Highly toxic pesticides are being applied to GMO test fields on Kauai at a much higher rate than on most US farms, an analysis of new data reveals.
Waimea, Hawaii – The Hawaiian island of Kauai has become Ground Zero in the intense domestic political battle over genetically modified crops. But the fight isn’t just about the merits or downsides of GMO technology. It’s about regular old pesticides.
The four transnational agribusinesses that are experimenting with genetically engineered crops on Kauai have transformed part of the island into one of the most toxic chemical environments in all of American agriculture.
For the better part of two decades, Syngenta, BASF Plant Science, DuPont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences have been drenching their test fields near Waimea, a small town on the southwest coast of Kauai, with some of the most dangerous synthetic pesticides in use in agriculture today, at an intensity that far surpasses the norm at most other American farms, an analysis of government pesticide databases shows.
Each of the seven highly toxic chemicals most commonly used on the test fields has been linked to a variety of serious health problems ranging from childhood cognitive disorders to cancer. And when applied together in a toxic cocktail, their joint action can make them even more dangerous to exposed people.
Last fall, the Kauai County Council enacted Ordinance 960 (pdf), the first local law in the United States that specifically regulates the cultivation of existing GMO crops, despite an aggressive pushback from the industry, which contends that existing federal regulations suffice.
The GMO field experiments are supervised by the US Department of Agriculture, and the pesticides have the Environmental Protection Agency’s stamp of approval. But where some see oversight, others see blinders. Kauai County, which encompasses the entire island, contends that the federal agencies have ignored the health impacts while allowing the corporations to freely pursue profits, so it has claimed authority to regulate the pesticides used within its borders.
Ordinance 960 creates no-spray buffer zones near schools and other buildings where people live, work or receive medical care, but falls far short of a complete ban of GMO crops. In recent weeks, however, Kauai residents have proposed an amendment to the County Charter that would tighten the new regulations a lot further. If approved for the ballot and in a countywide vote, it would ban all GMO cultivation until the companies can prove to the county’s satisfaction that their pesticide usage does not harm public health.
The agribusiness companies are not going to back down without a fight. In January, the companies filed suit in an effort to uproot Ordinance 960 in the courts; a court ruling on the suit is expected before it takes effect in August. They are also expected to mount a vigorous political campaign to fight the charter amendment and to support a slate of GMO-friendly candidates to compete with pro-960 candidates in the November general election, when the mayor and all seven County Council seats are on the ballot.
“Kauai is Ground Zero for the testing of GMO crops,” said Gary Hooser, a member of the Kauai County Council and an author of Ordinance 960. “It is also Ground Zero for democracy in action.”
Why the locals are fighting
Perhaps no one personifies the battle better than Klayton Kubo who lives at the east end of Waimea, at the heart of what he calls “poison valley.” He showed this reporter a brief video of himself cleaning the screen covering the window on the street side of his house. Clogged with reddish dirt similar in appearance to volcanic soils found throughout the island, the screen is his house’s last line of defense against the dust. However, it blocks only the biggest chunks, and can do nothing to stop smaller pieces of grit, toxic vapors and chemical odors that appear to be emanating from test fields located just beyond the street and Waimea River in front of his house.
Kubo began looking for answers to his questions about what’s in the air some 15 years ago. More than once, he says, a DuPont representative came to his house only to lower his head and mutter that it’s “against company policy” to reveal any information about activities on the test fields. Kubo is among 150 of his neighbors who have joined a class action lawsuit against DuPont Pioneer, a subsidiary of DuPont that leases several thousand acres here. They are seeking an injunction against the use of suspected toxic chemicals and damages. At the other end of town, the Waimea Canyon Middle School, a health clinic and a veterans’ hospital line up in front of another GMO test field operated by Syngenta.
Steady northeasterly trade winds averaging between 8 and 9 mph blow daily across the test fields and into town.
In two incidents in 2006 and 2008, students at the Waimea school were evacuated and about 60 were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms like dizziness, headaches and nausea. Many people in town blamed the outbreak on blowing dust from the GMO test fields. The companies blamed nearby fields of the noxious stinkweed.
