Claire Hettinger was the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Anna Casey, the Midwest Center's 2018 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow, contributed to this report.
The past few summers, Laura Wetherell’s three children often played in the family’s backyard next to Barkstall Elementary School in Champaign, Illinois. Her home and the school are both within 100 feet of agricultural fields. Unbeknownst to her, pesticides with potentially harmful health effects have been floating through the air.
For one year, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting periodically sampled for pesticide drift in five locations surrounded by agricultural fields in Central Illinois, where large numbers of corn and soybeans are planted.
Five air sensors put up by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting from June 2018 to July 2019 found the presence of pesticides near schools, parks and homes where vulnerable populations live. These include: Wetherell’s home, East Prairie Middle School in Tuscola, the Bismarck School District central office, a public park in rural Sadorus and a private home outside of Sidney. Filters from the sensors were later sent to be tested at an independent lab accredited by the USDA for pesticides. The Midwest Center conducted follow-up interviews over the past year.
The Midwest Center tested the filters three times during the course of a year to see what, if any, chemicals were collected. Out of the 152 chemicals tested for, seven pesticides were found: Atrazine, benoxacor, dimethenamid, MCPP, permethrin, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-TP.
The presence of these chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, endocrine issues, internal inflammation and numerous other health problems, raises questions about the potential impact on human health, experts say.
“Schools should be pesticide-free,” said Bettina Francis, associate professor of entomology at the University of Illinois. “Kids should not be breathing pesticides on the playground or in the homes.”
[Read: How We Did This]
The project prioritized schools that were interested in hosting air samplers because experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, say children can be more susceptible to the effects of pesticides.
While some states have laws regulating pesticide application near schools, states in the Midwest do not have laws about pesticide spraying near these sensitive areas, such as schools or daycares.
Children lose millions of IQ points due to pesticides
Because the Midwest Center’s sensors could not measure the concentration of pesticide detected, the immediate health impacts are not clear, said Sharron LaFollette, an emeritus professor at University of Illinois at Springfield and former Illinois Toxicologist.
This is because “dose makes the poison,” meaning the amount of chemical exposure determines the effect on human, plant or insect health, LaFollette said. Humans are at-risk when pesticides are present at high levels, she said.
Pesticides such as atrazine, dimethenamid, permethrin, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-TP — all of which were detected by the Midwest Center’s sensors — are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can lead to poor development in young children and fetuses.
Children’s health is particularly susceptible to pesticide exposure and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, said Abigail Gaylord, a researcher who studies the impact of pesticides on children’s health at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
Researchers estimated that more than 160 million IQ points were lost and over 700,000 cases of intellectual disability developed due to exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in recent decades, according to Gaylord’s study published earlier this year. The study used information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collected in a national survey.
The study valued each lost IQ point at $22,268 and each intellectual disability at $1,272,470 in economic value, according to the study.
“We write papers about how bad these chemicals are for children, but people complain that it costs too much to enact policies,” Gaylord said. “We wanted to show it can actually save money from an economic burden standpoint. We can save money because children aren’t losing brainpower and then can contribute to society.”
Illinois has no laws that prevent pesticide spraying near schools or parks where children often play.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture enforces federal pesticide laws in the state. It did not respond to a question about the possibility of testing for pesticide drift in the future.
“The regulatory responsibilities of the Illinois Department of Agriculture under the Illinois Pesticide Act include the certification and licensing of individuals who apply pesticides,” it said in a statement. “Citizens may submit reports of alleged pesticide misuse to the Department. These reports are investigated by Department personnel and if violations of the statute are found appropriate enforcement actions are taken.”
U.S. allows more dangerous pesticides
Lou Nelms, a retired biologist who lives in central Illinois and helps monitor trees for herbicide damage, said the sensors’ results are what he expected because “agriculture is almost totally dependent on chemical weed control.”
“The range and extent of these things are quite far-reaching,” he said. “Hopefully most of what we do encounter and are getting into our systems is low enough toxicity to not have short- or long-term health effects.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that pesticides undergo testing for potential impact on human health and the environment before being registered for sale. The tests can cost between $0 for “evaluation of potential weediness” to $4.3 million for “Combined Chronic Toxicity/Carcinogenicity Testing of Respirable Fibrous Particles (inhalation route).”
However, it often takes decades for pesticides linked to human health issues to be taken off the market. Bayer, the maker of glyphosate, is in the midst of negotiating a reported $10 billion settlement of claims that the pesticide causes non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The pesticide is still for sale.
The U.S. also lags behind other countries in banning pesticides, spraying more than 300 million pounds of pesticides banned in the European Union each year. This includes 3 million pounds of pesticides that are “extremely” hazardous to humans.
