Blowin' in the wind (aka Drift) | Pesticide Action Network
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Blowin' in the wind (aka Drift)

Karl Tupper's picture

It seems like a no-brainer: If you happen to live or work or go to school across the street from a field or orchard where pesticides are sprayed, you might think, "Maybe I'm breathing some of these pesticides." Especially when the wind blows from the field towards you. Especially when you can smell the pesticides. And you might also think, "Maybe this isn't good for me." Especially when the guys applying the pesticides are wearing Tyvek spacesuits. Especially if you start feeling ill.

And you'd be right to think these thoughts, even though most growers and pesticide applicators will tell you that you're crazy and have nothing to worry about. For years PAN's been working with concerned communities to show that these exposures are real and need to be taken seriously. And now a new study by scientists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and various states' Departments of Health, corroborates what we've been saying all along.

Mistakes happen, rules aren't followed & buffer zones are too small.

The study, published this week in Environmental Health Perspectives, analyzed pesticide poisoning data from 11 states from 1998 to 2006. The authors identified almost three thousand cases of illness associated with pesticides drifting from outdoor agricultural applications. This number likely underestimates the true burden of drift-induced illness, since pesticide poisonings are notoriously under-reported and misdiagnosed. In addition, the study looked only at acute illness — cancer, birth defects and developmental delays, Parkinson's disease and other chronic diseases linked to pesticide exposure weren't assessed in the study.

Nonetheless, the researchers made some interesting findings:

  • Most cases were "non-occupational." Translation: Most often those sickened by drifting pesticides are not farmers or farmworkers, but are "bystanders," people who live, play, or work at non-farming jobs that just happen to be near pesticide-treated fields.
  • Children bear the brunt of the "non-occupational" drift incidents, getting sick more often than any other age group.
  • Fumigants — which are highly volatile, highly toxic, and have very high application rates —are responsible for more cases than any other class of pesticides.
  • Californians living in the five counties with the most pesticide use are 69 times more likely to be involved in a drift incident than people in other counties.

Of course, none of this is very surprising. We've been saying for years that bystander drift exposure is a huge problem, that fumigants are particularly problematic, and that children are especially at risk. Rural residents have known this all along too — every week I get at least one phone call or email from someone dealing with drift, and each time I visit partner groups in California's Central Valley, the Great Plains, or on the Florida coast I hear yet more stories of drift.

The authors try to dissect why these drift incidents happen:

Common contributing factors identified for drift events included applicators’ carelessness near/over non-target sites (e.g., flew over a house, did not turn off a nozzle at the end of the row), unfavorable weather conditions (e.g., high wind speed, temperature inversion), and poor communication between applicators/growers and others. Improper seal of the fumigation site (e.g., tarp tear, early removal of seal) ... accounted for [a large portion] of cases.

Fumigants are just plain dangerous

Finally, they note that the quarter-mile buffer zones recently introduced to protect schools and daycare centers from fumigant drift are probably too small. "We found that, of 738 fumigant-related cases with information on distance, 606 (82%) occurred > 0.25 miles from the application site, which suggests that the new buffer zone requirements, independent of other measures to increase safety, may not be sufficient to prevent drift exposure." PAN previously reached a similar conclusion based on our own fumigant air monitoring study in Sisquoc, California.

This study comes at time when activists across California are fighting to keep methyl iodide out of their backyards. State officials have made assurances that despite methyl iodide's extreme toxicity, the risks can be "managed" with modest buffer zones, rigorous operator training, and better tarps.

But as we've suspected and this study shows, mistakes happen, rules aren't followed, and buffer zones are too small.

I'd like to end this post by saying something like, "Let's hope state officials heed the lessons from this study," but California regulators already ignored their own scientists when they approved methyl iodide. So I'll say this instead: Let's hope growers and county officials heed the lessons from this study, listen to the state's top scientists, and do what the citizens of the state have been asking: Say no the methyl iodide.

Karl Tupper
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Sherri's picture
Sherri /
Someone has been reading my FB blogs! I just went through this Monday with my neighbor spraying less than 100 ft. in front of my house. Four days later and we can smell the fumes.Confronted him to no satisfaction, called EPA to no satisfaction. Six phone calls and a whole lot of run-around, talked down to like a first grader and no returned phone calls. I want answers. He plans to spray again next week. Gramoxone Max this week, Round-up next week. I wanna know who I'm supposed to talk to.
Karl Tupper's picture
Karl Tupper /
Hi Sherri - So sorry to hear about your situation. In most states, it's either the Department of Ag or your County Ag Commissioner who's supposed to handle drift complaints like yours. But in general you've got to be tenacious to get them to do anything. See this page for more information:
Brad Wilson's picture
Brad Wilson /
If you bought a home 100 feet from a farm field, then you need to expect that they will spray 100 feet away. You do not mention, however, which way the wind was blowing. See my other post about the options they have related to that.
Brad Wilson's picture
Brad Wilson /
A quick review of the Farm Subsidy Database for my zip code shows that there are plenty of small farmers here ready to farm if they can get fair prices. A big problem has been that there hasn't been enough money to keep younger family members employed, after nearly 6 decades of lower and lower farm prices. Labor is replaced with pesticides: that's one problem. When farms then get rented out or sold to larger operations with more capital we have large machinery traveling some distance to do the work, for example, from the next county. It then creates a virtually impossible situation for spraying. If machinery comes in from that far away, and it can do a spraying job in 4 hours, then it can't just do half and then come back on another day when the wind changes. For example, based upon the wind, part of a farm can be sprayed without directly drifting across an acreage home from up close, but down the road another may be directly down wind. You then move in urban people not used to this. Farmers will likely be more ticked off than the urban folks if push comes to shove, as they have huge investments. Behind it all are macro farm economic policies, managing the markets with price floors and supply mangment. These policies were reduced 1953-1995 then ended. The food movement, with few exceptions (like PAN), doesn't know about these policies. It typically advocates for mere subsidy reforms, that do not affect prices. It therefore unknowingly sides with agribusiness against farmers. It advocated for mere subsidy reforms, to lower f farm income while doing nothing to prevent cheap prices for CAFOs, fructose, transfats, export dumping etc. This is done because few food movement leaders correctly understand this, their biggest issue (ie. cheap corn). They're on board in spirit and values, but not in practice.
Spencer's picture
Spencer /
I am a farmer concerned about my own health, that of my family members, my workers and the consumers who purchase my products. And of course, we are concerned for neighbors like Sherri. Reading articles on a variety of subjects, including yours about strawberry farmers and also on the “Occupy” movement, I am struck that the farmers are the 99% and the chemical companies are the 1%. The problem is that the farmers get 99% of the blame while the chemical companies only 1%. What every farmer wants is for governments and the chemical companies to ban and stop the production of harmful chemicals and provide us with safe, cheap and effective alternatives. Given the choice, we would always use safe pest control agents but we are seldom, if ever, given and effective and economical choice.