Without a doubt, pesticide illness constitutes one of the most widespread environmental problems today. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that one to five million pesticide poisonings occur every year worldwide, and twenty thousand of those are fatal. What makes these statistics especially chilling is the fact that they represent only the tip of the iceberg, since they do not account for pesticide-related, delayed-onset diseases, nor the fact that most pesticide exposures are neither recognized, treated, nor reported.
Jill Lindsey Harrison, “Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice”
Jill Lindsey Harrison has written a book on pesticide drift I am strongly encouraging you to read. “Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice” (The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA), focuses on the State of California but has many researched truths applicable for each of us no matter where we live. Harrison is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and this is the sixth book in the Food, Health, and Environment series. I have quoted from Harrison’s book in previous blogs. She is a thorough writer raising deep issues.
Harrison focuses on the many low-income people who work on thousands of acres of sprayed fields in California and live right next to them. Even though this huge group of field workers has been replaced with huge machines here in Illinois and other industrial-agricultural states, we still face the same problems as Harrison addresses in her book: “pesticide exposures “that are neither recognized, treated, nor reported.” She goes on to say, “Pesticide drift is the airborne movement of agricultural pesticides into residential areas, schools, and other spaces and is now a key target of activists’ anger, because the wayward movement of pesticides, often far from where they are applied, reveals just how pervasive and under-recognized pesticide exposures actually are.”
It is disheartening to hear that California has been the most pro-active state on pesticide exposure with “the largest pesticide regulatory apparatus in the nation,” and yet is STILL the place where “large-scale pesticide drift incidents have occurred with disturbing regularity in recent years, frightening and sickening thousands of people near agricultural fields.”
What are the reasons for this? Harrison explains that in California, much like here in Illinois and in your state, too, “Regulatory officials emphasize that these incidents are relatively few in number and assert that they are generally caused by application error.” At Spray Drift Education Network, we realize this is just not so. We know, as Harrison points out, “that all resident living near agricultural fields are at risk of exposure to pesticide drift.” Yes, even the residents in my little town of Paw Paw are at risk including the students at both the elementary and high schools. Both schools are bordered by conventionally farmed fields that are routinely sprayed during the growing season.
Not only are the regulatory agencies downplaying the amount of pesticide exposure we all have, but there are other problems when dealing with pesticide drift and exposure. For example: the “incident response protocol.” Betty Gahm, of rural northwest Illinois, raised this issue after she was sprayed with pesticide near her farm home. She suggests that hospitals need to develop some kind of protocol about what to do when someone arrives at the emergency room after she has been sprayed or spray drifted upon. A urine test or blood test is important. In her case, this “protocol” was slowed down considerably when her doctor called AgTech of Stockton, Illinois who applied the spray, and the company refused to tell the doctor what pesticide(s) were used in the application.
This leads us into those industry groups, (chemical companies, etc.) whose “financial power, strong coherence, scientific resources, and social networks enable them to shape the terms of regulatory debate in ways that residents of agricultural communities are simply unable to do. Environmental regulation consequently has been bounded by a narrow interpretation of pesticide drift as a series of isolated, unfortunate events requiring minimal regulatory change.”
Harrison goes on to emphasize - especially in California - that “we recognize pesticide drift as not only a technical problem but also a social one, rooted in systems of inequality and oppression.” Here in Illinois, we find too often an elitist mentality where conventional, pesticide intensive agriculture has the right of way and the rest of society should keep out of the way no matter the personal or environmental circumstances. After all, says conventional ag proponents, “We’re feeding the world.”
Harrison raises these troubling questions: “In what ways do real people actually experience environmental problems and regulations? In what ways do these experiences vary between social groups and across space, and what factors shape that unevenness? Why do some groups seem to be able to influence how a particular environmental issue is regulated, and how do other groups, viewpoints and experiences become marginalized?”
Those of us in the field (no pun intended) know only too well what we are up against. But we still have the right to grow our own food unmolested, we still have the right to breathe air that is not filled with poisonous toxins (as Harrison points out) of “nine-hundred-plus pesticide active ingredients … manufactured into over thirteen thousand different formulations, in which various amounts of different pesticides are mixed together and applied with innumerable ‘inert’ ingredients that help the pesticide reach and/or adhere to its target.”
Here are some additional questions Harrison asks that we all need to ponder deeply, and ACT upon:
Why do pesticide drift incidents occur in a context of progressive environmental change?
How do we explain the coexistence of two completely different interpretations of the problem itself?
Which of these has guided the regulatory response to pesticide drift, and with what consequences?
We need to rise up nationally to help each state fight for clean soil, clean air and clean water for our farms and gardens, and most importantly, for ourselves and our children. This has to start with YOU standing up for your right to live pesticide free.
If Spray Drift Education Network can be of any help, please give us a call - 815-988-2628.
Jane Heim, in 2011, co-founded Spray Drift Education Network (SDEN), a grass roots organization dedicated to helping Illinois citizens report and prevent pesticide drift. She presently lives near Paw Paw, Illinois on 19 organic acres where she is transitioning to a Permaculture Restoration Farm. She can be reached at 815-988-2628 or read her farm blog at www.restorethatfarm.