Downwind: Big Ag at Your Door

Photo Courtesy of Roger Smith via Flickr.


By Clare Howard

BLACHLY, Ore.  — Dan and Maya Gee left the congestion and pollution of Chicago, hungering for a cleaner life. They began an organic farming operation in the Oregon Coast Range, an area west of Eugene noted for its spectacular beauty and rugged mountains, towering Douglas fir and Sitka spruce.

The couple fell in love with what they thought was pristine countryside, far removed from pollution and industry. They built a home combining handcrafted artistry and untreated natural building materials. In this temperate climate, they work outside almost year-round.

But over the last half-dozen years, the Gees and their neighbors in the Triangle Lake area, fellow urban transplants, say they have all developed chronic health problems.  Unexplained bouts of vomiting, severe headaches, respiratory problems, joint pain and extreme muscle weakness have affected everyone. The women’s menstrual periods have become erratic.

For years, they suspected herbicides were to blame.  Big lumber companies apply the chemicals by helicopter and ground applicators on clear-cut timberland over the mountainsides, often spraying right up to their property lines. Helicopter blades create enough air turbulence to blow a chemical fog over nearby property. One farmer lost his entire fruit orchard. Another lost hundreds of blueberry bushes. Day Owen, a neighbor of the Gees in the Triangle Lake area, said a ground applicator sprayed pesticides right up to the grounds of the Triangle Lake School, 60 feet from classroom windows.

And for years, state health and environmental agencies have dismissed residents’ concerns as groundless, saying there is no evidence linking these herbicide applications to health problems.

Now, through independent scientific analysis, the Gees and more than 30 of their neighbors have documented two herbicides linked to cancer and birth defects, atrazine and 2,4-D, in their own bodies at alarmingly high levels. And they are demanding answers.

A urinalysis test done at a lab in April measured atrazine, an endocrine disrupting chemical, at 41.1 parts per billion in Eron King, a 37-year-old farmer who moved here from Eugene, Oregon. That’s 1,370 percent higher than the average of 3 parts per billion considered safe in drinking water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. No safe threshold has been established for atrazine or 2,4-D in humans. Dan Gee’s April urinalysis results showed 31.7 parts per billion of 2,4-D, one of the chemicals in Agent Orange. The EPA maximum contamination level for 2,4-D in drinking water is 70 parts per billion.

The effects of low-level exposure are unknown, but high exposure is linked to kidney, liver and adrenal gland damage.  Every urine sample taken from 23 residents of Triangle Lake in January and from 34 in April was positive for both herbicides.

The results are startling enough that federal and state officials have descended on the area and are running another set of urinalysis tests, while the farmers have organized themselves into a movement they are calling the “Pitchfork Rebellion.”

Frustrated by years of government inaction, they are conducting independent scientific analysis, and producing proof that is startling and disturbing about the chemicals they–and millions of Americans–unwittingly ingest, inhale and absorb every day. These chemicals are neurotoxins, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, with evidence mounting that exposures today cause damage at least four generations into the future.

Day Owen’s organic farm. / Photo by David Zalaznik

New research is leading growing numbers of scientists and physicians to challenge conventional wisdom about what is safe when it comes to pesticides and pesticide drift. Through research and litigation, they are also characterizing pesticide spillover as a form of trespass, willful negligence and property damage. And people objecting to drift are turning to expensive scientific analysis to bolster their objections, because this kind of testing is not routinely done.

However alarming the Oregon results appear, they are likely only a hint of what similar testing in the Midwest would show. One scientist who has studied atrazine extensively said she would expect urinalysis testing during key periods in the Midwest would show similar or higher levels, because most of the 76 million pounds of atrazine used in this country each year fall over the corn belt.

Dr. Jill Carnahan grew up in Central Illinois, where, she says, she was exposed to atrazine from a young age. In medical school, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  “There is no question in my mind,” Carnahan said, that the exposure “is linked to my early breast cancer.”

Now practicing in Colorado, Carnahan called current levels of chemical exposures “terrifying.” She explains to her patients what atrazine and other endocrine disrupting chemicals are and how to avoid them.

A recent study by the Institute of Medicine was widely reported to have found few links between environmental factors and breast cancer. Still, it warned women to avoid exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals that may be linked to breast cancer.   While these links have not been definitely proven, the report calls them “provocative” and says they warrant further study.   The report states childhood cancers, such as leukemia and brain tumors, have been linked to prenatal exposures to pesticides.

“Strong evidence indicates that aspects of fetal growth, such as birth weight, are associated with breast cancer risk as an adult,” the report states.

