Political Perspective on the Use of Pesticides
December 1, 1997, Fort Bragg City Council Meeting
By Dr. Marc Lappé
Council members, esteemed guests and citizens of Fort Bragg. My name is Marc
Lappé. I direct the not for profit Center for Ethics and Toxics in Gualala.
I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to talk with you about public
and private concerns over the use of pesticides. First, I would like to clear
up a misconception some persons have about "opposition to pesticides."
People like myself who oppose the unbridled use of chemical controls for pests
and unwanted vegetation are sometimes thought to be espousing a radical, leftist
line. In my own case, nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes
to pesticides, I am an arch conservative. Let me explain.
As I understand it, a convervative holds the view that personal freedom is
the most important value. This freedom plays out with the right for self-protection,
use of ones own private property, and the right to be free of governmental
intrusion. These views start from the principle of liberty. The strongest
supporter of liberty was the philosopher, John Stuart Mill. His view was that
the greatest liberty is that liberty which is consistent with liberty for
all. The only restriction on liberty is that its operation not harm others.
Mill also argued forcibly against anyone giving up his own freedoms. I believe
that the present pattern of laissez faire pesticide use in our County jeopardizes
each of these principles of liberty.
At first glance, permitting individuals to use whatever pesticides they want
on their own private property would seem to be totally consistent with the
conervative agenda. Use of chemical killers under ones own control is akin
to the right to bear arms. But like having a gun, using a pesticide is a tightly
circumscribed "right." I am free to carry a gun as long as it is
not concealed, it is used in self-defense or form lawful taking of game, and
it doesn't harm anyone. The myth is, like guns, pesticides never killed anyone--only
people who use them recklessly or with disregard of the safety of others.
Using pesticides--any pesticide--is very much akin to carrying a loaded gun.
There is virtually no one who can use pesticides in the environment and respect
Mill's definition of liberty. No one can use pesticides on the scale presently
intended by most in the timber industry and secondarily by wine grape growers
without risk of harm to others. That harm is both direct--to users and unsuspecting
persons downstream or downwind of "private land" operations--and
indirect, through the contamination of the environment generally. No one can
use a pesticide on a large scale and absolutely guarantee that it will not
escape their own property. Pesticides do not respect fences or any other artificial
boundary. Pesticide drift, percolation into the water supply and build up
in tissues of fish, fowl or wildlife is the rule not the exception. Pesticides
are intended to increase personal liberty by freeing us from unwanted agricultural
pests, fungal blights or structural pests. But if that freedom is at the risk
of compromising the freedom of others, it is an empty freedom.
Historically, the manufacture, transport and use of even so-called "essential"
pesticides including the atrazines, certain fungicides and chlorinated herbicides
have been shown to pose a clear and present danger to water supplies, workers,
homeowners and children. Pesticides which timber industry spokespersons deem
essential to their operation, notably 2,4 D, Tordon, Garlon and Garlon 4a
are among these "permissible" pesticides. So are pesticides widely
used in the wine industry like metam sodium and methyl bromide. The chlorinated
herbicides in the first group have been firmly linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma,
a lethal malignancy. The last two chemicals have killed fish and people. Before
a farmer can use a pesticide it has to be manufactured and transported.
The people who are on the front lines in making pesticides are at increased
risk for malignancies. Workers as a class who fabricate pesticides are at
increased risk for certain malignancies: so are pesticide applicators, including
forest workers and golf course superintendents. These last individuals have
been shown by studies in Sweden by Hardell and more recently by others in
this country, to be at increased risk for soft tissue sarcomas and lymphomas.
If this were not proof enough, the pets of homeowners who use lawn treatment
chemicals also get too many lymphomas. It is in part for these reasons that
the City Council of Ukiah recently suspended all use of herbicides in their
city and asked Caltrans to forego its use.
The drivers and applicators of certain chemicals are also at increased risk.
For both drivers and residents, the transport of chemicals like metam sodium
and methyl bromide can be dangerous and, in some circumstances, lethal. Metam
sodium was the chemical involved in the notorious Dunsmuir spill, in which
a tank car overturned on a hair-pin curve and sterilized forty miles of the
Sacramento River, killed vegetation and wildlife, and seeded a whole community
with fear and panic over chemical contamination. Methyl bromide, widely used
by wine grape and strawberry growers as well as fumigators, has killed workers
The notion that licensing protects homeowners or residents from danger is
a dangerous misconception. Sometimes pesticides intended for one limited use,
such as the highly toxic methyl parathion, are misused. In 1996, over 1600
homes in a small Mississippi town were treated with methyl parathion to control
roaches or termites--and the homes had to be abandoned as homeowners succumbed
to organophosphate pesticide poisoning. And the manufacture of what may eventually
be a relatively benign pesticide can be highly dangerous. In 1984, almost
the entire township of Bhopal--some 200,000 persons--was poisoned by the release
of a pesticide intermediate known as methylisocyanate.