To find out what actually happened, federal, state and local government agencies in 2010 collaborated to test the air at the school for the presence of 24 kinds of toxic pesticides used on the test fields as well as for chemicals emitted by stinkweed. The study was inconclusive, finding that the “symptoms could be consistent with exposure to certain pesticides, but could also be caused by exposure to volatile chemicals emitted from natural sources, such as stinkweed.” It detected traces of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos in the air both inside and outside the school, but said it found “no evidence to indicate that pesticides had been used improperly.” Concentrations of all chemicals were below EPA exposure limits.
But Gerard Jervis, a Honolulu lawyer representing the residents in the class-action lawsuit, said he doubted stinkweed was the source of the problem. Chemicals emitted by stinkweed are found in the air at similar concentrations elsewhere on the island and to his knowledge have never caused any health problems, he said. Moreover, the concentrations of airborne pesticides were found at much higher levels in Waimea than elsewhere on the island.
Jervis also noted that the air quality study did not even try to look for more than 30 specific pesticides that have been used at the GMO test fields since 2007, including two of the most heavily used and dangerous, paraquat, a weed-killer, and methomyl, an insecticide.
Ordinance 960 was designed to prevent such outbreaks from recurring.
Why the companies are fighting back
The four agribusiness giants chose to locate their R&D work in the tropical climate of the Hawaiian Islands because they say it enables them to work their fields year-around, expanding the annual growing calendar to three or four seasons while compressing the time it takes to develop a new genetically altered seed by nearly half.
The companies produce much more than new-fangled seeds. At their core, they are large chemical companies that manufacture many types of agricultural chemicals. A major chunk of their income is generated from the sale of chemicals to farmers on the US mainland. The farmers are told that they must use the chemicals in order to protect their pricey GMO crops from never-ending attacks by bugs and weeds. The companies are like printer manufacturers that make their money selling high-priced ink cartridges.
An early achievement was Monsanto’s development of “Roundup Ready” corn and soybean seeds that can resist applications of the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup. Ideally, on Roundup Ready fields, the crops live while the weeds die.
However, in the 18 years that Roundup Ready seeds have been on the market, they have lost much of their effectiveness. The crops still survive, but on many farms across the US a significant percentage of the weeds have mutated to the point that they no longer die as intended. Increasingly, varieties of herbicide-resistant superweeds are sprouting up in fields worldwide, wherever Roundup Ready crops are grown. On some fields, insecticide-resistant superbugs such as the corn rootworm are creating an additional set of problems for GMO farmers.
The companies have responded by trying to create new seed varieties that can coexist with other chemicals that they hope can be used to enhance or replace Roundup. For example, Dow has developed new corn and soybean seeds that are resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D — an older herbicide that was an active ingredient of the Vietnam War-era Agent Orange that’s linked to reproductive problems and cancer. The company has asked the US Department of Agriculture to approve the seeds in hopes that a new generation of herbicide-tolerant crops can come to the market. Dow has given no assurance that overuse of 2,4-D won’t create additional new varieties of superweeds. Hooser said that Dow officials told him that research conducted on Kauai played a key role in the development of 2,4-D-resistant seeds.
Usage of chlorpyrifos on Kauai tops the nation
Some of the pesticides in use on the test fields around Waimea are toxic enough to pose a serious health threat to its population of 1,855, even when used according to directions. These are classified as “restricted-use pesticides,” meaning they are more tightly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency than “general-use pesticides.” The restricted-use chemicals used most heavily on the GMO test fields of Kauai are alachlor, atrazine, chlorpyrifos, methomyl, metolachlor, permethrin and paraquat.
A database showing how much of the restricted pesticides were used on Kauai from December 2013 through April 2014 was voluntarily released by the four companies and posted to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture website. We compared that information to 2009 data from a US Geological Survey database on pesticide usage in the United States (the USGS Pesticide National Synthesis Project).
