Pesticide Drift and Rural HealthJuly 24, 2012 • By Marty Kassowitz
Bonnie Wirtz recalls the nurse practitioner’s private words as she was released from a rural Minnesota hospital last month: “I want to let you know that you are not the first person I’ve seen that has come in for this.”
The evening before, in the small farming community of Melrose, Minn., a plume of pesticides from an overhead crop duster seeped into Wirtz’ bedroom via her air conditioner. Within minutes, her heart began to race and she struggled to breathe.
“I was almost in cardiac arrest,” said Wirtz, a new mom, of her condition once she reached the hospital. “They had the paddles ready.”
As the nurse hinted, the Wirtz family is just one of many in central Minnesota who believe they have endured the effects of not only heavy dousings of agricultural pesticides, such as what Bonnie experienced, but also frequent, lower doses that drift by invisibly throughout the growing season, contaminating their air, water and food.
Further, the pesticide chlorpyrifos that snuck into Wirtz’s home as it was sprayed on a nearby alfalfa field is just one of a long list of agricultural chemicals recently detected in communities across the farming region.
Pesticides can veer from their intended target and put people at risk in a variety ways, explained Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research and Outreach Center. Strong winds will send pesticides across great distances, and hot temperatures alone can be enough to cause pesticides to drift, said Riddle.
From 2006 to 2009, in an effort to detect pesticides in the air they breathed, residents of central Minnesota set up air monitors on everything from back patios to school rooftops. One or more pesticides were found in 64 percent of 340 samples taken by the so-called drift catchers, according to results published by the nonprofit Pesticide Action Network in May.
The most commonly detected chemical was a potato fungicide, chlorothalonil, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies as a “probable” carcinogen and “highly toxic” if inhaled.
Chlorpyrifos, also detected in a number of samples, has been implicated in long-term health problems, including learning disabilities—on top of known heart and breathing troubles. Just last Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new restrictions on the use of the pesticide, including a lower limit on how much can be applied, in order “to increase protection for children and other bystanders.”
“A lot of moms are wondering why their children are having increasing allergies and asthma. They’re wondering why many are having miscarriages or children born with heart defects,” said Wirtz, noting how much more vulnerable a fetus or child is to pesticide exposures, compared with an adult, and how grateful she is that her 8-month-old son, Jayden, wasn’t in her bedroom during last month’s incident. “After all this happened, I started doing research and making connections. I don’t think a lot of people realize what’s happening to them.”