It also appears that atrazine persists in the body long after exposure ends. A study published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives found atrazine in the urine of 40 percent of 579 pregnant women in France, nearly a decade after atrazine was banned in that country. Birth weight, birth length and head circumference all were lower in babies of women with atrazine in their urine.

It’s Raining Atrazine

No one, rural or urban, is untouched by chemical drift.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 89 to 100 percent of fetuses in the United States are exposed to pesticides in utero and 95 percent of the population has measurable pesticide metabolites in their urine. Atrazine vaporizes and returns to Earth in rain, snow and fog. It has been found above the Arctic Circle. When it rains on Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., it’s raining atrazine. One study published in the Journal of Environmental Quality found atrazine in the rain in Iowa at 154 parts per billion, well above levels of 3 parts per billion established by the EPA as the average level for safety in drinking water.

There are more than 86,000 chemicals on the market today, and only 1 to 2 percent has been tested for health effects.

“Nearly every chemical ends up in someone, and certain classes of chemicals (such as) PCBs, flame retardants, dioxins, DDT, Teflon, perchlorate, lead, mercury and pesticides are found in virtually everyone,” said Dr. Paul Winchester, of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Director of the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis, Winchester noted an inordinately high number of birth defects among newborns in the hospital when he first joined the staff. He found no plausible explanation, so he designed a study.  He correlated 30.11 million births nationwide between 1996 and 2002 with birth defects diagnosed in the first days of life. In a paper published in Acta Paediatrica, a peer reviewed journal, Winchester reported disproportionately high rates of birth defects for children conceived between April and July, the peak period of atrazine  applications.

“The positive correlation was so strong I couldn’t believe it,” Winchester said. “This study is one of the most shocking things on the planet. It’s frightening to me.”

In another study, Winchester measured the school performance of 1.6 million children in Indiana in grades 3 through 10 and found significantly lower scores on statewide standardized tests in math and language for children conceived in months of peak pesticide and nitrate use.

“Women have not given consent to become toxic waste dumps,” he said.

To further test links between in utero pesticide exposure and the ability to learn, Dr. Warren Porter, a professor of environmental toxicology at University of Wisconsin, devised an experiment using laboratory mice exposed to the pesticide chlorpyrifos at levels comparable to what humans encounter in the environment. He found female mice whose mothers were exposed during pregnancy were significantly slower learns, but male mice from the same mothers were unaffected – a difference he thinks may be linked to the males’ higher level of  liver-detoxifying enzymes.

Dr. Tim Pastoor, principal scientist and toxicologist with Syngenta, the major manufacturer of atrazine in the United States, said atrazine has withstood the scrutiny of multiple reviews by the EPA and always been found safe. He said the results correlating atrazine use in the spring with inordinately high rates of birth defects could be duplicated by correlating   spring tornadoes or lightning strikes during months of conception to higher rates of birth defects, and he contends states with highest atrazine use actually had lowest birth defects.   He called the EPA 3 parts per billion safety threshold for atrazine in drinking water “extremely conservative.”

Winchester disputes Pastoor’s contention that areas with high atrazine use had the lowest birth defects. He found that counties with high pesticide use had higher birth defects. Nearly every category of birth defects increased, and 11 of 22 categories had statistically significant increases. His research showed that counties with lower pesticide use had lower rates of birth defects.

Neila Owen enters the pen where she milks her goats. / Photo by David Zalaznik

Triangle Lake, Oregon

On a mild autumn afternoon, Dan Gee pointed across his farm field at the picturesque Coast Range beyond and described how nightly fog forms and settles in his valley, sometimes lingering until late morning.  Since moving to the Triangle Lake area in 2006, the Gees have come to think of this fog as toxic, laced with atrazine and 2,4-D  —  herbicides never tested in combination by the EPA for long-term, chronic health effects.

“These mountains are soaked in toxins, said Maya Gee, 35, an artist. “I can smell chemicals in the fog. It’s like the earth perspiring and giving off its toxins.”

Gee, 38, said he and his wife can taste a metallic, chemical flavor in their mouths. The couple wants to start a family, but they don’t know the implications caused by these toxins in their bodies at such high concentrations.

“We eat organic. We built our home using the best cleanest materials, and here we are with 2,4-D and atrazine in our urine,” Maya Gee said. “We’re organic farmers. We’re always working outside. We tested our water. No chemicals. We tested our soil. No toxins. So where is our exposure? Air.”

