100 percent of all streams, 33 percent of major aquifers, and 50 percent of shallow wells contain one or more pesticides at detectable levels. The ubiquitous spread of pesticide residues is cause for alarm and public education, and yet access to information about pesticide use in Maine is complicated and challenging. Fortunately, the Legislature has an opportunity to establish a simple, comprehensive system to ensure notification of residents most at risk from pesticides drift.

For 2½ years, Maine’s Board of Pesticides Control has grappled with its pesticide drift rules, convening stakeholder committees, holding public hearings and meeting monthly to consider options for strengthening protections for Maine residents. The board has worked hard to make small but important steps forward and has submitted to the Legislature amendments to Chapters 10, 22 and 28, which clarify pesticide rule definitions, pesticide drift standards and pesticide application notification procedures respectively. Amendments to Chapter 28 also call for establishment of a Maine Aerial Pesticide Application Notification Registry applying to all aerial spray applications including agricultural spraying, with free enrollment for all people in Maine.

While Board bills LD 494 (on Chapter 22) and LD 495 (on Chapter 10) have significant new protections, LD 972 (on Chapter 28) comes up short by relieving landowners of the ethical responsibility to initiate notification of neighbors and by limiting the scope of the registry to aerial applications only. In order to close these gaps, Rep. Seth Berry has submitted An Act To Require Citizen Notification of Pesticide Applications Using Aerial Spray or Air-Carrier Application Equipment. This bill would require landowners to “Say before they spray,” provide neighbors with general information well in advance of the first spray of the season and inform them of Maine’s registry of residents who want to obtain more detailed information about pesticide spraying using aerial spray technologies or ground-based air carrier equipment. Aerial and air carrier technologies account for the vast majority of pesticide drift.

Some conventional growers who rely on aerial spraying of pesticides assert that the proposed amendments to existing BPC regulations are unreasonable, costly and administratively impractical. However, one could say the same about society’s addiction to toxic pesticides. In addition to the environmental health concerns of pes-ticides use, there are bottom-line concerns for the organic community.

Pesticides can contaminate organically grown produce, making it unfit to market as organic and leading to economic losses for the grower. An organic grower may lose certification of a crop contaminated by pesticides drift and potentially have to take the acreage out of organic production for three years. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association estimates that at least a quarter of its certified organic farms have to be careful about potential drift from neighboring conventional operations. Some MOFGA-certified growers report losing thousands of dollars in organic sales annually because they want to ensure the integrity of the organic produce they cultivate and market. There is no cost to the conventional neighbors even though they are setting the threat of pesticides drift in motion.

The state of Maine also pays. A recent University of Maine School of Economics report indicates that the state pays $380 million annually to cover the cost of just four environmentally-related childhood diseases. (The full report is available online at: http://www.umaine.edu/soe/publications/SOE579.pdf.) Three of the disease categories — asthma, cancer, and neurolobehavioral disorders — are widely linked to pesticide exposure. Maine’s childhood asthma rates are among the highest in the country. Maine’s childhood cancer rate is higher than the national average. And the number of Maine kids receiving state support for neurobehavioral impairments is on the rise. One in five children in Maine’s public schools now receives special education support from the state. Maine needs to do everything it can to protect children from the harmful effects of pesticides. Notification is a logical first step.

The Legislature’s Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has an opportunity to establish model legislation for ensuring the public’s right to know about pesticide use around them. It should support the BPC’s proposed amendments as well as Rep. Berry’s bill on notification.

Heather Spalding is the associate director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and a MOFGA representative to The Alliance For A Clean And Healthy Maine.

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