Our investigation found that annualized pounds-per-acre usage of the seven highly toxic pesticides on Kauai was greater, on average, than in all but four states: Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and Indiana. (For the purpose of this comparison, the analysis assumed the chemical companies used pesticides on all 12,000 acres they control on the island. It also assumed that farmers used pesticides on all 314 million acres of harvested cropland on the mainland US. Yes, there are organic farms that don’t use pesticides, but they encompass just slightly more than one percent of U.S. agricultural land, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.)
As shown by the charts, below, the annualized per-acre usage of the bug-killers chlorpyrifos and permethrin on Kauai is tops in the nation and significantly greater than in California, which leads all mainland US states, as the charts below illustrate. The usage of these chemicals on Kauai is more than 10 times greater than the national average.
Our analysis also projects that Kauai would rank second nationally for methomyl use, fifth for metolachlor, sixth for alachlor, ninth for paraquat and 23rd for atrazine.
Dr. Steve Savage, a former manager of research at DuPont and a former professor at Colorado State University, has also found that the overall pounds-per-acre pesticide usage on Kauai is among the highest in the nation, but he said that 98 percent of the pesticides used on the island are general-use ones that are less toxic than a cup of coffee.
Savage may be right on that point, but the remaining 2 percent give serious cause for concern. “Different pesticides can vary in something like their toxicity to mammals by more than 1000-fold,” he said.
A study published in March in the British journal The Lancet Neurology in March 2014 found that chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin, is one of a dozen chemicals commonly found in the environment that “injure the developing brain” of children.
Although it took scientists 30 years to detect the link between chlorpyrifos and cognitive problems in children, more troubling connections between agricultural chemicals and childhood development are being established. The American Association of Pediatrics contends that “a growing body of epidemiologic evidence” points to “associations between exposure to pesticides in young children and a range of diseases from childhood cancers to autism.”
Six of these seven restricted-use pesticides are suspected of being endocrine disruptors, which means they may cause sexual-development defects in humans and animals, according to the EPA. The most notorious of these is probably atrazine, a Syngenta product.
Dr. Tyrone Hayes, an endocrinologist at the University of California-Berkeley whose reputation has been viciously attacked by Syngenta, as reported in this article by the New Yorker, has raised particular concerns about the potential gender-bending effects of even tiny amounts of atrazine.
“A little bit of poison to an adult is a lot of poison to a developing baby,” said Hayes at a May 21 presentation on Kauai. He noted that the poisoning of a child at an early age can cause health problems that can last a lifetime.
Hayes, who found that frogs exposed to barely detectable levels of atrazine developed both male and female genitalia, said humans may also be vulnerable to the chemical’s “gender-bender” effects.
Four of the seven heavily used restricted pesticides are also suspected carcinogens. And between them, the seven have been linked to, among other things, neurological and brain problems and damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, adrenal glands, central nervous system, muscles, spleen and liver. The public has many other reasons to be wary of these chemicals.
One of the suspected carcinogens is the bug-killer permethrin. Permethrin is also thought to be toxic to the kidneys and liver, as well as to reproductive and neurological systems.
The EPA lists the weed-killer metolachlor as a possible carcinogen, based on studies that showed an increase in carcinomas in female rats given high doses. Metolachlor is also thought to affect the reproductive system and cause damage to the liver and kidneys.
Weed-killers alachlor and atrazine are also suspected carcinogens.
In 2008, the EPA determined that atrazine, which is banned in Europe, is not likely to cause cancer. But in 2011, an EPA advisory panel did not agree with that conclusion. The EPA is now re-examining atrazine’s potential to cause cancer during a review that began in 2013.
Alachlor degrades into about 20 metabolites, five of which are carcinogenic. At just five parts per billion, alachlor can cause a rare form of cancer of the lining of the nose, according to Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA (Bloomsbury Press, 2014), a personal memoir by E. G. Vallianatos, drawn from his 25-year career in the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs.
Paraquat, a weed killer, is neither a suspected carcinogen nor an endocrine disruptor, but is so toxic in other ways that it also has been banned in Europe. Health studies have linked it to Parkinson’s Disease.
Finally, the bug-killer Methomyl, like chlorpyrifos, is a neurotoxin that affects brain functions.
