Farmers, industry stall enforcement of pesticide law
By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
(Third in a three-part series)
There’s a slow but steady battle in Salem between a lobby group representing pesticide users and a lobby group representing workers and environmentalists. The pesticide users are winning.
In 1999 workers, environmentalists and the Oregon AFL-CIO — represented in a coalition called the Oregon Pesticide Education Network (OPEN) — wanted a “Right-to-Know” law. Any employee ordered to handle a chemical would have a right to know what it was. Any person living next to a farm or a nursery would have a right-to-know what chemical pesticides might be wafting along.
Right-to-Know didn’t get very far in the 1999 Oregon Legislature. Instead, the pesticide users, represented by a group called Oregonians for Food and Shelter (OFS), wrote a law that proposed a compromise: A Pesticide Use Reporting System. Pesticide users would report which pesticides they were using, and where, when and how much. But the results would be kept confidential, used only by public health and water quality researchers.
OPEN agreed to the compromise, and the bill passed with the support of all but two legislators.
“We thought a deal was a deal,” said Laura Weiss, program director at the Oregon Environmental Council, one of the groups that belongs to OPEN. “But apparently, a deal is not a deal — somebody hasn’t been operating in good faith.”
Pesticide users were to begin reporting in 2002. Details about the program were to be decided by the Oregon Department of Agriculture — with the help of an 18-member advisory board with representatives from all interested parties.
In work group meetings, representatives of OPEN pushed for users to report the exact address or location to within a quarter square mile; OFS wanted users to specify only which watershed a chemical had been used in — a geographic designation that could cover from hundreds to thousands of square miles.
The two sides were at an impasse, so it fell to the Ag Department to decide. The department, which is considered by many to be close to agri-business, concluded that reporting by watershed was good enough.
But then-Governor John Kitzhaber stepped in and directed them to reverse their decision.
OFS swung into action, and was able to use its clout to cut funding for the new program when the Legislature’s Emergency Board met after the 2001 legislative session. Under the law that established the pesticide reporting system, half the program’s funding was to come from a $40 fee paid by pesticide users, but the other half had to be appropriated by the Legislature.
So the reporting began in 2002, and the fee was collected, but the Ag Department didn’t have the funding to enter the information into any database.
The Legislature met again in 2003, with the same result: The law requiring reporting was not repealed, but neither was the money to enter the data appropriated. The Department of Agriculture continued to collect the fee and the reports.
In October 2003, the Ag Department called off the charade, announcing it would not take enforcement action against pesticide users who failed to file reports in 2002, 2003, or any other year — until the Legislature made funds available. In January 2004, it stopped collecting the $40 fee.
“It’s another instance of worker safety and health taking a back seat to corporate profits,” said Oregon AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Brad Witt, “and, I’d add, the safety and health of the public is also taking a back seat.”
Witt has been involved at every stage in the pesticide use reporting law, and has long considered pesticide exposure to be a workers’ health issue.
Workers in many occupations are exposed to pesticides, from road crews to farm and nursery workers to prison guards and flight attendants. (See parts one and two of this series, published in the April 16 and May 7 issues of the NW Labor Press.)
A system of pesticide use reporting might shed light on such exposures, said Michael Heumann of the Office of Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology at the Oregon Department of Human Services.
Heumann said effective tracking of pesticide use would enable public health officials to know what groups and populations are at risk if new information comes out that a pesticide is more harmful than previously thought. But Heumann and other researchers say that to be useful for public health, the reporting needs to be specific about location — “watershed” is too broad.
Governor Ted Kulongoski, in his first look at the issue, sided with OFS – that reporting by watershed was good enough.
“This governor came in and did not have the history about the law,” said Maureen Kirk, executive director of the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG), another OPEN member. “It didn’t become a budget item that he was willing to fight for.”
Kirk hopes next year it may become a bigger priority. In a May 4 speech at a meeting of the Oregon Environmental Council, Kulongoski said he plans to seek funding for the Pesticide Use Reporting System from the 2005 Legislature. He mentioned it as part of his push to clean up Oregon’s rivers. Kulongoski said he has asked Oregon State Senator Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin) to work with him and all the stakeholders to agree before the legislative session begins in January.
OFS executive director Terry Witt (no relation to Brad Witt), one of the primary authors of the pesticide use reporting law, told the Labor Press that he thinks the Legislature is likely to fund the pesticide use reporting program — after some “statutory tweaks.”
OFS opposes the program’s funding in its current form. “It’s a burden on the user community, another cost placed on the backs of farmers and commercial applicators.”
Terry Witt blames OPEN for the program losing funding — because the labor-environmentalist coalition wouldn’t agree to reporting by watershed.
Labor leader Brad Witt, on the other hand, says it’s OFS that showed bad faith; he thinks the group intended all along to sabotage the reporting system it had proposed.
Researchers like Heumann hoped the Pesticide Use Reporting System would help them track long-term exposure to pesticides. But now, the state has stopped tracking even acute exposures.
The same legislative session that failed to fund the new pesticide reporting program also ended funding for a previously existing program — the Pesticide Analytic Response Center (PARC), a multi-agency program that responds to pesticide poisoning incidents.
“Reports of pesticide illness are still continuing to come in, but we’re not able to analyze it,” Heumann said.
PARC reports covering 2000 to 2002 for example, had identified pyrthethroids, a new generation of pesticides , as having been associated with the largest number of likely pesticide illnesses — 30 to 35 cases a year reported. Pyrethroids are the class of pesticides that may have struck down an Eastern Oregon prison guard, and caused multiple health effects in flight attendants on international flights treated with pesticides.
Heumann said there may be growing problems with pyrethroids. In March, the Oregon Department of Human Services published a report aimed at educating health care providers about pesticide poisoning from pyrethroids. Associated symptoms include headache, fatigue, tingling or numbness in hands and feet, and vomiting.
Pyrethroids are replacing more acutely toxic organophosphate pesticides for some uses, including fruit orchards. Heumann thinks pesticide users may be turning to pyrethroids because they’re safer than organ-ophosphate pesticides, which are related to the nerve agents being destroyed at the chemical weapons depot in Eastern Oregon. Organ-ophosphates can be so deadly that even hospital workers are at risk when they’re exposed to a patient who has ingested the pesticide.
Terry Witt says pyrethroids are catching on not because they’re safer but because they’re cheaper — and because Environmental Protection Agency regulations on handling organophosphates have become more restrictive.
In Washington State, a new law took effect this year that requires that farmworkers be monitored for exposure to organophosphates and carbamates, which work similarly. Workers who handle the pesticides receive a blood test prior to the spray season to establish a baseline for the cholinesterase enzyme. Choline-sterase is necessary for the proper functioning of nervous systems of humans, animals, and insects; the pesticide kills by disrupting this function.
Under the new law, workers who have worked with organophosphates or carbamates for 50 hours in a 30-day period then go back for another blood test. If the enzyme is down 20 to 30 percent, the law calls for a workplace investigation. Above 30 percent, the law calls for the employee to be removed from any additional exposure to pesticides.
As of May 12, a total of 345 workers had been tested and retested. Of that number, 82 had levels that triggered a workplace investigation, and 20 were slated to be removed from further exposure.
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