Atrazine, which was found frequently and is the second-most sprayed pesticide in the U.S. is banned in more than 35 countries, including the European Union, because of its links to human health, which include reproductive issues, an increased chance of birth defects, a loss of fertility in men and a potential to cause cancer. A 2018 Environmental Working Group analysis of drinking water found atrazine, whose main manufacturer is Syngenta, in the tap water of more than 30 million people.
Francis, the University of Illinois entomologist, said her main concern for the public is the long-term impact of the pesticides, which is unknown. There are no established health standards for pesticides in the air, and the Midwest Center’s testing only sensed whether the pesticide was detected and did not quantify detection levels.
“I don’t think I’d worry about the health effects with these, certainly not without a quantitative measure of what was in the air,” she said. “If my kid were in the school, I don’t think I would take him out.”
Wetherell, who has since moved to Texas with her family, said she was concerned to know that chemicals are drifting through the air where her kids play. The potential long-term effects also unnerved her.
“You think, ‘Oh, we don’t live in a big city, the air is cleaner.’ But there are impacts fields can have,” she said. “In general, there always is a concern about our children’s health and future health, and we want to protect that and guard that as much as we can.”
Increased pesticide use nationwide
Since the introduction of genetically modified crops in the 1990s, farms have dramatically increased their pesticide usage.
Glyphosate, which has been linked to cancer and is the active ingredient in Roundup, saw a 40-fold increase in use in the Midwest between 1992 and 2016. Dicamba, a volatile herbicide that has increased in use dramatically since the introduction of dicamba-resistant crops in 2017, has led to record levels of pesticide drift complaints in Illinois. Small amounts of dicamba are not easily detectable, according to pesticide experts.
Atrazine and 2,4-D, the fifth mostly commonly used pesticide and most widely used pesticide outside of agriculture, were found frequently. Benoxacor, MCPP and dimethenamid were also detected.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently re-approved atrazine — which is known to cause problems for humans — for use on crops, such as corn. In doing so, the agency weakened protections for children, which are known to be especially sensitive to exposure to the pesticide.
LaFollette said that it is easier to determine the impacts of acute exposure (being blasted with a large amount of chemicals all at once) compared to chronic exposure (breathing in chemicals over a long period of time). The same goes for the diseases caused by acute exposure.
University of Illinois weed scientist Aaron Hager said 22 million acres of corn and soybeans are treated in Illinois each year, so there is always the risk that some drift will take place.
“We can’t say that everything we do has a spotless record because we have made mistakes before,” Hager said. “(But) by and large, as an industry, we try to do the best we can as we make applications of pesticides.”
Hager also cited non-agriculture uses, such as lawn care, as contributing to drift. For example, anyone can purchase 2,4-D without needing a pesticide applicator license.
“I’ve always felt that it is really on the end-user to understand what they are doing and know how to do it appropriately,” he said.
A banned pesticide
“The one I would really worry about is the 2-4-5,TP,” Francis said. “It really shouldn’t be used and that is for the applicator and the rest of the world, it isn’t safe for it to be around people.”
The chemical 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxy propionic acid — also known as 2,4,5-TP, Fenoprop, Silvex and other names — has been banned by the U.S. EPA since 1985.
It was found on a sensor the Midwest Center placed in Sadorus. The sensor was located next to a public park between June and December 2018.
The EPA lists the following as potentially caused by short 2,4,5-TP exposure: depression and other nervous system effects, weakness, stomach irritation and minor damage to liver and kidneys.
Experts say 2,4,5-TP could have been detected for a few reasons including someone spraying it illegally or it being a residue in the ground from the 1980s. Hager also said someone could have had it in the barn since it was banned and was just now using it.
A quick Google search showed that the chemical is available for purchase on many websites that sell chemicals for research.
State drift sampling
Illinois does not do its own sampling for pesticide drift. But other states, such as California, have taken it up in recent years.
The California Air Board tests for 31 pesticides each year across the state, said Lynn Baker, an air board staff air pollution specialist. In 2019, no pesticides exceeded regulatory targets, according to state data.
“California is one of the only states that has reporting requirements. All pesticide use is reported statewide by township,” Baker said. “And from that we can see historically it has been used and what crops it has been used on.”
The state’s air board gives its data to the state’s Pesticide Regulations Board, which then decides which pesticides are toxic air components. From there, they develop control measures to limit public exposure.
California law prohibits many pesticide applications within a quarter mile of public K-12 schools and licensed child day-care facilities during school hours, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Recently, the state decided to phase out the use of chlorpyrifos because of the danger it poses to human health.