The EPA knows little about the synergistic effects, or combined toxicity, of multiple chemicals when people are exposed to them at the same time. But it recently observed that the joint action of atrazine and chlorpyrifos can result in “greater than additive toxicity.” In other words, the whole cocktail can pack a bigger punch than the sum of its ingredients.
In another example, the combined action of the insecticides permethrin and chlorpyrifos has been shown to be “even more acutely toxic” than the sum of each, according to Vallianatos’ book.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, there’s reason to believe that the chemical companies might be violating federal rules about the application of the restricted-use pesticide products on Kauai. The rules are supposed to ensure that the pesticides do their damage to bugs and weeds, not kids.
Consider, for example, Dow’s Lorsban, which consists of about 45 percent chlorpyrifos. Lorsban is the single-most heavily used restricted-use pesticide product on the Kauai test fields. The EPA prohibits its application whenever the wind blows greater than 10 mph. The average wind speed in Waimea is between 8 and 9 mph, according to the National Weather Service, meaning that on many days the spraying of Lorsban might not be legal.
When the Waimea school was tested for chemicals several years after the kids grew ill and had to be evacuated, chlorpyrifos – Lorsban’s active ingredient – was still present inside and outside the building, although at levels “well below health concern exposure limits.” Some fear that its use on the fields may have contributed to the need to evacuate.
The EPA says that applicators must “not allow spray to drift from the application site and contact people, structures people occupy at anytime and the associated property, parks and recreation areas, non-target crops, aquatic and wetland sites, woodlands, pastures, rangelands, or animals.”
“Avoiding spray drift at the application site,” the EPA points out, “is the responsibility of the applicator.”
In Waimea’s gusty climate, it’s a rare day when Lorsban and the other heavily-used toxic chemicals can be applied to the test fields without the wind blowing them right into somebody’s face.
Reposted with permission from the author
Among the many scary charts therein, those illustrating the affects of ocean warming and acidification on coral reef are most ominous for Hawaii, where more than 60 percent of the country’s reefs exist.
In the Aloha state, reefs are home to 7,000-plus marine inhabitants and work to effectively diminish wave energy in major storms, thus protecting land from surges. Hawaii’s beautiful bays and white sand beaches are also related to reef ecosystems, including the major tourist activities of snorkeling, diving, and surfing.
But scientists say the ocean is currently warming at a rate 15 times faster now than in the past 10,000 years, which can cause coral to bleach. When coral bleaches or its pH levels fluctuate, it can become infected by disease or otherwise weakened, thus making it more susceptible to storm surges, human interaction, or other things from which it would normally be able to protect itself.
So how can we protect coral reefs before it’s too late? A team of pioneering researchers in Hawaii has an audacious plan: cross-breed superpowered reefs to preempt these dangers. The idea is to build reefs already pre-evolved to future conditions so that they might successfully reproduce in a more hostile ocean.
“If one were to design an intervention, this is the time to do it, while you still have biological material to work with,” Dr. Ruth Gates, a researcher with the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), told KITV in Honolulu.
Gates and her team at the HIMB lab on Coconut Island collect hundreds of coral specimens from around Kaneohe Bay and test them in tanks by increasing the water temperature and playing with pH levels.
“We can play with ocean chemistry to acidify the water and elevate the temperature to simulate climate change stress” to see how that exposure affects coral response, Gates told the Huffington Post. “We’re using state of the art technology, DNA sequencing, and live imaging of corals, looking at corals in ways that they’re rarely looked at. We can get on the reef 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. It’s a really unique setting.”
These “designer reefs” have several applications. In the most extreme case, like in the event of a landslide or human development taking out a whole reef colony, the super coral can be planted in its place as a stronger, new colony.
Or, in a struggling reef, Gates envisions planting the bred coral between already existing coral on the reef, in an attempt to introduce super specimens that would then breed with native population and increase the ability of the whole reef system to withstand climate change.
Gates also wants to utilize concrete structures that have been installed into oceans. “People are starting to fortify,” she said, “and concrete is not a sustainable structure.” She would install the super coral onto cement, “essentially putting a green veneer of these bred corals on top of the concrete structure that would create a natural habitat for organisms around it.”
