Pest management transition fundedThe Washington State legislature approved $550,000 in funding over the next two years for a project to help the state’s tree fruit growers transition away from the older pesticides and employ new strategies and products to manage pests.

Jim Hazen, executive director for the Washington State Horticultural Association, which represents the tree fruit industry at the state capital, said funding for the pest management transition project was a "win-win," since it should benefit growers, orchard workers, and consumers, and should ultimately save the state money by reducing the need for cholinesterase testing of workers who handle organophosphates.

The three-year project, estimated to cost $1.9 million, was developed by Dr. Jay Brunner, director of Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee. This initial funding will pay for the hiring of a project coordinator to lead education and communication efforts.

Hazen said the proposal was well received by the state legislature. "Pesticides seemed to be a large focus in a number of legislative committees this year, so the timing was perfect because it provided a proactive approach that really will allow the industry to reduce the use of certain classes of pesticides."

A bill requiring the Washington State Department of Health to conduct a pilot project to monitor pesticide drift and the implications on the health of people in nearby communities died in committee. However, the legislature allocated $530,000 for that purpose in the Department of Health’s budget for the next biennium. Hazen said the University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (PNASH) will design the study, and it was likely to focus on pesticide use in orchards. The results will be reported to the legislature in 2009.

No policy bill

Hazen said he was concerned that there was no policy bill to guide how the center would develop the study. The Washington State Department of Agriculture—the agency that regulates pesticides and drift—is not involved with the project. He questioned whether it is even needed, particularly at a time when the tree fruit industry is making efforts to reduce chemical use.

"What’s the objective of the study?" he asked. "Unfortunately, because you don’t have a policy paper that outlines the objective, PNASH is left to develop the study to meet its own objectives. There are laws on the books against drift. Drift is illegal. I think everyone who uses a pesticide is using it with great care."

Carol Dansereau, executive director of the Farm Worker Pesticide Project based in Seattle, lobbied for the air-monitoring study. "It’s important to have information on where pesticides are drifting, and the kinds of exposure that children and adults are experiencing," she said. "As we deal with ag issues, we need sound science on exposure and health risks to make sure we’re protecting farmworkers, growers, family members, and others in agriculture."

The study should allow for more informed public discussions about what needs to happen to help growers use alternatives to harmful pesticides so people aren’t drifted on any more, she added. "We need to be identifying the barriers to alternatives and how to overcome those."

She said the monitoring will probably be done near orchards and other farms for a range of pesticides, in addition to Guthion (azinphos-methyl).

The Farm Worker Pesticide Project and the Pesticide Action Network last year issued a report entitled "Poisons on the Wind," which described a community air-monitoring project in the Yakima Valley that focused on the organophosphate chlorpyrifos (Lorsban). The project involved testing air levels of Lorsban at two homes close to orchards during the spring of 2006, using a "drift catcher" developed by Pesticide Action Network staff.

On a number of days, air levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s reference exposure level for children, the report states. Levels below the reference exposure levels are expected to have no adverse health effects.

Hazen said the study was flawed, and the conclusions were based on miniscule and erroneous results. It also ignored the fact that the owners and operators of orchards have lived on orchards for hundreds of years.

He described the group’s push for the state air-monitoring study as being 20 years behind the times. Growers are using new and safer pesticide products and strategies, are following worker protection standards, and are training workers in order to reduce pesticide exposure, he said.

"I think the jury’s in from the public perception standpoint, and that’s that there’s a certain risk and danger associated with organophosphates. I think the industry’s going to be regulated into using softer and softer materials, and that’s already occurring. That’s the frustration with the issue. The union activists and the environmentalists are about 20 years behind the agricultural industry."

Hazen said the air-monitoring study is a very reactive approach, rather than proactive, and suggested that the $530,000 to be spent on the air-monitoring study could have been put to better use in helping growers transition away from the older pesticides.

"What we really should be focusing on is methods and programs that reduce the use of organophosphates long term and so assist the industry through that transition process, which is a much better use of resources."

But Dansereau said the public has a basic right to know what they are breathing, and the study is necessary to show the extent of drift and the health risks associated with pesticides that people are exposed to.

"We’re very glad that at last this basic information will be produced and we can have an informed discussion, working together towards a solution based on sound science."

Dr. Richard Fenske, director of the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, said the Department of Health is leading the project, and Dr. Vince Hebert, extension specialist at Washington State University’s Food and Environmental Quality Lab, will also be involved. Hebert has studied the drift of byproducts of fumigants used in potato production. They consider this to be a pilot program that will help to determine if there are situations where drift poses a hazard to human health, and to explore best management practices to minimize drift.

All the parties were meeting to develop a strategy and a rationale, based on the chemicals used near communities, their risks, and public concern, Fenske said. "The bill died, so there really is very little guidance from the legislature, unless you assume that the last version of the bill is guidance.

"It’s really up to the Department of Health to use these funds the best way possible."

Since the Farm Worker Pesticide Project raised concerns about Lorsban, that will likely be one of the pesticides monitored, he said.

The Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center will seek input from WSU scientists involved in entomology and horticulture.

He added that the allocation is not a huge amount for this type of project, since it is expensive to collect and analyze the air samples. "We’re going to have to choose strategically," Fenske said.

The funding won’t be available until July 1 this year. Since Lorsban is used in orchards only in the spring, monitoring of that insecticide probably won’t be done until the 2008 season.