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Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of the previously published column. Civil Beat inadvertently published the previous version.
Each year 1.3 million people reluctantly leave the small and spectacularly beautiful island of Kauai after vacations and visits. But there are 68,000 people on this planet who don’t have to leave because they are lucky enough to call Kauai home.
Many Kauai locals have been outraged to discover that their island paradise is also home to a proliferating genetically engineered crop industry that is dousing the Garden Isle with extremely toxic chemical pesticides.
When students at Waimea Canyon Middle School complained of headaches, nausea, disorientation, itchy eyes, and dizziness, their families knew something was very wrong, and that the State wasn’t doing much to help. They may not have realized a chemical pesticide, which was developed during World War II as a nerve gas, had drifted into the school from nearby crop fields. Between 2010 and 2012, the University of Hawaii tested air samples in and around the school and found this chemical – chlorpyrifos, the active ingredient of many pesticides – every time.
What’s not surprising is that these pesticides are remarkably efficient at killing insects. On humans, they act by disrupting the body’s transmission of nerve impulses, essentially driving the nervous system haywire. In addition to acute poisonings, peer-reviewed studies have linked low-level exposures of this chemical to birth defects such as small head circumference, stunted brain growth, autism, lower IQs, and memory problems in children. About a week ago, the peer-reviewed journal Lancet Neurology published a study that adds chlorpyrifos to a list of known developmental neurotoxins. Earthjustice went to court to force the Environmental Protection Agency to assess chlorpyrifos’ health risks, and EPA has promised to respond imminently to our plea to ban this pesticide to protect kids from brain impairments and communities from poisonous drift.
According to the latest figures for pesticide use supplied by the chemical companies themselves as a part of their “Good Neighbor” policy, chlorpyrifos is the chemical that they use the most on their genetically engineered crops on Kauai. In the short period from mid-December 2013 to mid-January 2014 alone, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, and BASF Plant Science used a total of over 341 pounds of a chlorpyrifos pesticide, and Dow AgroSciences applied another 174 pounds of another pesticide containing chlorpyrifos. Data previously obtained from DuPont Pioneer showed that from 2007 to 2013, it applied chlorpyrifos pesticides to its fields on Kauai alone over 2,400 times — on average, about once every single day. The frequency with which these companies spray their experimental and seed-production crops exceeds typical conventional farming pesticide use to an extraordinary degree.
The EPA is well aware of the dangers of chlorpyrifos to children. Because of the documented dangers, beginning in 2000, chlorpyrifos was cancelled for homeowner use inside the home and on lawns and gardens due to risks to children. But the EPA did not address the risks posed to children who live or go to school nearby fields where the chemical is sprayed. And chlorpyrifos is prone to drift, meaning Kauai’s breezes easily carry this toxic, nasty stuff into the classrooms and homes of the island’s children and their families. When that perfect Kauai sun warms the island air, the chemical evaporates off the genetically engineered crops and blows into the wind, wafting into schoolyards, playgrounds, and backyards, further increasing children’s exposure.
For many on the island, this is an unacceptable reality that must not be tolerated. They knew they wanted to protect their island from this chemical warfare, even without hearing stories about school children being poisoned in Ventura, California or kids breathing in this pesticide’s fumes in schoolyards in Washington’s apple and grape growing regions. That’s why the Kauai County Council last year passed an ordinance requiring modest buffer zones around schools, hospitals and homes, and disclosure so people can try to avoid exposure.
These chemical companies are now suing Kauai County for the right not only to keep spraying this and other pesticides near these sensitive areas, but to do so in secrecy. The law specifically requires the disclosure of pesticide and GE crops used on the island and establishes buffer zones around sensitive locations like schools and hospitals. The chemical industry’s challenge to these common-sense safeguards is beyond shameful.
Speaking of shame, in 2003, Dow agreed to pay $2 million—reportedly the largest penalty ever in a pesticide case— to the state of New York, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Attorney General to end Dow’s illegal advertising of one of its chlorpyrifos-containing pesticides as “safe.”
To defend the interests of Kauai’s residents who are at risk from the likes of these chemical corporate powers, Earthjustice and Center for Food Safety, on behalf of community groups, have moved to intervene to defend the lawsuit. If we prevail in defending and upholding Kauai law, the island’s children will be safer and healthier. And for many island parents—like parents everywhere — a healthy family is all the paradise they need.
About the author: Paul Achitoff is the Managing Attorney of the Mid-Pacific Office of Earthjustice, a national, nonprofit environmental law firm that has been offering pro bono legal services nationally since 1971 and in Hawaii for 25 years.
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