Atrazine is an endocrine disruptor. These chemicals alter hormones regulating virtually every organ of the body, from the brain to the ovaries and prostate. The growing level of endocrine disruptors in the environment has led Dr. Theo Colborn, founder and president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a non-profit organization that studies endocrine disruptors, to conclude that these chemicals will prove more devastating for our planet than global climate change.

Colborn cites research showing that endocrine disruptors are linked to cancer, autism, asthma, diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and ADHD among a growing list of illnesses. Endocrine disrupting chemicals, including atrazine,  that affect the hippocampus are the ones Colborn worries about the most because they affect the ability to love, parent, bond, communicate and process information.

Dr. Tyrone Hayes, an endocrinologist at University of California, Berkeley, has shown that exposure to even low levels of atrazine produced hermaphroditic demasculinized frogs with low levels of testosterone. He found male frogs with viable eggs that are actually fertilized by other males.

Truly independent studies of the effects of atrazine are countered by research sponsored by the pesticide industry, which consistently affirms the safety of pesticides. Dr. Jason Rohr, an integrative biologist at University of South Florida, analyzed an industry-funded review of the effects of atrazine on fish and frogs and concluded that more than 50 studies were misrepresented,  with  122 inaccurate and 22 misleading statements, of which 96 percent made atrazine appear less dangerous.

That has left atrazine’s victims to essentially go after the truth on their own. Day Owen, a former health food store owner, who moved to the area to farm organically, began the Pitchfork Rebellion to get answers.

Owen contacted Dr. Dana Barr, a research professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, and formerly a toxicologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  He asked her about urinalysis testing. Barr agreed to pay for the testing out of her own budget, and run results for samples taken in January and April. Results showed alarmingly high levels of atrazine and 2,4-D in every person, including children.

Responding to emailed questions, Barr indicated she was surprised by the findings.  The urinalysis findings, Barr told the Oregon Forestry Board, suggest these toxins may be stored in fat tissue in the body long after exposure.

Eron King and Day Owen are alarmed by drift from chemicals sprayed on nearby farms. / Photo by David Zalanik

“When we moved here we were expecting a natural paradise, but almost from the beginning we started to hear horror stories of aerial spraying and sick children,” said Owen, 53.

After being exposed to chemical spraying, Owen and his wife Neila, 50, have come down with intense headaches, cramps, vomiting, muscle weakness, joint pain and fatigue. They fear those are only the short-term reactions and that there may be long-term repercussions.

Eron King, the farmer, is concerned enough that she documents the pesticide spraying by racing to nearby mountain positions and videotaping plumes of chemicals billowing from helicopters  —  clearly showing pesticides drifting from the targeted site. She recently suffered a miscarriage and is worried about her two sons’ exposure. Both children, ages 6 and 11, tested positive for atrazine and 2,4-D in their urine.

Reviewing the urinalysis results for six of the residents of the Triangle Lake region who were tested, Porter said, “These levels have profound implications for short-term and long-term health.”

Dr. Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco, a non-profit group that opposes the use of chemical pesticides, also reviewed the analysis results and said, “This raises a huge alarm.”  The individual pesticides, she said, have “incredible endocrine disrupting effects ” In combination,, they become even more potent.

Reeves said the Triangle Lake urinalysis results clearly indicate that the CDC needs to go back and do more atrazine testing. Its 2009 National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, based on data from 1999-2002, found no detectable levels of atrazine. Reeves said an important flaw in the government’s collection of data for the survey is a failure to indicate when and where the testing is done.

Atrazine levels in the environment peak during key months of application, April through July, and failure to collect during those months would miss the period of high exposures altogether and deliver a misleading conclusion. Additionally, testing locations should be identified based on economic activities in the region such as farming or industry.

Winchester has long contended that finding no levels of atrazine flies in the face of reason, because it is one of the most widely used pesticides in the country. When the CDC issued its 2006 survey reporting no significant levels of atrazine in the population as a whole, Winchester called the CDC and questioned the finding. He learned the survey had been conducted checking for just one of 11 atrazine metabolites. His call prompted the researcher, Barr, to conduct a follow-up study with 24 people tested for a full spectrum of atrazine metabolites.  She found metabolites in almost every person and concluded the presence of atrazine in the human population has been significantly underestimated.


Metabolites are sometimes called break-down products. As chemicals, food or drugs are broken down in the body or in the environment, they form metabolites. In the case of atrazine, the herbicide is broken down into 11 metabolites, some of which are as toxic as the complete formulation.[

Winchester believes that if testing were done for atrazine metabolites, between 70 and 90 percent of the population would have measurable levels.

