Trespassing toxins Does pesticide drift pose risks for home gardens?


 May 8 —  Can pesticide sprayed on a neighbor’s lawn contaminate your garden? There’s growing concern about the problem of pesticide drift, experts say, but little is known about the fate of such chemicals.

Q: I live in a neighborhood where neighbors on either side have a lawn company that comes every summer to apply pesticides to their front and back yards. Although I would like to plant a few fruit trees, I’m wondering if the pesticide will travel — either by air or through the ground — to my gardens. I have a small vegetable garden on our lot, which is about 80 or 85 feet wide. The reason I like to grow my own vegetables is so I will know it has not been sprayed with pesticides.

A: What could be more beautiful than growing a garden with fruit trees, especially in the spring? With their lawns, no doubt your neighbors feel they, too, are beautifying their surroundings. However, many people like you are voicing a growing concern about the pesticides — weed-, insect-, mold-, and rodent-killing chemicals — wafting toward their homes and gardens from someone else’s lawn.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with protecting people, their property, as well as air, land and water, from pesticide poisoning, gets thousands of reported complaints of pesticide spray drifting off-target each year. In California, a state where agriculture is the No. 1 industry, “drift incidents account for a high proportion of reported pesticide illnesses,” according to the California EPA.

And on Wednesday, a Consumers Union-led study of government-collected data found pesticide residue on 23 percent of organic fruits and vegetables, most likely due to spray drift from adjacent fields, or soil or irrigation-water contamination.

“It’s a hot topic and an important topic,” says Dr. Daniel Sudakin, a physician and assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon State University, who works with the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC), tracking cases of pesticide poisoning. Unfortunately, the fate of these chemicals, how they move, and how they may affect people and property when they drift off their intended targets, is not well known, Sudakin says.

 Study: Organic produce contains pesticides

Depending on weather conditions — wind and humidity, for example — and how the chemicals are applied as well as how small the droplets, type of nozzle or spraying apparatus, and the applicator’s training, these chemicals can travel anywhere from several feet to several miles. NPIC keeps registries of people injured by pesticides, but it’s difficult to tease out of statistics exactly how many are caused by drift, he says.

Do you have a right not to be sprayed, out of concern for your property or your health? The answer is yes, according to California tort lawyer Darren S. Enenstein. “You have an inherent right to be protected under the law,” he says, “but you may have to sue for toxic trespass to protect that right.”

 The problem of “drift” is one of EPA’s dirty little secrets, says Stephen L. Tvedten, a former pesticide applicator who now markets an organic pest control alternative. “Pesticides do not stay where they are applied,” says Tvedten. “They drift, run off, volatilize for extended time periods, get tracked inside, and are spread around by sweeping or mopping.”

Spray drift is a particularly acute threat in residential areas near farm operations.


But many suburban and urban areas can be just as endangered because lawn care has grown so much in recent years. According to EPA figures, each year we pour approximately 136 million pounds of pesticides on our homes, lawns and gardens, which amounts to three times more per acre than the average farmer applies. The National Audubon Society notes, remarkably, that most of the wildlife pesticide poisonings reported to EPA result from home use.

To protect children in schools against pesticides, seven states have written new laws creating buffer zones of 300 feet (in the case of nozzle spraying) to three miles (in the case of aerial spraying). And some 20 states have passed laws calling for residents to be pre-notified before lawn care applicators spray. In fact, some states punish applicators if they fail to notify homeowners and residents. One anti-pesticide advocate who is also chemically sensitive, John Sutton of Pennsylvania, was awarded a $500 fine because the applicator hadn’t notified him.


But when it comes to controlling spray drift on a national scale, the federal EPA has yet to act. The agency, which manages some 20,000 chemicals registered for use as pesticides, proposed changed guidelines for pesticide labels that would crack down on drift, with better instructions and directions for applicators.

However, the agency was swamped by a “relatively huge response” — 5,000 comments — according to EPA’s Jay Ellenberger. After extending the deadline twice, the agency in April decided to scrap the rule altogether and start all over, he says.

Environmentalists by and large supported stronger label provisions, while arguing that even more needed to be done. The pesticide industry argued that these changes would be too expensive.

By failing to act, charges Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit advocacy group, EPA is keeping in place a law that favors those spraying pesticides over those being sprayed. “The law governing pesticide use should be crystal clear in protecting people against drift and currently it is not,” says Feldman.

Feldman, who has been trying to get action on the problem of drift for more than 20 years, says his group receives many letters, phone and e-mails every week from people on this issue. “We have to get beyond the pictures of the misting trucks that people send us to try to enjoin applicators from poisoning them or find lawyers to seek damages,” says Feldman.

Currently, U.S. pesticide law offers citizens no particular protection against spray drift. “The bottom line is that someone following the approved procedure for spraying a lawn or landscape with chemicals has the right to do it,” says EPA’s Dave Deegan.

Nor do organic farmers marketing produce grown free of chemicals get any special protections. That has proven to be a problem for some farmers who have lost their organic certification. One baby food company was outraged to find its products had been contaminated through no fault of its own.

Homeowners who believe they’ve been damaged must show proof of harm, either with tests showing residue of chemicals on their property, or medical tests, says Enenstein. Many more homeowners are beginning to fight, he says, but their cases are rarely publicized because they’re settled out of court.

In most places, says Feldman, the only way to really be sure that you’re free of pesticide drift is to make your home close to a school, hospital, or other “no spray zone.” But that is more easily said than done.

Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and editor of the American Museum of Natural History book “Inside the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest” (Workman, 1998).

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