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What we know about pesticides’

effects on people

Story by: Ieva Bytautaite 

One morning last April, Greg Hungerford and his three-month-old son were at their Waialua home.


Though their house is 100 feet away from a 250-acre corn field, Hungerford and his family had never had a run in with pesticide drift. That changed that morning when a tractor mounted with spraying equipment appeared from out of the corn.


“Within moments of when the vehicle started spraying, I could smell noxious chemicals,” Hungerford said. “I rushed to close up my house as the chemicals flooded in. There was a windsock on the tractor so the worker spraying should know which direction the wind is blowing; the windsock was pointed directly at my house.”


The state Department of Agriculture took samples from his house, but Hungerford never found out what he and his son were sprayed with. The company that sprayed the fields claimed the winds that day couldn’t have taken the chemicals to his house.




Then, earlier this month, it happened again. This time, Hungerford’s son fell ill.


“He was fussy and had diarrhea,” Hungerford said. “He had cut teeth a few weeks ago so we thought it was more teeth coming in. The next day we noticed he was not his usual self, not playing or crawling around. We then noticed he had a fever of 102, so we took him to the ER.


“The doctors ruled out any eye, ear, nose, throat, stomach and lung infection,” he said. “A urinalysis ruled out a urinary tract infection.”


Hungerford still does not know exactly what made his son ill.


They aren’t alone in their uncertainty. While it’s difficult to figure out which pesticides farms like the one across from Hungerford’s house are using, the effects of those pesticides on human health are often similarly unknown. That leaves North Shore residents who live near the fields in the dark about what they’re being exposed to and whether it’s harmful.




Hungerford and his family experienced a classic case of pesticide drift -- the unintentional diffusion of pesticides away from the intended target. The term “pesticide” includes chemicals used to kill a variety of organisms that threaten crops, including insects, weeds and fungi.


There are no regulations forcing companies that use these chemicals to disclose when, where and what pesticides will be applied to the fields. There are also no buffer zones around schools, residential communities or child-care centers. All of this leaves residents who work and live near large farm fields vulnerable to pesticide drift exposure. Though doctors couldn’t conclude what was ailing Hungerford's nine-month-old son, medical researchers have found evidence for ties between exposure to pesticides and a host of medical conditions that emerge in childhood.


One report published this month is the medical journal Pediatrics suggests that children exposed to insecticides, for example, are over 40 percent more likely to contract leukemia or lymphoma than their unexposed peers.


Exposure particularly early in childhood or before birth can lead to an even wider range of conditions. A policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, published in the December 2012 issue of Pediatrics, suggested decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems were more common among children who have been exposed to pesticides.


The danger isn’t limited to pesticides used on industrial farms. A report compiled by researchers at the University of California at Davis in 2014 linked the long-term use of Glyphosate, the main ingredient in household weed-killer Roundup, to the increased incidence of autism. Earlier this year, the State of California also added Glyphosate to its list of known carcinogens.


Still, research confirms that pesticides drift from farms to nearby areas, putting children who live near treated fields at greater risk for these conditions than those who live further away. One 1999 study of children in a community near an orchard in rural Washington showed that those who lived closer to the orchards had higher levels of pesticides in their skin and urine samples than their counterparts who lived farther away.


Findings like these have bolstered the cause of those seeking more information about what kinds of pesticides farms are using and creating buffer zones between farms and schools.


This year, there have been two bills introduced in the Hawaii State Legislature regarding pesticide disclosure and buffer zones. Both bills were met with opposition from Pioneer and Monsanto, the biggest biotechnology companies on Oahu, as well as the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai’i, the Hawai’i Crop improvement Association and others. Ultimately, both bills were deferred, effectively killing them for 2015.


Opponents of the legislation said the Department of Agriculture already has the information of which pesticides are used and in what quantities, making the bills unnecessary.


That defeat has left residents who have been exposed to pesticide spraying, like Hungerford, with little information about which chemicals they have been exposed to.


“I think what needs to happen is some better education not only for the public, but for farmers and to also help the Department of Agriculture,” Hungerford said. “I was told that they only have one officer that will go out and look over the complaints for the whole island. And that’s crazy. We need to support them and they need to hire more people.”


According to the HDOA, however, the department does not have information on the type or quantity of pesticide used.


"The information HDOA does collect are sales records of Restricted Use Pesticides.  Sales do not equate to use," the HDOA said in a letter to Hō‘a.   "Certified applicators are required to maintain records on the use of Restricted Use Pesticides and provide these records to HDOA upon demand."    


The lack of success in the legislature leaves the residents exposed and vulnerable while the pesticides drift free.


For further information on the risks of pesticide exposure in children, please visit


A previous version of this article stated that there is evidence of pesticide drift with Hungerford and his family. However, the HODA says there is no evidence to support that statement.


Read the original article here:!chapter1/h6kti.





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