Emily Marquez, a staff scientist with the Pesticide Action Network, said California’s only-in-the-nation monitoring program is strong but still lacks regulatory targets that lead to “meaningful” action. Often, a pesticide can be detected but that doesn’t lead to action.
The Pesticide Action Network monitors pesticide drift throughout the United States, said Linda Wells, a former organizing director for PAN. They’ve done projects in California, Hawaii, Minnesota and Iowa to varying degrees of success.
The testing in Minnesota led to the state’s health department to begin monitoring the human impact of pesticide drift in ground water, Wells said. In 2019, 72% of private wells monitored had at least one pesticide detected.
“California does air monitoring for pesticide drift that is good. Minnesota has a comprehensive water monitoring program,” Wells said. “That is still two steps away from the real solution, which is tighter regulations.”
Earlier this year, Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Rep. Joe Negusse (D-Colorado) introduced a bill called the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act, which would help reform the U.S. pesticide regulatory system.
Emily Knobbe, EPA policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said two sections of the bill could help reduce children being exposed to pesticides. First, the bill would require the EPA to immediately suspend and do an emergency review of all pesticides “effectively banned” in the European Union or Canada. Atrazine cannot be used in agriculture in Europe because of strong restrictions on the amount of the pesticide allowed in waterways. Second, the bill would also allow people or organizations to petition for pesticides to no longer be used.
Knobbe said it can be really difficult to find a “one-size fits all” regulation for schools because the issues in cities are much different than rural schools. Many schools also use chemicals on their sports fields.
In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule to reduce pesticide buffer zones, areas where pesticides cannot be sprayed in order to limit drift, around agricultural fields. The EPA said the intention is to improve regulations while continuing farm safety.
Currently, there is a buffer zone of 25 feet around a spraying rig, and a zone of 100 feet around applicators that mist or fog fields with pesticides. The applicator is also supposed to stop if a person is inside the buffer zone.
The regulations ended the buffer zone at the farmer’s property line. The agency said off-farm bystanders would still be protected “due to the existing ‘do not contact’ requirement that prohibits use in a manner that would contact unprotected individuals.”
However, environmental activists and farm worker groups have said the regulations would increase the chance for workers, neighbors and others to be sprayed by pesticides.
Joyce Hurd, who owns the Sidney property where the Midwest Center placed one of its sensors, said the results didn’t surprise her.
Hurd participated in the study because she was already concerned about the use of pesticides, she said. She said she hopes the data gathering will continue.
“I think that research needs to continue to get better and get a better idea of what is actually happening and when,” she said. “Knowing where you stand is always important.”
How we did this
For one year, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting sampled the air in five locations surrounded by agricultural fields in central Illinois, where large numbers of corn and soybeans are planted.
The sensors, active from June 2018 to July 2019, found the presence of pesticides near schools, parks and homes where vulnerable populations live. These include: a home near Barkstall Elementary School in Champaign; East Prairie Middle School in Tuscola; the Bismarck School District central office; a public park in rural Sadorus; and a private home outside of Sidney.
The Midwest Center tested the filters three times during the course of a year to see what, if any, chemicals were collected. Out of the 152 chemicals tested for, seven pesticides were found: atrazine, benoxacor, dimethenamid, MCPP, permethrin, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-TP.
The project prioritized schools that were interested in hosting air samplers because experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, said children can be more susceptible to the effects of pesticides. Midwestern states do not have laws about pesticide spraying near sensitive areas, such as schools or daycares.
Atrazine, 2,4-D and dimethenamid were found at all five sites during the first testing period from April 18 to June 20, 2018. Between June 20 to December 18, 2018, 2,4,5-TP was found in Sadorus. Permethrin was found in Sidney during the same time period.
From December 18 to July 1, 2019, 2,4-D, atrazine and benoxacor were found at the Bismarck District Office, Sadorus, the Sidney home and at the home near Barkstall Elementary. MCPP was found at Bismarck and Barkstall at this time. And dimethenamid was found in Sarorus, Sydney and at Barkstall.
The sensor at East Prairie Middle School in Tuscola was lost before the last results were collected.
“In general, I would expect to find all of these (pesticides) in an agricultural community,” said Sharron LaFollette, an emeritus professor at University of Illinois at Springfield and former Illinois Toxicologist.
Some chemicals have a large database for risk assessment, while others need more research, LaFollette said. Pesticides include herbicides, which are sprayed on plants, insecticides, which are sprayed to kill bugs, and fungicides, which are designed to kill fungi.
The Midwest Center’s sensors did not detect well-known pesticides glyphosate, which is the most commonly sprayed pesticide in the U.S., and dicamba, which has led to record pesticide misuse complaints in Illinois in recent years.