Pesticides are all over, from backyard gardens to cornfields. While their use doesn’t appear to be slowing, concern over drift and the resulting effects on health is driving research — and more worries.

Those concerns are bringing pesticides to a different venue: courtrooms.

And a pesticide called chlorpyrifos is at the center of yet another major legal battle.

The Environmental Protection Agency was set to ban it because some evidence shows it could hurt children’s mental development, but that stalled under former Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The EPA’s arguments in the 9th District Court of Appeals, which include newly public claims that the EPA will act in as little as a year, seemingly frustrated one of the judges.

“How long can EPA sit on this?” federal Judge Jacqueline Nguyen asked at a July hearing.

Nine states including California mandate buffer zones for certain pesticides near schools and waterways.

In much of the Midwest, state-mandated buffer zones don’t exist. But pesticide labels, which are regulated by federal agencies, often do have certain setbacks.

Some people who live next to Midwestern crop fields say they’re worried about what’s being sprayed.

“Yeah, I would be interested if there are issues or health concerns,” said Laura Whetherell, who has three kids and lives next to a cornfield in Champaign, Illinois.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting put an air sampler outside her house and five other locations in eastern Illinois to find out which pesticides might be drifting onto houses, playgrounds and schools.

Bismarck-Henning school Superintendent Scott Watson agreed to host one at a junior high/high school in Bismarck, about an hour northeast of Champaign. He’s interested to find out the initial results, which won’t likely be available for three or four weeks, but says pesticide drift isn’t something he usually thinks about.

“I mean I lived around farmers, I worked with farmers and stuff growing up as a kid, so I’m used to it,’ he said. “And you think that when your kids go outside, that they’re safe. And you hope that stands true, but you just never know.”

There is a lot of research in the works about the health effects of pesticides, including through the Agriculture Health Study.

But it can take decades to reach conclusions, though, especially when it comes to cancer.

And even when groups like AHS publish findings, like one that found that Roundup likely doesn’t cause cancer, it often fosters more debates.

The University of Iowa is a leader in researching pesticide drift.

Many of the pesticides notorious for drifting in Iowa, like acetochlor, are either classified as “probable carcinogens” by the EPA or have too few health studies to know for sure, according to Jenna Gibbs.

She’s a drift researcher and research coordinator at the university’s College of Public Health.

“But we do know that all of them are pretty irritating compounds. They’re irritating to the respiratory system and to the skin and to the eyes” at higher levels, she said.

Direct exposure is the biggest concern, which is why large-scale pesticide applicators wear heaps of protective equipment and have to get a license to spray.

Troy Coziahr, manager of Monsanto’s Learning Center in western Illinois, said people who apply pesticides should adhere to that label so they can take into account wind speed, the height from which the pesticide is dropped and the type of nozzle used to spray.

“You know on a windy day, try to throw a ping-pong ball at somebody and it blows away pretty easy. Well you can toss a basketball right to them. It’s the same concept with spray droplets,” he said.

Small droplets or high winds can throw pesticides off course. But if some drifts into a yard, Coziahr says it breaks down pretty quickly by design, and small doses are less toxic than chemicals found around the home.

“You know, the caffeine in a cup of coffee and those types of things are actually a lot more toxic than most of these herbicides and things like that are,” he said.

Last spring, Gibbs and other researchers put 13 air sensors around Iowa City, where the university is based.

All of them found measurable levels of farming pesticides acetochlor and atrazine, she said, adding, “we were actually a little surprised to see them only two blocks from downtown.”

But preliminary findings showed that the levels weren’t “ high enough to be a concern,” she said.

But the sensors weren’t out during the summer, when potentially more-toxic pesticides used to kill insects are often sprayed from planes.

There are plans to research that in the future because, Gibbs said,  “insecticides especially attack the central nervous system of humans and animals, they tend to be a little more toxic to humans.”

Gibbs said she’s not “anti-pesticides,” and even uses things like Roundup on her own farmland.

She said she understands the struggles of balancing the need to get rid of weeds and keep neighbors safe, but more research needs to be done into the reasons why and when pesticides drift and the risks that come along with that.

New technologies could help with better air monitoring, pesticides and, possibly, robots.

“The more we rely on robots and drones, maybe we have some device that can go out and target really, really close and spray only specific areas,” she said.

The future is nearly here: Companies are working on a Roundup replacement, even if that may be a challenge because of higher bars for health testing and Roundup’s ability to stay on plants without often seeping into soils or the air.

Hawaii banned chlorpyrifos and U.S. farmers are already using less of it, thinking that the EPA may eventually follow through on its plan to ban the substance nationwide.

And Reuters reported that those robots are already hitting the fields overseas, honing the sprayers to make sure little jets of pesticide hit their mark.

Anna Casey, a former fellow at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, contributed to this story. Follow Madelyn on Twitter: @MadelynBeck8

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1 Comment

  1. The old “caffeine in a cup of coffee” sleight of hand.

    Here is what we do know: that several agricultural herbicides are not rapidly breaking down by design into benign ingredients on off-target sites before they damage susceptible vegetation on millions of acres of soybeans, trees, landscape plantings, home garden vegetables, flowers and specialty crops.

    We know that several of these herbicides including acetochlor, 2,4-D and dicamba are volatilizing from sites of application on millions of acres of treated corn and soybean fields in the Midwest, drifting for miles in the air, being precipitated in rainfall, and damaging sensitive vegetation at very low concentrations of the toxic ingredients.

    We know that USEPA, the pesticide registering agency, has not been overly concerned about herbicide volatilization and that they may be about to renew the registration of the newly formulated “low-volatile” dicamba herbicides despite a great volume of evidence that volatility from these products is causing widespread harm to susceptible vegetation.

    This is occurring in a environment in which state and federal regulatory agencies are doing practically no monitoring of the air for volatilized pesticides. In Illinois, our pesticide regulator, the Illinois Dept. of Agriculture is totally ill equipped to investigate incidents other than those caused by “over spray” episodes of misuse. What is happening as a consequence of the physical properties of these pesticides themselves when used according to label law and their propensity to move and cause off-target damages remains largely under researched, under monitored and under regulated. The system is essentially out of control.

    The evidence is clear from the last few years of millions of acres of off-target damage that a critical threshold has been crossed and that our rights to know and our rights against toxic pesticide trespass have been seriously tread upon.

    Technologies to monitor the air for herbicides have been utilized for many years in California, Oregon and Washington — states with significant acreage of very sensitive and high value specialty crops — to serve the public’s need to know. It is time we bring these proven technologies to bear in the Midwest and bring some accountability to this most dominating industry and the regulatory agencies that are failing to serve the public interest.

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