The experiments are classified as “human-assisted evolution.” And, as you might assume, work with that nomenclature opens itself to controversy. The science journal Nature reports that, while no one has yet to create a genetically modified coral, critics are concerned about about the unknown consequences that might result whenever humans start manipulating natural habitats.
“If you’re basically farming a reef, you’ve taken a natural habitat and you’ve converted it,” a coral geneticist told Nature. “It’s like going to the Midwest and taking grasslands and making it into soy. There are huge implications to doing this.”
Even Dr. Gates admits to some concern here. “It’s frightening to everybody, because it’s so far away from how we generally approach these problems,” she said, before stressing that her work does not produce GMO coral. “We are not introducing any nonnative DNA, but breeding corals in a natural manner.” Her team is “accelerating rates of evolution, not introducing new evolutionary innovation.”
Other coral, such as that living off the coast of American Samoa, for example, have adapted to their environment on their own, and are surviving in waters that get up to 35 degrees Celsius every day (much too warm for most other coral around the world). It’s evidence of coral adapting to changing conditions, but Gates says that evolution can’t keep pace with the current rate of human-incited change.
Still, she remains optimistic. “I think we can do it. I think we have the scientific knowledge, the scientific skill. There’s a lot of really talented young biologists who are really interested in this, and I think it’s allowed a lot of enthusiasm to emerge … My responsibility is to try. I love reefs, I’ve been studying them for all of my career. My desire is to conserve them. If it takes a different way of doing business to make that happen, well, then I think that’s my responsibility.”
Taught by Professor Carlos M. Duarte, BSc, PhD from the University of Western Australia available for free through Coursera. Explore current issues and how ocean based solutions will help to meet a growing population’s demands for food, fresh water, energy and other resources as well as the governance arrangements needed for these solutions to be effective.
The wealth in the Indian Ocean drove the first Dutch visitors to accidentally sail to Western Australia’s shores, in their pursuit of a faster route to reach the Spice Islands. Four centuries later, its turquoise blue waters offer a sea of opportunities just within our reach. There is still a lot we don’t know about the Indian Ocean, which is arguably the least explored of the world’s oceans. But we do know that it – like many other oceans around the world – is under stress from overfishing, pollution, climate change and sea level rise.
A recent article on The Garden Island titled Pesticides Present – At Low Levels stated: “A new study by the state Department of Health detected trace amounts of pesticides in streams and waterways across the state, including eight locations on Kauai.While the data doesn’t answer questions about seasonal changes or long-term trends, it does provide a “snapshot in time” about pesticides — a fiery topic of debate in recent years.The good news for Kauai, according to DOH environmental toxicologist and supervisor Fenix Grange, is that the substances found did not exceed state and federal regulatory limits.”
Dan Plankenhorn pointed out that as reassuring as the title of this article sounds, the actual findings of the DoH study are quite disturbing and alarming.
Hawaii has more cesspools than any other state in the US. This antiquated sewage “treatment solution” dates back to the 16th century when populations were growing faster than sewage ditches could accomodate. With so many cost effective solutions out there that actually treat the waste, it’s hard to fathom why, in a state that claims to appreciate it’s natural beauty, we would resort to such a lazy option. It’s bad for the environment and it’s bad for business too.
Chris D’Angelo – The Garden Island
LIHUE — A year and a half after a U.S. Geological Survey report described Kauai’s coral disease outbreak as an “epidemic,” the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Tuesday it will lead an investigation to identify research and treatment options. It is the first time that DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources has formed a management response team to address coral disease, according to officials. DAR Administrator Frazer McGilvray said that when the department first learned of the black band disease, it acted to support ongoing research by the University of Hawaii and USGS. “Now we’re able to apply that information to the next step,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “Because this issue is high priority we are now forming this team.” The Kauai Management Response Team, which includes partners from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, USGS and UH, began meeting in January. Earlier this month, DAR called together its partners for a third time to address the ongoing outbreak.