I’ve just spent the last week on Kaua’i, learning first-hand about the challenges and opportunities facing farmers, teachers, nurses and parents. What became clear is that people are increasingly concerned about the widespread use of hazardous pesticides on the island — pesticides used on agricultural test fields by a handful of global pesticide and genetically engineered seed corporations like DuPont/Pioneer and Syngenta.

I’m not the only one touring the island with the intention of learning more about pesticide use on the island’s genetically engineered test fields. A handful of pesticide industry proponents were flown in from the mainland to lobby officials and community leaders against a community-led bill meant to give residents better information about company operations, including disclosure of usage and an assessment of their impacts.

These public relations specialists have met resistance, despite being part of a well-funded effort to blanket the television, radio waves and pages of The Garden Island with misinformation. Like something out of the Big Tobacco playbook, they are attempting to redirect the community focus and obscure information about their practices. But residents see through these myths.

While the national conversation continues to grow around the future and success of genetically engineered seeds, crops and food in this country, Hawai’i — and especially Kaua’i — have become an epicenter of debate.

Research shows us that genetically engineered crops drive up the use of pesticides; Chuck Benbrook at Washington State University found that over 16 years, genetically engineered crops drove up herbicide use across the United States by over 527 million pounds. With that in mind, it’s important to set the record straight on what has taken place on Kaua’i — and throughout Hawai’i — as well as the opportunities to transition to a safe, cutting-edge and sustainable food and farming system.

Widespread Pesticide Use on the Garden Island

Pesticide and genetically engineered seed companies used over 18 tons of “restricted use” pesticides on Kaua’i test fields last year, including chlorpyrifos and atrazine. Why does the industry focus on Hawai’i for this type of agricultural research? Three reasons emerge:

1) It is far from the mainland, and away from corn and soy fields in the Midwest, so test genetically engineered crops won’t cross-contaminate other fields;

2) A diverse number of micro-climates are present on one island;

3) Multiple growing seasons allow for extended testing periods.

That last one — multiple growing seasons — suggests that more pesticides are used every year as compared to conventional agriculture on the mainland where there are about two growing seasons per year.

Children Face the Biggest Threat

Children today face serious health challenges that their parents and grandparents were unlikely to face. And a growing body of independent scientific evidence points to pesticide exposure as a significant contributor to these childhood health harms. As the American Academy of Pediatrics noted last year, pesticides — including the neurotoxic insecticide chlorpyrifos used on Kauai’s genetically engineered test fields — have been increasingly linked to developmental harms. As children are still growing, such effects may have long-term consequences. Two studies found a 7-point decrease in IQ and changes to brain architecture among 7-year-olds when exposured to chlorpyrifos at birth.

Other pesticides, such as the herbicide atrazine — also widely used on Kauai’s test fields — are linked to a variety of health harms in very small amounts, including hormone disruption and cancer. The European Union banned atrazine in 2003 because of widespread drinking water contamination.

In the Air and Water at Schools

The continued usage of pesticides in close proximity to communities on Kaua’i means people are exposed to health-harming chemicals. At Waimea Canyon Middle School, multiple incidents of children experiencing “flu-like symptoms” have occurred in the past several years—a known effect of exposure to pesticide drift. In one incident at WCMS coinciding with an observed pesticide application in adjacent Syngenta-leased fields, over 60 children fell ill and reported to the nurse’s office. So many kids were sick, in fact, that the nurse’s office ran out of room and had to send unwell students back to their classrooms. At the time, these illnesses were inaccurately reported as being due to the smell from “stinkweed.”

Another incident occurred at Kekaha Elementary in 2008, coinciding with a shift in winds that blew pesticide drift over the elementary school from a nearby field.

A study from the University of Hawaii report sampled air at several schools on Kaua’i, including at WCMS. Three pesticides were detected in the air there that were not found at other schools where monitoring took place, including the neurotoxicant pesticide chlorpyrifos.

Pesticides have also been detected in water samples taken from schools. Atrazine was found at low levels in drinking water on Kaua’i, including Waimea Canyon Middle School and in drinking water supplies on Kaua’i. The evidence indicates a cause for concern.

Long-Lasting Impacts

From drinking water contaminated by old pineapple operations or pesticides lingering in the soil from the sugar mills, the harms of industrial agricultural practices live on.

And the practices of the world’s largest pesticide and genetically engineered seed corporations perpetuate these problems. In the past year, pesticides have been found in the air and water of schools throughout Kaua’i. The difficulty of maintaining a distance from pesticide applications on a small island should be addressed in sound policy, including that proposed by two Kaua’i County Council members. Protecting the health of the most vulnerable populations—children, who currently live, learn and play in close proximity to pesticide application sites—would result in protections for all communities in Kaua’i.

About the author: Emily Marquez, PhD, is the staff scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America. Dr. Marquez manages PAN’s Grassroots Science Program, including community based participatory research monitoring air and water for pesticide exposure.

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