Information on restricted pesticide use in Hawaii was kept private until a 2018 law required transparency. Environmental advocates want more restrictions. 

The birds were the first to go, an unusual number of them lying lifeless in a field at Sally Paulson’s North Shore ranch. Then there was the owl that stood in a pool of water for days as if it had been burned. The owl died too. 

After that, a horse nicknamed Blankie died suddenly. Within weeks, Blankie’s pasture-mate Ida experienced what Paulson said looked like a seizure before the horse ran through a hot fence and into a grove of trees where she dropped dead. Ten days after that, another horse, Jazz, died.

“At that point, I’m like, what’s going on?” Paulson said in an interview. 

Sally Paulson, owner of the Pahipahi’alua Walking Horse Ranch, pets one of her Tennessee walking horses. She lost three horses within a few weeks time last fall. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Paulson believes the animals’ deaths were caused by pesticides sprayed on the neighboring Kuilima Lands operated by the Turtle Bay Resort, although there’s no proof of a link.

“Can I definitively say that my horses were directly killed from this? No, I cannot,” Paulson said. “As a person involved in farming my entire life – I’ve grown up on farms here and in Oregon and been involved with horses for 30 years – does my gut and observations say they’ve been affected? Absolutely.” 

In a statement, Turtle Bay confirmed it uses herbicides on the land adjacent to Paulson’s Pahipahi’alua Walking Horse Ranch and said it is investigating the case.

Many concerns have been raised about the possible impacts of pesticide exposure in communities on the island. However, pesticide users weren’t required to tell the public about the chemicals being sprayed until a new law was passed in 2018 and Hawaii started collecting reports on restricted pesticide usage the following year.

Usage Revealed

Pursuant to the new law, the state releases summary information showing total chemical usage by island, per year. But from those reports, residents can’t see how much of each chemical is being used in which locations, and individual reports can only be accessed via public records requests, which can be a lengthy process. 

Environmental advocacy groups stepped in, with the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action commissioning the nonprofit Center for Food Safety to analyze reports submitted to the Department of Agriculture, matching specific chemicals and their amounts to particular properties.

The information also has gotten the attention of Hawaii Rep. Amy Perruso, who sponsored legislation this year to increase pesticide reporting requirements and limit pesticide usage near residential areas.

The reports show over 215,000 pounds of restricted use pesticides were released across central Oahu and the North Shore in 2019, according to the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. Affected areas include Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Haleiwa, Waialua and the Turtle Bay Resort. Some pesticide-impacted areas sit within a mile of homes and schools.

Pesticide users sprayed 23 different kinds of pesticides in those areas that year, including 13 that are banned in other countries, 12 known to disrupt human hormones and four known carcinogens, according to the findings by the nonprofit environmental justice group.

The data released by the state contains no information about possible health effects. However, a dozen of the chemicals used are toxic to bees, and four have a tendency to drift, HAPA said. 

“It is concerning that we see this level of application in such close proximity to these communities and also to the coastline,” Fern Anuenue Holland, a Kauai-based community organizer for HAPA and an environmental scientist, said at a recent public meeting.

An additional worry is that when multiple pesticides are sprayed, they combine into chemical mixtures whose environmental and health impacts are unknown, Holland said. 

An analysis of state data by the Center for Food Safety and Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action shows where restricted use pesticides were sprayed in 2019. (Source: Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action)
An analysis of state data by the Center for Food Safety shows where restricted use pesticides, also known as RUPs, were sprayed in 2019. The circles depict residential areas. The group will share data on other communities in the coming months. (Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action)

Overall, the data illustrates that more needs to be done to address pesticides’ threats to public health, Holland said. HAPA and other advocates are calling for more detailed and frequent reporting requirements, buffer zones around schools and residences and the inclusion of additional chemicals on the list of pesticides that require disclosure. 

HAPA spent several years obtaining the data from the state, working with the Center for Food Safety to crunch the numbers and mapping it to make it easily understandable to residents, Holland said. 

The group shared some of its findings for the first time with the Wahiawa and Whitmore Village communities earlier this month. HAPA’s executive director, Anne Frederick, said public meetings will be scheduled in other areas as more information is obtained.

The groups are now in the process of obtaining and analyzing the pesticide disclosure data for 2020 and 2021, and they’ll tackle 2022 when those reports come out, Holland said. 

“We felt after all these years of struggle to get access to information, it was really important for us to be able to go to the communities who are living beside the heaviest usage and to share whatever information we can glean from some kind of poorly reported data, to be totally honest,” she said.  

The room was packed with some 40 residents, several with stories about what they suspect are pesticides’ impacts on their community. 

Mitchell Ayau, a resident of Whitmore Village, said he works at Waialua High School, which is near an old Pioneer company seed factory

“I’ve never worked in any place that I’ve seen so many dead birds,” he said. 

