Projects: Stories from the Field

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Demonstrating the drift catcher

By 2003, plenty of data suggested that pesticide drift was harming communities, but the pesticide industry and regulators refused to act.

For 20 years, the California Air Resources Board had been conducting experiments, looking for pesticides in the air around fields sprayed with pesticides. They found them. In 2003, PAN pulled together and analyzed this information in a breakthrough report, Secondhand Pesticides. We found that many pesticides remained in the air near fields at high levels for hours, or even days after application. Anyone in the vicinity of such applications faced exposure.

Sept. 9, 2008 Drift Catcher selected as 2008 Tech Awards Laureate by the Tech Museum of Innovation

PAN's air monitoring device, invented by chemist and senior scientist Dr. Susan Kegley, was designated a 2008 Tech Awards Laureate, one of 25 global innovations recognized each year for applying technology to benefit humanity and spark global change.

The Tech Awards, a signature program of The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, selected the Drift Catcher from among hundreds of nominations representing 68 countries, for "empowering communities for health and sustainability" to measure concentrations of hazardous pesticides as evidence to prevent exposure to pesticide drift.

In over 20 years of our own direct field work with agricultural communities, PAN's international network had heard countless stories about how drift-affected communities had come to expect illness, nausea, rashes, and worse in the hours and days after fields had been sprayed. So, with communities across the country asking us to do something about drift, we invented the an air monitoring system we call the "Drift Catcher." It's affordable, robust and based on the same technology used by the California Air Resources Board in its studies.

The big idea? Put the tools necessary to prove pesticide drift into the hands of people who live through it. Make sure those tools are reliable and useable - the rest is science.

Drift Catcher Projects

Since its 2003 launch, Drift Catchers have been used in 27 projects in nine states by scores of trained volunteers and community leaders. Below are two case studies.

Hastings, Florida

South Woods Elementary School in St. Johns County, Florida, is bordered on three sides by a large seed farm that sprays pesticides throughout the school year. Motivated by concerns about the health of the children at the school, residents of the county have been using the Drift Catcher to monitor the air near the school since 2006. 

Exposure to the chemicals we found by South Woods Elementary are associated with a wide range of adverse health effects: endosulfan interferes with hormones and is linked with autism, birth defects and delayed puberty; diazinon is neurotoxic; and trifluralin and chlorothalonil are suspected to cause cancer. All are particularly dangerous for children.

  • Results :: In 2006, two high school students collected 8 samples, and endosulfan—a persistent organochlorine insecticide linked to autism, birth defects, and delayed puberty in humans—was found in all of them. The concentration of endosulfan exceeded levels of concern (LOCs) derived from EPA toxicology data on 3 days. Diazinon, and neurotoxic organophosphate insecticide was found in all but one sample, and exceeded LOCs in 5 of them. Finally, the herbicide trifluralin—ranked by the EPA as “possible carcinogen”—was detected in all but one sample, but never in levels exceeding LOCs. All three pesticides are PAN Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHP). Read the summary and recommendations or the full technical report.
  • In 2007 a local mother continued the sampling, collecting 39 samples between October and December. As in the previous year, at least one pesticide was found in each sample, and there were frequent exceedences of LOCs. Endosulfan was detected in 87% of samples and exceeded LOCs 23% of the time, diazinon was found 23% of samples and exceeded LOCs in 4 of them, and trifluralin was found 92% of samples. This year chlorothalonil—a persistant fungicide, PAN HHP, and EPA “probable carcinogen”—was also found. It showed up 85% of samples, but never in levels exceeding LOCs. Sampling continued in 2008 and into 2009, but the results have not yet been released. Read the summary or the full technical report.

Maybe now the school board will recognize the pesticide problem & take more serious actions to prevent future drift.– Alex Lowe, student in Hastings

In addition to focusing local, regional, and national media attention on the issue of pesticide drift, the reports on the 2006 and 2007 sampling have led the formulation of state policy recommendations on school siting and have been used by PANNA's campaign for the phaseout of endosulfan. Endosulfan was listed for a worldwide ban under the Stockholm Convention in 2011.

Lindsay, California

Lindsay, CA, is a predominately Latino community in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley. The town grew up around orange trees, and most of its homes and schools are situated right next to groves where neurotoxic organophosphates are routinely sprayed. Acute exposure to these insecticides can cause nausea and vomiting, tremors and seizures, and even death; studies link chronic exposure with asthma and learning disabilities.

A local group, El Quinto Sol de America, used Drift Catchers from 2004 to 2006 to document the movement of chlorpyrifos (a neurotoxic, organophosphate insecticide) out the groves and into their yards. Here's a map of the Lindsay project, and a 4-pg summary of the results.

  • Results :: In 2004, 104 samples were collected across five different sites during July and August. Chlorpyrifos was found in 76% of the samples, and 11% had levels exceeding the LOC for infants. The next year sampling continued at 4 sites, with 108 samples collected. Eighty percent contained chlorpyrifos, and the LOC was exceeded 23% of the time. In 2006, 28% of the 116 samples collected from 6 sites contained chlorpyrifos in levels exceeded the LOC. That year, urine samples were also collected from 12 residents and tested for a metabolite of chlorpyrifos. The metabolite was found in everyone’s urine, and all but one had levels above the national average and above the level EPA is says is “acceptable.” Download the technical report on the 2004 and 2005 sampling.

Results from biomonitoring and drift catching in Lindsay have since become the bedrock of efforts to win no spray buffer zones around schools and residential areas. Local activists in Tulare, Kern, and other agricultural counties across California have used these result to successfully push their County Agriculture Commissioners for buffer zones around schools and other sensitive sites. 

Other Drift Catcher Projects

  • Central Minnesota ::  Air monitoring at homes and an elementary school in rural Minnesota in 2006 and 2007 detected chlorothalonil—a fungicide EPA has classified as a “probable” carcinogen—in 217 of 340 samples analyzed. This fact sheet and map shows the frequency of detection of chlorothalonil at 11 sites in rural Minnesota where citizens tested in 2006 and 2007. For more information, see the summary or the full report.
  • Yakima Valley, Washington :: Air monitoring in the apple-growing region of Washington State detected chlorpyrifos and its breakdown product at two homes in the Yakima Valley in April of 2006. At both locations, about one third of the samples showed concetrations that exceeded "acceptable" chronic and subchronic exposure levels for children based on a 24-hour period. For more information, see the Yakima Valley summary or the full report.
  • Sisquoc, California :: Air monitoring in the rural community of Sisquoc detected chloropicrin-a toxic fumigant known for causing respitory harm-in about half of the 57 air samples collected in April 2008. Chloropicrin levels in two samples exceeded the  level of concern for children, and the average levels far surpassed acceptable cancer risks set by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Download the report summary or full technical report.

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