A complex state and federal investigation into pesticide exposure is taking place in a small community west of Eugene, Oregon.
A group called the Pitchfork Rebellion alleges that herbicides sprayed on clear-cut commercial forests in the Coast Range are drifting onto nearby residences, farms, and schools.
A team of state and federal agencies launched an investigation in the spring of 2011, collecting urine samples and also testing water, soil, and foods. Preliminary results from the investigation have gone out to participants and will be made public early this year. Here are six things you should know about the investigation.
1. Eleven different pesticides are involved… but you’ll mainly hear about two. Commercial forestry operations treat clear-cuts with a range of compounds, but the investigation is focused on two in particular: 2,4,-D, and atrazine, both common herbicides found in products like Weed-B-Gone. They’re the focus because good lab tests exist for analyzing the presence of these compounds in urine. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2,4-D and atrazine are flushed out by the body relatively quickly—within a few days—so a positive urine test result indicates recent exposure to the herbicide. The Environmental Protection Agency also collected samples of water, soil, and farm products like milk and honey. State agencies will test these samples for 9 additional pesticides.
2. It started with urine tests State and federal agencies began their exposure investigation after community members presented the Oregon Board of Forestry with evidence they had been exposed to herbicides. Some residents of the Triangle Lake area had complained of rashes and respiratory illness and tried to initiate a state investigation without much luck. In 2010, they approached a visiting researcher from Emory University and asked if she would test their urine. Dr. Dana Barr, a former director of the Pesticide Exposure Assessment lab at the Centers for Disease Control, agreed. The group mailed samples to her Emory lab.
“We found that all of the residents had measurable levels of the herbicide 2.4-D and metabolites of the herbicide atrazine in their urine,” Dr Barr says.
Dr. Barr says the study she conducted followed protocols she developed at the CDC, but was more exploratory than scientific. Barr says the concentration of 2,4-D and atrazine she observed in the Triangle Lake samples were higher than is found in the general population, but not nearly as high as the levels found in farm workers and people who apply herbicides, and not at a level expected to cause health concerns. But she found it significant that every sample she tested showed some exposure to 2,4-D: public health surveys have found it present in less than 25% of the general population.
3. Who’s on first? The government investigation is being handled by the Pesticides Analytic Response Center (PARC), which is chaired by the Oregon Health Authority. At the state level, the Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Forestry, and Department of Agriculture are also involved. Two federal agencies, the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) are collaborating.
4. Acute vs. chronic exposure Health officials are concerned not only about the possibility of acute exposure to pesticides while helicopter spraying is taken place, but chronic low-level exposure through contaminated water or soil. Investigators collected their first round of samples in the summer, before any spraying on clear-cuts took place. They hope to collect a second round of urine samples from community members in the spring within 48 hours of when spraying takes place.
5. 2,4-D Is All Around Us… According to Jae Douglas, a principal investigator with the State Health Authority, 2,4-D is used on farmland, utility right of ways, highways, and lawns. The investigation will look at all possible pathways to exposure and the Health Authority has requested pesticide application records from the Oregon Departments of Agriculture, Forestry, and Transportation. But these records may not be easy to produce. Anyone who applies pesticides in the state is required to document the time, date, location, and amount of each pesticide application, and to maintain those records for three years. But the state doesn’t keep a copy on file, and farms and forestry operators are only expected to produce those records “upon request,”
6. Tensions in the community are running high. Several op-ed pieces have recently appeared in the Register-Guard newspaper, one local resident has posted dozens of YouTube videos documenting helicopter spraying, and another resident says members of the community are pursuing their own water quality testing.
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