North Shore resident Rex Dubiel asks Fern Anuenue Holland a question at a community meeting about Oahu pesticide contamination held by Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action on Jan. 19, 2023.
North Shore resident Rex Dubiel asks a question at a community meeting about Oahu pesticide contamination held by Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)

Katie Metzger, a beekeeper with Hanai Hives in Waialua, said she lost thousands of bees when her neighbor started using neonicotinoids, an insecticide that is known to kill pollinators. After she spoke to the neighbor, she said the woman agreed to stop using it.  

Mililani Mauka Neighborhood Board member Theresa Kuehu criticized agricultural corporations that spray pesticides in the course of researching genetically modified food. Monsanto, for instance, was fined $12 million in 2021 for 30 environmental violations related to illegal pesticide use. 

“We’ve been blind so long because we’ve been told we can’t fight that fight because we don’t have money,” she said. “We’re not blind anymore, and we’re not afraid.” 

Defending Pesticide Use 

At the meeting, Holland shared that the Dole Plantation reported using a fumigant called 1,3-D (otherwise known as 1,3-Dichloropropene) 425 times in 2019, according to HAPA’s data. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers 1,3-D to be a possible carcinogen, and it is banned in Europe because of its risks to humans, animals and groundwater. The chemical is known to drift. 

William Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Dole, said the company uses Telone, a brand name of 1,3-D, “selectively” to control roundworms. The product is injected into the soil 20 inches below the surface before a new crop is planted, which happens on a three-year cycle, he said. There is “no drift or airborne distribution,” he said. 

“Without such controls, pineapple farming in Hawaii would not be possible,” he said in a statement. “Because we are constantly planting some section of the farm throughout the year there would be some application year-round.” 

However, he added: “Dole has actively been reducing application rates and total usage of this product year over year.”

Wahiawa Agricultural Land Helemano Plantation Dole Plantation.
The Wahiawa area, used heavily for agriculture, is a hot spot for pesticide use, according to self-reported data collected by the state. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

Farmers and agricultural interests have defended their use of pesticides in Hawaii, and several opposed the new pesticide disclosure requirement that began in 2019.

“Monsanto and other farmers in Hawaii need to be able to control pests in their crops,” Monsanto representative Dan Clegg wrote in 2018 testimony opposing disclosure. 

“Insects, weeds, and diseases can have a devastating effect on crop yield and quality, and farmers need to have a variety of tools available to help control them,” he added.

‘We Follow The Lead Of The U.S. EPA’

Others said existing pesticide regulations provide adequate protection for people and the environment and that disclosure would expose pesticide users to liability. Even the creation of pesticide buffer zones, such as those that prohibit spraying around schools or homes, would hinder farmers’ abilities to use their land to feed residents, farmer Larry Jefts wrote in 2018. 

“This is highly ironic when the State of Hawaii is concerned about increasing its ability to grow food to feed its 1.7 million people,” he wrote in testimony opposing the new law. Jefts did not respond to a request for comment this week. 

Joshua Silva, who works with farmers as an agent with the University of Hawaii’s Cooperative Extension Service, said farmers will generally avoid harsh pesticides if they can. But natural alternatives aren’t always as effective. 

“Sometimes that biofumigation is helpful but not as helpful as that (restricted use pesticide) fumigant,” he said. “It can be more time-consuming and added costs.”

Farmers say pesticides are vetted by federal regulators and outline safe use parameters on the product label. (Zeynel Cebeci/Wikimedia Commons)

“Dole rigorously follows all EPA label requirements for use and our applicators and supervisors undergo annual training regarding its application,” Goldfield said. 

Greg Takeshima, acting manager of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s pesticides branch, echoed that view. If Hawaii’s 1,400 certified applicators of restricted use pesticides are following the rules on the label and in state and federal laws, the government considers that acceptable, he said.

“We follow the lead of the U.S. EPA,” he said.

Asked why the public should trust pesticide labels’ safety standards given those factors, Takeshima said “I don’t have a great answer for you for that one.”

A Fight For Transparency 

Holland has been advocating for pesticide reforms for about a decade, starting on the island where she was born and raised, Kauai. When she came back from college, she said she started growing concerned about pesticides. 

Within a one-year period, she said three of her friends gave birth to babies with a birth defect called gastroschisis that causes the baby’s intestines to grow outside of the body. The condition is rare but is growing in frequency. Researchers have suspected pesticides play a role in that increase but haven’t proven a link. 

A 2017 analysis by Hawaii doctors found that the majority of gastroschisis patients in Hawaii were from areas where restricted use pesticides were used. Correlation does not necessarily point to causation. Still, Holland said the issue made her want to learn more. 

Fern Holland shared her presentation on pesticides with Wahiawa and Whitmore Village residents. (Marie Hobro/HAPA/2023)

She joined forces with other environmental advocates to pass a law at the Kauai County Council in 2013. It required major users of restricted use pesticides to report the type, quantity and location of its chemical spraying. It also required disclosures regarding genetically modified crops and instituted buffer zones to protect schools, parks, hospitals and homes from pesticides. 

