Mother told to accept her child's urine has pesticides

What if our government knew that a threat to human safety and security of home and person existed in Lane County? Would we expect them to take action to protect us?

Our state and federal government recently informed dozens of Lane County residents that poisonous pesticides have been found in their bodies.

On Dec. 15, the Oregon Health Authority and the federal Centers for Disease Control told a mother in Lane County that test results show residues of 2,4-D, a powerful pesticide, in the urine samples drawn from her and her children (as well as dozens of other rural community members). The samples were taken as part of a recent test protocol responding to reports that families have been sickened from exposure to pesticides sprayed by helicopter over hundreds of acres of forest land. These industrial chemicals are sprayed by timber companies attempting to kill grass and brush.

That mother was told she need not worry that her children are carrying 2,4-D in their bodies. The reason given is that it is becoming more common to find 2,4-D residues in urine samples across the United States.

To the casual reader it may appear at first glance that having 2,4-D in a small flask of a child's urine on a lab bench is not such a big deal. However, to a mother who gets that report about her child, it is disturbing. And it should be. She knows the pesticide in the flask is the endpoint of the pesticides that are inside her child's bladder, after the work the kidneys have done to filter it out of the blood. Upstream from there, those pesticides circulated in the child's bloodstream, bathing every cell in the body with some quantity of pesticide.

She knows, and research confirms, that children are much more vulnerable to harm from pesticides than adults; such harm may come in the form of learning disabilities, reproductive disorders or battling cancer later in their lives.

Yet government agents had the audacity to tell a mother that this is not worrisome because other people also have 2,4-D in their bloodstreams.

The most fundamental responsibility of a government is to protect its citizens from physical harm. A case in point is the medical and economic history of lead. Lead used to be ubiquitous in gasoline and paints until it was discovered that children were suffering irreparable neurologic harm from lead exposures. At first, government agencies told parents not to worry. Since then, though, lead has been banned in consumer products and society has rightly declared a zero tolerance for lead poisoning in children. The federal government is now devoted to preventing childhood lead poisoning, efforts that cost all of us billions of dollars.

Not unlike the story of lead in gasoline, Lane County timber companies broadcast pesticides over thousands of acres of land until they are omnipresent in the environment. Pesticides are sprayed by helicopter, just as the military used Agent Orange to defoliate jungles in Vietnam. These dangerous chemicals travel far from where they are first sprayed, eventually falling out over rivers, homes and schools and exposing families through contaminated air and water.

When government agencies announced they would conduct testing of atrazine and 2,4-D in the fall of 2011, a group of Lane County timber companies cleverly decided to simply not use these two chemicals during the testing period this year. By choosing to not spray those particular pesticides this year, timber corporations have basically conceded that detectable levels would show up in people's bodies, presenting the companies with a difficult public relations problem.

Despite the timber companies' efforts to thwart the study, though, government's new test results prove that these herbicides are still in people's bodies — even a child's young body. Even the EPA does not know if there are "safe" levels in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers 2,4-D as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

But here in Oregon, mothers are told not to worry that 2,4-D is circulating in their children's bodies. Health authorities, who should put health protection first, told this mother, —… these exposures are occurring as a result of "… economic conditions under which our present world is defined." Mothers may ask, does that trump the fundamental right of all children to live in a healthy environment?

In promoting the economic interests of a highly influential and powerful fraternity of timber corporations, policymakers and health officials are acting without consideration for that child with 2,4-D in his bloodstream. To them, that child is merely a data point, a victim of legalized poisoning.

All manner of medical evidence suggests that pesticides constitute a threat to human health. We need our state government to build the political will to prevent this harm.

Mothers, for eons, have told their children, "I don't care if everyone else is doing it; it is still wrong. Never forget, our family takes the path of ethical behavior." Our state agencies should listen to their mothers.

Lisa Arkin is executive director of Beyond Toxics.

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