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Drift Details

Ag group hopes to change the conversation about pesticide applications in Washington state

May 2016
By Trista Crossley

For the past few years, the pesticide application conversation going on in Olympia has been drifting in the wrong direction, but a group of agricultural stakeholders is making plans to put it back on course.

“The last three years, the House committee on health care has held work sessions on pesticide drift, and every time, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) gets up and says the number of drift incidents that are exposing people to pesticides is not decreasing. This year, legislators came to me and said ‘you aren’t fixing your problem. You’d better fix it or we will fix it for you,’” explained Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests (WFFF). “That’s the conversation we need to change.”

According to DOH’s website, in 2014, there were 22 reported events of pesticide exposure. In 2013, the number of events totaled 18, and 2012 and 2011 each saw 15 events. So while the numbers do seem to be increasing slightly, one very important number isn’t being reported—the number of pesticide applications being made each year.

“We are guessing that the number of applications, just in agriculture in Washington state in a year, is probably well over half a million,” Hansen said, adding that as additional acreage is put into products such as grapes, berries or tree fruit, which generally see more pest pressure than other crops, the number of pesticide applications is likely going up. “I think the vast majority of applicators are doing an excellent job. We are only hearing about applications that go wrong, not the ones that go right. It’s hard to talk about the percentage of applications that go right because we don’t know how many there are.”

WFFF, which is leading the effort to correct the conversation about pesticide drift, was formed in 1988 to promote pesticide stewardship, including the safe and appropriate use of pesticides in forests, on farms and ranches and along rights of way and to ensure a science-based regulatory system in Washington state. Hansen has been executive director of WFFF since 1996, and the Washington Association of Wheat Growers has been a member of the organization from the beginning. Other members include farmers, timber producers, nursery owners and chemical companies.

Hansen said the group hopes to put two sets of data together to refute DOH’s information. The first will be how many pesticide applications there are in a year. Because there is no tracking system in place, the number won’t be specific, but more of a “ballpark” figure. The second will deal with the toxicity of today’s chemicals. This is important, Hansen explained, because of the way DOH labels their data.

“We are no longer using the type of pesticides that have high human toxicity. Most of what we are using has very low to nonexistent (mammalian) toxicity, and we need to put that together in a way that’s easy for people who don’t have a chemistry background to understand,” she said. “We also need to do a better job of explaining what the DOH calls pesticide illness and what that does and doesn’t include.”

Pesticides are registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which takes toxicity into account. The EPA provides detailed instructions on how much of a product can be used at any one time, how it can be used and where it can be used. In addition, commercial applicators are required to undergo training before they can apply a pesticide. The DOH labels an incident as a pesticide illness when they can detect pesticide residue where a person was and that person describes symptoms that are consistent with that pesticide. But the word “illness,” Hansen said, can be misleading.

“That term may include a lot of things that people don’t typically think of as illness. Almost all of those ‘illnesses’ are burning or watery eyes, itchy skin, maybe a stomach ache or headache,” she explained, adding that many of these incidents over the past couple of years have involved organic crops, acreage of which is also increasing in the state. It is a common misconception that organic crops are not sprayed with pesticides, and if they are, that those pesticides are less toxic than conventional ones.

“One pesticide that is very commonly listed as causing a pesticide illness is lime sulfur, which is used in tree fruit,” Hansen said. “It is an organically approved product, virtually nontoxic, but it smells bad, and if you get it in your eyes, it is going to sting. On a windy day, if you get dust in your eyes, it is going to sting. If you happen to see a pesticide sprayer and your eyes happen to sting and you go to a clinic and say my eyes keep watering, if they can detect residue, that can be enough to have it listed as a pesticide illness.”

Recent regulatory efforts have focused mainly on a combination of three items: notification prior to application, use reporting after application and buffers. All three items pose substantial hurdles to the agriculture industry and could end up costing growers in income and time:

• At a quick glance, notifying neighbors of an intent to spray looks fairly easy, but dig a little deeper and a whole host of potential problems show up. What if your orchard backs up against a housing development? How do you notify everyone if people aren’t home? How does a farmer deal with notifying neighbors when constantly changing weather forces a change in spraying plans?

• Pesticide applicators are already required to keep detailed records, so forcing them to report on a pesticide application after the fact is redundant, Hansen said.

• Leaving buffers, or unsprayed strips of land, around the edges of a field or orchard creates an insect and disease reservoir that can re-infect the rest of the field, leading to possible additional pesticide applications. In addition, growers face a loss of income from that untreated land due to insect or disease loss. If they decide not to plant a crop in that buffer area, they are taking valuable land out of production.

“Going back to about how many applications are there, if 99.99 percent of applications don’t have drift, why are we setting asides huge tracts of land and making them nonproductive?” Hansen asked. “If all you know is what you see on television, you might have a pretty negative image (of pesticides). We need to do a better job of telling our story. Our applicators are very well trained; they follow the law; and the vast majority of pesticide applications are safe and legal.”