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For the week of July 12 through July 18, 2000

No easy answers to aerial crop spraying

Carey council to tackle next Tuesday

"I’ve been sprayed before, but I am not personally concerned about the exposure to most agricultural chemicals. I know that I am healthier because of the foods we produce with these chemicals."

Rex Schorzman, crop spraying expert.

An Ayers Turbo Thrush flies low over a field in Burley, spraying the product Quadris to control early and late blight on potatoes. This particular aircraft is equipped with a global positioning system to insure accuracy of application. Express photo by David N. Seelig

Express Staff Writer

Jerry Decker said he didn’t think much of it at the time. He was driving his car along Highway 20 near his home in Carey when he was sprayed from overhead by a crop dusting aircraft.

That afternoon, he said he developed a severe headache and fatigue to the point he had to leave work. The next morning he said he felt better, but that he was unusually tired.

Decker said he was sprayed on June 12. Eight days later, he, his wife Diana and another Carey resident, Kaye Sparks, voiced their concerns for the health of children and the elderly to the Carey City Council.

The three presented the council with a petition of 39 names asking the city to ban "the practice of airplane spraying" within the city.

The petition stated, "This practice has, among other damages, aggravated asthma and respiratory problems (especially among our elderly), caused sickness in our children, and nausea among adults."

On July 18, the city council will hold a public hearing on aerial spraying as part of its regular meeting at Carey City Hall at 7 p.m.

If interpreted literally, the petition suggests some sort of sanctioned and institutional poisoning is going on not just in Carey, but in every agricultural community in the United States.

In an attempt to get a better understanding of the health risks of spraying, the Mountain Express interviewed "a professional applicator"—a crop duster, as these pilots are traditionally called—about working with agricultural chemicals.

In addition, two manufacturers were interviewed about the safety of their products; and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about these same products.

Rex Schorzman has been in the fertilizer and crop production business since he graduated from Idaho State University in 1973.

Specifically, Schorzman contracts with Idaho farmers to spray crops in an effort to control pests.

In 1977, he started Paul Chemical & Fertilizer, Inc. with a couple of partners in Paul, Idaho. He is now the sole owner and operator. He is a past president of the Idaho Crop Production Association (ICPA) and has served on the association’s board of directors for eight years.

Schorzman is recognized as a certified crop adviser by the American Society of Agronomy.

He is also licensed every two years by the Idaho Department of Agriculture, which certifies him as an applicator and consultant.

Schorzman uses the toxicologist’s axiom when he discusses the health risks of the different chemicals he applies: "The dose makes poison."

What this means, in short, is that anything will kill you, given a large enough dose—even water, according to Schorzman.

But when it comes to the different compounds coming out of the nozzles of a "crop duster," the doses are minuscule, he said.

Schorzman confirmed what the chemical companies and the EPA say: the maximum allowable residues on the plants are hundreds of times less than what affects test animals.

Furthermore, he said, 99 percent of all tested produce has no detectable levels at all.

He pointed out that not only are the chemicals that are sprayed on fields highly diluted with water, but they break down quickly. What this means is that they quickly become inert, mostly within days of application; they do not linger and build in concentration once applied.

Asked if he had any concern for his own health, considering his exposure to agricultural chemicals, he said, "I’ve been sprayed before, but I am not personally concerned about the exposure to most agricultural chemicals. I know that I am healthier because of the foods we produce with these chemicals."

The chemical Decker said he was sprayed with is Cerone, a brand of the chemical ethephon, manufactured by Aventis CropScience in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

According to Helen Cunny, a toxicologist for Aventis, this product, called a growth regulator, is used to make the stalks of barley sturdier in order to support its grain head. Without this chemical, the stalk will bend then fall to the ground, hurting the quality of the crop, she said.

In response to the concern of exposure, Cunny said that no matter the age of a person, if he or she is generally healthy, exposure to Cerone is nothing to worry about.

While exposure can cause irritation—meaning burning throat, eyes or skin, mild nausea or headaches—the symptoms are "transient and reversible."

According to an EPA fact sheet, dated April 1995, there is "insufficient weight of evidence" that ethephon causes cancer. But it "has the potential to cause severe skin and eye irritation, but otherwise is moderately acutely toxic."

Words like "moderately acutely toxic" are bound to be problematic, but the tests the EPA runs on agricultural chemicals are designed to show "that they can be used without posing unreasonable risks to people or the environment," the fact sheet says.

According to Jay Ellenberger, associate director for the field and external affairs in the office of pesticide programs at the EPA, "Studies are updated periodically because we learn more about pesticides over time."

An irony seems to haunt those in the agricultural chemical professions: people seem to turn a jaundiced eye at them while feeling quite confident about their own abilities to use toxic chemicals.

Tim Pastoor, director of toxicology for Novartis Crop Protection in Greensboro, N.C., made this comparison between the agricultural and consumer use of the same fungicide propiconazole.

Whereas consumers can buy propiconazole over the counter to use on their lawns without ever having to read the label, a Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) like Schorzman needs a license to use it on a field of crops. And yet the over-the-counter product is 15 times more concentrated than what is being sprayed by an aerial applicator.

This irony doesn’t escape Schorzman.

He said if he had to use some common household product in his role as a CCA, he’d have to, under federal law, wear a "moon suit."


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