Thousands of residents demonstrated in the street in favor of its passage, which was achieved over the objections of the mayor. But the victory was short-lived. The law was overturned in 2016 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with seed companies Monsanto, Syngenta and others. The court ruled that counties don’t have the authority to regulate agriculture.  

So, the advocates went to the state. 

In 2018, the Hawaii Legislature unanimously passed Act 45, creating the reporting requirement that made the Center for Food Safety’s pesticide analysis possible.

With the law’s passage, Hawaii also became the first state in the nation to ban chlorpyrifos, an insecticide linked to developmental delays in children and other health impacts. The chemical has since been banned by the EPA. 

In addition, the law created a 100-foot buffer zone around schools to prohibit the spraying of pesticides, but only during school hours.

View of fields near Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. for Anita's story.  13 jan 2015. photograph Cory lum/Civil Beat
A view of fields farmed by Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. on the North Shore of Oahu. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

The new reporting requirement was a major win for environmental advocates who lobbied hard for transparency around pesticide use. But then they realized the data was hard to obtain and practically indecipherable to the average person.  

Pursuant to the new law, the state releases summary information showing total chemical usage by island, per year. But from those reports, residents can’t see how much of each chemical is being used in which locations, and individual reports can only be accessed via public records requests, which can be a lengthy process. 

This is by design. Takeshima said the state wants farmers to feel “comfortable.”

“People take a negative connotation to pesticide use,” he said. “We don’t want people taking that type of information and kind of attacking the people who are applying it legally and appropriately.”

Even when the advocates filed public records requests and received the individual reports, they were hard to make sense of, according to Holland. 

The amounts of pesticides released were listed in vastly different units of measure, making it difficult to compare. For instance, the 2021 summary includes totals measured in gallons, pounds and tons of fruits. The formatting was inconsistent, and some tax map key numbers were missing. Plus, many of the disclosures were handwritten in “chicken scratch,” Holland said. 

In the end, the Center for Food Safety did its best to transcribe the information, analyze it and plot it on a map, Holland said. It may be imperfect, she said, but it’s the best information available. 

“This took us years of trying to get this in a format where we could actually transcribe it to you in a way that makes sense because it just wasn’t provided in that way,” Holland said at the Wahiawa meeting. 

Even with HAPA’s analysis, the data is limited. The state law only requires the reporting of restricted use pesticides. 

Those require a special certification to purchase and use because in the absence of restrictions, they may cause “unreasonable adverse effects to the environment and injury to applicators or bystanders,” according to the EPA.

That classification doesn’t include general use pesticides like the glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup. Some general use pesticides are associated with health risks and banned in other countries but are still widely available to U.S. consumers.

Hawaii’s reporting requirements don’t cover neonicotinoids, the insecticide known to kill bees.

In addition, certain research companies, including Monsanto, have permission from the federal government to use pesticides in amounts greater than otherwise allowed on the product label, and they don’t have to report those amounts, Holland said. 

“Experimental field trials are exempt from reporting,” she said. “So we actually don’t know if this is even close to the whole picture of what’s happening on those parcels.”

New Proposals Target Pesticides 

Armed with the newly analyzed information, pesticide opponents are pushing for more pesticide restrictions and transparency at the Legislature this year. Perruso, who represents Wahiawa and Whitmore Village, has introduced a suite of bills.

House Bill 253 would require users of restricted use pesticides to report their usage monthly instead of annually, and would require more detailed information. It would require the Department of Agriculture to develop an online tool to make the data accessible to residents. 

“In the future, hopefully, you can see what was applied maybe even last week, or last month,” Holland said. 

Under HB 254, the Department of Agriculture would be required to use consistent units of measurement in its public summaries of restricted pesticide usage and would also created a half-mile buffer zone around schools and public parks. 

Two proposals, HB 251 and HB 252, would add neonicotinoids and malathion to the list of restricted use pesticides. Malathion is commonly used to control mosquitoes and fruit flies and can affect the human nervous system and organ function, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chemical sickened children and adults after a spill near a Pearl City school more than a decade ago. 

At a briefing on pesticide contamination held by the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, Hawaii Rep. Amy Perusso, who represents Wahiawa and Whitmore Village, urged the community to support legislation to limit the use of pesticides near residential areas.
Rep. Amy Perusso urged the community to support legislation to limit the use of pesticides near residential areas. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)

Another measure, HB 692, would increase civil and criminal penalties for operators who fail to report their restricted pesticide usage. 

The Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet taken a stance on these bills, Takeshima said. But he indicated this issue requires a balancing act.

“I have two children. So, I understand where they’re coming from,” Takeshima said. “But also, we have to do our jobs to maintain food security.”

At the public meeting, Perruso urged residents to email their legislators to express support for the legislation, and several indicated they would.

“Until we as a community decide we’re over it,” Kahaluu farmer Daniel Anthony said, “it will continue to happen.”

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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