While nothing of this magnitude it likely to strike Fort Bragg, highly toxic
chemicals like pentachlorophenol that used to be used in wood preservation
have certainly put it in harms way. It is also a dangerous misconception to
believe pesticides will always be "safe" when they are always used
according to label instructions. Such protections are often more to be wished
for than obtained. Sometimes those labels require that there be no contact
with the pesticide at all. Forest chemical workers are often required to wear
protective equipment, including chemically impervious gloves, goggles or--if
mixing the chemical--respirators. But logging crews whom we have learned of
commonly use permeable latex gloves or none at all, wear no goggles and have
no protective clothing. Purple residues of Garlon commonly saturate their
clothes, and their purple stained gloves have been found on the forest floor.
We have followed crews that have left ugly purple stains over yards of forest
soil where they washed out their pesticide contaminated containers with river
water. And the water is the ultimate receptacle of the chemical wastes that
go with most timber operations, either from runoff or direct contamination.
The destruction of safe water supplies is not necessarily a result of a single
catastrophic accident like the metam sodium disaster. It is much more insidious
than that. And here I am concerned that Fort Bragg is missing the big picture.
I have reviewed the November 12, 1997 memo from David Goble, your public works
director. Presently, your water purveyor tests your water supplies for a chemical
mix that is outdated, unrepresentative of what you use in your area, and insufficient
in both frequency and scope. The chemicals include many like hepatchlor and
chlordane that have not been permitted for years. Industrial chemicals are
widely represented while agricultural and timber industry ones are missing.
Herbicides like Garlon and trifluorofen and widely used fungicides like mancozeb,
benomyl and captan are not tested.
While your director says "water users should take comfort in the safety
of the water supply," I am less sanguine. I have seen no evidence that
he has actively dissuaded anyone from using chemicals like atrazine and simazine
which pose imminent threats to water integrity, or the timber industry from
using Garlon which can compromise water quality--especially for migratory
salmonid fish--at levels as low as 50 parts per billion. I am concerned misuse
of these pesticides will lead to insidious and chronic contamination of your
water, the atrazine group for human consumption and the Garlon group for your
fisheries. As was belatedly discovered in the midwest where thousands of wells
were rendered unfit for human use by simazine, chronic reliance on pesticides
for controlling insects or fungi can destroy water quality over a period of
But, you might say the government permits untrammeled use of some pesticides
and carefully regulates the use of others. But even this so-called regulated
use carries clear caveats and controls. An apartment owner is not "free"
to spread even mildly toxic pesticides like Roundup® around his property
without first notifying tenants, offering them a chance to object, and providing
a safe haven when the application is made. Even the proposition that pesticides
are "safe" because they stop having toxic effects below a certain
dose is coming under intense scrutiny. If this proposition were true and we
new what "thresholds" really were, there probably wouldn't be 60,000
veterans with Gulf War Syndrome. Recent studies have shown that organophosphate
pesticides akin to the commonly used malathion produce lingering damage to
the central nervous system of animals at levels far below those previously
thought to be safe. As the 12,900 workers whose injuries have been reported
between 1984 and 1994 can attest, pesticides can be harmful at sometimes unexpectedly
Now the City Council has to grapple with the proposition that it cannot regulate
the private use of pesticides; it cannot usurp or pre-empt the right of the
State to set standards; and it cannot tell licensed pesticide operators what
to do. What should you do? Here's what I would include in my thinking: 1)
pesticides that stray from the premises or property of individuals constitute
a public nuisance you can regulate; 2) water quality is your special province--expand
and extend water testing and install monitoring wells where appropriate; and
3) take seriously the claims of private citizens who believe their personal
freedoms are being compromised when they are exposed to noxious chemicals
they neither intended to use nor consented to have invade their person. And
finally, 4) make sure children who are especially vulnerable to pesticides,
harmful effects are shielded from those whose private gains may make them
overzealous in their use. Personal freedom includes the proposition that we
not harm others, especially those for whom the resulting damage can be lifelong.
John Stuart-Mill would have you do nothing less.