Poisoning Paradise: Kauai’s Pesticide Battle

The tropical paradise of Kauai, Hawai’i has become ground zero for genetically modified organism (GMO) research and development (R&D) testing over the past decade. GMO giants Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, BASF, and Dow AgroSciences dump over 18 tons of pre-diluted, restricted-use pesticides on Kauai annually with their R&D seed operations. Today, Kauai residents are fighting back with Bill 2491.

The R&D testing means open-air planting of experimental GMO requiring large volumes of pesticides, including restricted-use pesticides (such as Lorsban and Atrazine),which can have disastrous health consequences. Often these chemicals are used in amounts several times higher than use for any other conventional farming methods, and due to Kauai’s high winds and wet environment, these activities pose the risk of contaminating the surrounding land, air, water, crops, and residents.

Hawai’i has had 5.4 times more GE crop field releases per unit area than Illinois. This means that in general, more people in Hawai’i live in close proximity to field test sites than residents of Midwestern states like Illinois, putting them at a much higher risk for pesticide exposure. Residents have reported pesticide drift into their homes and being hit by drift while driving public roadways. Healthcare professionals have voiced concerns over possible cancer clusters, widespread irregular respiratory issues, and many other health issues of concern to children and pregnant women.

Through Bill 2491, residents are demanding disclosure and preventative measures that protect pregnant mothers, fence-line communities and children from the risks of exposure to restricted use-pesticides. The American Academy of Pediatrics research shows pesticides link to delays in neurological development, endocrine abnormalities, behavioral issues and an increase in childhood cancers such as leukemia.

“A growing number of Kauai’s pediatricians are concerned with the massive pesticide exposure on Kauai,” says Dr. Lee Eveslin, a Kauai pediatrician for over 30 years. “The Bill is important and these reasonable measures are long overdue.”

“We’re exposed to restricted pesticides through our air, water and food.  My daughters and I have experienced symptoms of asthma, burning in our throats and eyes and unexplained allergies. If this abuse continues, what will be left for the future of our keiki [children],” asks Malia Chun, a local mother and native Hawaiian. “Why should I leave? I do my best to fulfill my kuleana [responsibility] as a steward of my ancestral land. No amount of money in this world is worth the health and well-being of our ‘ohana and our community.”

Over 150 residents are suing Pioneer/DuPont for unlawfully allowing pesticide drift into their homes for over a decade, and there have been several incidences at a local middle school where children and teachers got sick. One incident resulted in at least 10 children being taken to the hospital. Earlier this month, over 3,500 residents marched in support of the Bill and thousands more submitted testimonies to the County Council to voice their support.

Currently County Bill 2491 is under consideration by the County Council which will require buffer zones to protect sensitive areas (schools, hospitals, waterways, public roadways, etc.) and the completion of an Environment Impact Statement (EIS) to investigate the impact these operations have on the island of Kauai. In the meantime, it puts a moratorium on new operations until Kauai has a deeper understanding of the health, economic, and environmental risks of these experimental activities.

In response, the biotech and chemical companies are threatening layoffs and lawsuits if the Bill gets passed. However, the Bill has been reviewed by several attorneys and public interest experts specializing in pesticide and GMO regulation who have encouraging words on the Bill’s legal standing, and the County’s powers to protect the health and welfare of its residents and natural resources.

Paul Achitoff, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Honolulu office, says, “I believe the Bill’s key provisions are legally sound and stand an excellent chance of withstanding a legal challenge.” Earthjustice and others are exploring the possibility of defending the bill pro bono if it is challenged in court.

According to the Center for Food Safety, at least seven states have established no-spray buffer zones, eight states have established notification requirements for agricultural pesticide applications, and California counties play a leading role in local pesticide regulation.  There has been documented large-scale failure of state and federal agencies responsible for the regulation, monitoring and protection of people’s health in relation to pesticide use by the agrochemical/GMO operations on the island.

Bill Freese, Science Policy Analyst for the Center for Food Safety agrees, “We would all like to believe that EPA protects us from pesticide harms. But sadly, this is often not the case.”  In fact, only two months ago, Earthjustice took the EPA to court for failing to comply with their own legal duty to assess risks to children from drift, restrict pesticide uses accordingly, and create buffer zones around schools to minimize drift exposure.

Today, Friday, September 27, 2013, the Kauai County Council meets again to discuss amendments to the Bill and its possible passing. To learn more about this issue go to Stop Poisoning Paradise and connect with them on Facebook or Twitter.

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