Pesticides in Paradise


By Tanya Silverman

Kauai, Hawaii. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In April, the European Committee voted to enforce a two-year moratorium on neoncicotinoids, a pesticide, based on a study that linked its usage to killing bees.

The companies that produce the neoncicotinoid pesticides, Switzerland’s Syngenta and Germany’s Bayer, have been challenging studies that connect the decline of bee populations to their products.

Regardless of whatever further research with bees and neoncicotinoids concludes, the initial pesticide-banning enforcement does show that in Europe, the EU manages a dominant authority in its ability enforce such a regulation over 27 countries.

Another place where neonicotinoids are being blamed for killing off bee populations is the tropical island of Kauai, Hawaii. Often dubbed as the “Garden Island”, pesticide regulations in Kauai have not been implemented by such a top-down, authoritative level.

In the past, Kauai’s lands were home to sugarcane farms. After the sugarcane industry left, their former fields were taken over by biotech companies, DuPont-Pioneer, Syngenta, Dow and BASF, to grow experimental, genetically modified sunflowers, soy, and corn. As such agricultural practice is to produce test crops rather than edible food, these biotech companies have taken advantage of their liberty to disperse high volumes of hazardous pesticides on frequent basis.

So what is getting sprayed on Kauai, and what does that entail?

Hawaiian state records show that every year, 18 tons of 22 restricted use pesticides (ones that require special permits to spray) are dispersed on this island. These biotech companies are known to combine these restricted-use chemicals into dozens of pesticide cocktails to then spray on their GMO fields – and 15 of these 22 pesticides have been linked to cancer.

Exactly what these pesticide cocktails are, and how exactly they affect Kauai’s population and environment, is not so clear. While the state records tell us so much, the biotech companies have not been willing to release information about the pesticides they spray, the combinations they make or even the seeds they grow.

Nevertheless, in Kauai, a number of problems have surfaced that may relate to pesticide use and overuse. Bee declines are one, others being large-scale sea urchin deaths, irregular respiratory issues, and pregnancy concerns.

Such cases suspicious of pesticide effects have come about in the town of Waimea, Kauai. Syngenta operates a 10-acre cornfield that sits very close to Waimea Canyon Middle School. In 2006 and 2008, there were several episodes of children and teachers becoming mysteriously sick and sometimes vomiting – a few times were so severe that a number of children were rushed to the emergency room. People present at this middle school also spoke of a strange odor that accompanied these illness occurrences.

While pesticide overuse and drift seemed a likely cause, Syngenta attributed the illnesses and strange smell to stinkweed. The actual causes still remain unproven.

What has been proven, however, is the presence of several restricted-use pesticides – including atazine, chlorpyrifos, and bifenthrin – within the air and water of Waimea Canyon Middle School. Syngenta produces atazine, an herbicide banned in Europe, which is problematic because of its association with cancer, birth defects, and reproductive problems.

The people of Waimea have also faced problems with DuPont-Pioneer operating GMO fields adjacent to their community. These exposed, open-air GMO fields are plowed frequently, causing fugitive dust to blow over into town. Because of this, Waimea residents have been overwhelmed by this pesticide-laden dust, and claim they have to live with their windows shut and doors closed. In addition to immediate inconvenience, they fear the pesticides embedded into this dust having detrimental effects on their health.

While local concerns are abundant, so far, greater oversight by the state has been scant; Hawaii’s pesticide regulation body is known to be underfunded, understaffed, and ineffectual.

But such lack of centralized help has not halted action in Kauai: Over 100 Waimea residents banded to sue DuPont-Pioneer over their agricultural practices that have caused their homes and lives to be inundated with pesticide-laden dust.

As for the local governmental level, Gary Hooser, a Kauai Councilman, drafted Bill 2491, proposing a number of restrictions on the controversial agricultural practices that take place this island. Though amended in September, its current version would require the agricultural companies to disclose the presence of their GMO crops, and when they spray pesticides. Companies would also be required inform people about the names of the pesticides, the amount they use, the time, and location.

Often dubbed as the “right to know” bill, its passage would also hold the county responsible for conducting a study regarding how the pesticides and GMO farming affects human health and the environment. Additionally, 500-foot, pesticide-free buffer zones would be established around schools, hospitals and houses.

Though overarching pesticide bans are unlikely in Kauai, other efforts have been made to protect the community and land.

In certain parts of the world, as seen in the Europe, suspicions of a particular pesticide causing a decline in bee population is enough to influence a centralized international authority, the European Committee, to pass a ban effective throughout a number of countries.

In other places, like the small Hawaiian island of Kauai, this same pesticide chemical can be suspected to kill bees, then also weave into an over-arching and ever-entangling dilemma of immense unregulated pesticide dispersion. The distribution of these agents also affects human populations, forcing people and local governments to act against companies themselves.