He said while the EPA has established what it considers safe levels of atrazine in drinking water, it has not determined what, if any, level could be considered safe in the human body, and the EPA does no evaluation of the herbicide’s potential tie to birth defects or to the body’s delicate endocrine system.

“The EPA is not adequately testing for neurological, endocrine, developmental, immune or epigenetic damage,”  Porter said. “This is unconscionable to me because it means we are experimenting with our fetuses and our children without their consent.”

In evaluating the health impact of pesticide and chemical exposures, Winchester said, “Prevention is the only rational place to be.”

Pesticide exposure for children can cause more severe damage because the liver, the body’s primary mechanism for filtering out toxins, has not reached its full potential, said Porter, the University of Wisconsin professor. “Fetuses and children have fewer defenses,” he noted. “The immune system is relatively incomplete at birth.”

He has found atrazine lowers immunity, opening the door to a host of long-term chronic complications. The links are difficult to prove, however, because there is often a lengthy period between exposure and diagnosis. Almost counter-intuitively, Porter and other scientists are now suspecting long-term, low-level exposures may prove more damaging to human health than brief high-dose hits.

Porter said EPA testing and safety levels for atrazine are wildly off the mark. They consider exposure safe at 3 parts per billion in drinking water, but the human endocrine system operates at parts per trillion– 1,000 times lower than EPA benchmark levels. It is at parts per trillion in the human body that compounds trigger endocrine activity, Porter said.

Clear-cut timberland by Triangle Lake in Blachly, Oregon. Following the timber harvest, these mountains are often treated with atrazine and 2,4-D. / Photo by David Zalaznik

Dr. Suzanne Fenton, a toxicologist with the National Institutes of Health, also reviewed the Triangle Lake urinalysis results. Fenton said she would expect levels of atrazine in residents of the Midwest to run equal to or higher than those in Oregon.

While water companies are required to test for atrazine, they are not required to test for all the metabolites, which can cause the same health problems as atrazine.  Fenton has tested water samples and found atrazine at the 3 parts per billion considered safe by the EPA, but levels of atrazine metabolites at up to 25 parts per billion. She said testing should look for a mixture of metabolites.

Fenton has studied the effects of atrazine and other pesticides on mammary glands and said all pregnant and lactating women, as well as adolescents who have not yet reached puberty, should be warned about potential sources of exposure by health education teachers, pediatricians, obstetricians, lactation consultants and midwives. She would like to see medical schools teach about the risks of cancer, infertility, inflammatory disease and miscarriage caused by exposure to pesticides during critical periods of growth.

“There should be continuing education courses for obstetricians and pediatricians on endocrine disrupting chemicals,” she said. “We have to protect our children. Protect them in utero. The risk for women with breast cancer is 10 to 20 percent inherited and up to 90 percent environment and lifestyle.”

In assessing the health risks of atrazine, EPA practices tend to undermine the impact of independent  researchers.  The government conducts its risk assessment for chemicals based on “weight of evidence.” When academic scientists generate reports based on sound science, the impact can be diluted by reports generated by industry interested in keeping pesticides on the market with few restrictions.

Chemical makers have also turned to the Freedom of Information Act, in what independent researchers contend is an effort to keep academic and government scientists tied up. A FOIA request was served on Dr. Fenton’s lab by Syngenta virtually halted work, shifting all effort from research to complying with the FOIA request.

In the Triangle Lake area, another round of urinalysis testing and environmental testing is underway involving dozens of scientists in federal and state agencies. Bruce Pokarney, spokesman with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Pesticide Analytical Response Center, said an investigation of this size and focus has never before been undertaken in the state. The agencies are reviewing new data and are expected to issue a joint report in the coming months.

>>> Read Part 2 – Pitchfork Rebels: Organic Farmers Take on Big Ag

Update: In an e-mail following publication, Syngenta called atrazine “one of the most carefully examined herbicides in the world,” and said that, “Its safety has been clearly established by more than 6,000 scientific studies conducted over the past 50 years.” The company dismissed the research cited in the article as “unproven science and scare tactics.” Read the full Syngenta Response.

Top photo: A crop duster spraying for weeds. / Courtesy of Roger Smith.

This article was made possible with a George Polk Investigative Reporting grant funded by the Ford Foundation.

Clare Howard

Clare Howard

Clare Howard, a member of 100 Reporters, worked at the Journal Star in Peoria, IL for 24 years and won numerous awards. She focuses on issues of justice, equality, and basic human rights in the areas of food, economic development, childhood lead poisoning and living with HIV/AIDS.