Friday, July 20, 2012

Are pesticides worth the health risk?


Blaine County thrives on physical activity. And who can blame its residents? Idaho's natural wilderness offers one of the finest places to recreate in the country. The clear blue skies (not during fire season), lack of city bustle, pristine views and, need I mention, world-class ski resort has saturated our valley with a population of exercise junkies and outdoor enthusiasts.

It is, then, difficult for me to see any justification in a process that taints our valley's outdoor purity like the use of pesticides on properties lining the bike path. After all, the only reason for spraying pesticides is to preserve artificially lush properties and to maintain landscapes otherwise non-existent in a high-mountain desert.

After I made a quick call to the National Pesticide Information Center, it became clear to me that finding the specific pesticide being used on a given property is difficult. An array of different treatments can be applied, most of which are targeting a certain insect or pest. Many are associated with severe human health hazards, the implications of which depend on the duration and intensity of the pesticide exposure. According to the EPA, some affect the nervous system, while others may simply be eye or skin irritants. However, more serious health risks may have associations with pesticide sprays; some are known carcinogens leading to severe health effects such as leukemia.

As one of the aforementioned "exercise junkies," I was, one morning, riding along the northernmost section of the bike path when I passed within a few feet of a company spraying a pesticide. The worker I passed, wearing a gas mask and goggles, was holding a long hose extension spewing the pesticide on vegetation lining the path. His intimidating outfit was clearly a precautionary measure against the toxin being sprayed. As an exposed passerby, I had none of the protective equipment necessary and was, at the time, breathing quite hard from riding. Although I was not well-versed on the negative effects of pesticides, my vulnerability to the spray compared to the worker suggested that this was very unhealthy air for me to be inhaling. Was I being exposed to a known carcinogen?

I am sure that I was not the only one to encounter this issue that morning. With the increased use of the bike path during the summer months, especially with the sudden inspiration caused by the Tour de France as well as mountain bike nationals, our bike path has been a flurry of activity. Recreationists may unknowingly be breathing in carcinogens instead of the otherwise clean mountain air.

As I write this, there are several signs lining the first mile of the path suggesting to use precautionary measures against the pesticides sprayed on nearby vegetation. What exactly does that imply? If we breathe the air (currently rank with some undisclosed chemical), are we being exposed to these dangerous toxins? The real question this raises is that of the relative tradeoff associated with not spraying noxious chemicals to protect vegetation. Is this chemical process protecting something worth the health risk? Does anyone really need to reconstruct the landscape architecture of the Palace of Versailles in our arid climate?

We live in a high-mountain desert; this water should be going toward local crops, not toward sustaining vegetation intended for wine country. A discussion must be opened regarding the practicality of both extensive landscaping, as well as excessive use of pesticides, especially when they cause environmental hazards for our valley's residents.

Taylor Sundali, a lifelong resident of Ketchum, is an economics graduate from Middlebury College.

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