Toxic Drift

In Hawai‘i, an epicenter of GM corn testing, pesticide poisoning complaints persist.

WHEN VALERIE, 33, FROM NEVADA, found a rental house a five-minute walk from a sheltered beach on the west side of Maui, she was overjoyed. She suffers from asthma and allergies to mold, and the brand-new Kamalani development offered affordable deliverance and the promise of a healthy life for her, her husband, their five boys, and a sixth on the way. But soon, “I felt more and more sick, in ways I never had been before,” she recounted as the family was packing their belongings into a truck last January. “My eyes are itchy, my joints are sore, I’m tired all the time. And my family feels the same way.” Her 12-year-old son, Mathias, chimed in, “My joints hurt so much, I feel like an old man.”

Valerie and her husband, Russell (they asked that their last names not be used), blamed their ailments on pesticides used on the nearby Bayer-Monsanto Mokulele farm, which tests new strains of genetically modified seed corn. “The county should never have approved [a residential development] this close to Monsanto because it’s for families, and kids are the most susceptible,” said Russell, 39. On their doctor’s advice, they moved after just four months in the house — to Fiji.

Krista and Erik Maxson, who moved in next door in August 2018 from Mammoth Lakes, California, with their two toddlers, described similar symptoms: sore throats, swollen glands, constant migraines, and exhaustion. “It’s pretty intense,” Krista, 32, said in an interview at her Kamalani house in January. “I’ve never seen that before.” She said a “weird chemical smell” would sometimes waft into her son’s bedroom, on the Monsanto farm side of the house, usually just before dawn.

The Maxons moved back to Mammoth Lakes this past fall. “Erik was/is still constantly ill,” Krista wrote recently in an e-mail, with “severe throat pain (he can barely talk) and he feels as though his body is not normal…, very weak and getting worse.” Her daughter, she added, “is having a reaction in her hands and throat as well.”

“We need to find out if any of this is related to the chemicals as soon as possible before it gets worse,” she wrote. “We are currently waiting on clearance of insurance.”

photo of a family
Valerie, Russell, and their five boys left their home in Maui after developing health issues they believe were linked to pesticide exposure from Bayer-Monsanto’s cornfields nearby. Photo by Christopher Pala.

Kamalani, a tightly packed new housing development, ultimately plans to build 630 units on 94 acres squeezed into a fallow field between Kaiolohia Street and the Bayer-Monsanto cornfields in Maui’s Kihei seaside resort area. The developer is Alexander & Baldwin, a sugar producer turned real-estate powerhouse with $2.2 billion in assets.

The cornfields are hidden from view on all sides by thick hedges and fences, but a series of commissioned drone pictures showed the new development spreading right alongside the farm, on a long and narrow piece of land that once served as a buffer between the farm and another development called Hale Piilani.

For years, people living on Hale Piilani’s Kaiolohia Street, facing the buffer zone, have complained of foul smells, sore throats, and coughing, which many attributed to pesticide drift.

Tammy Brehio, her husband, and their three children used to live on Kaiolohia Street. After years of wheezing, frequent migraines, sore throats, and fruitless complaints to authorities, she moved upcountry to the slope of the Haleakala volcano, in a house at over 1,500 feet above sea level. “It all went away within weeks,” she said.

Seventeen years ago, five houses to the east on the street where Brehio lived, a boy named Max Coleman was born with an improperly formed tube between his kidney and bladder that required corrective surgery.

Complaints of pesticides drifting into schools and homes, and over well-traveled roads, have become commonplace across four of Hawai‘i’s six major islands.

He also suffers from severe ADHD.

On October 24, Coleman’s family — and the family of 28-year-old Dana Fulton from the same neighborhood, who was born with her throat disconnected from her stomach and has to use a tube to breathe to this day — sued Bayer-Monsanto and Alexander & Baldwin, alleging that pesticides and chemicals used in their fields led to their birth defects. (Alexander & Baldwin owned and farmed sugarcane fields across Maui, including next to Hale Piilani.)

Collecting incontrovertible evidence of pesticide drift, however, is not easy. For instance, limited testing of the windowsill swabs from three houses in Kamalani in April and June 2019 commissioned by this writer detected only three pesticides in one house and none in the other two. Only one included several compounds that can be found in consumer products, one of which was known to irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. But pesticides previously drifting from the field could not be ruled out as culprits either: Experts say sunlight and other factors often degrade pesticides into undetectable products.

Considering Kamalani’s location, straight downwind from the farm, “everybody is going to be exposed,” says Warren Porter, a professor of molecular and environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Of those exposed, some may suffer adverse health effects like cancer or birth defects, he says. “The question is only how long it will take for the effects to be detected. Cancer, for instance, takes ten years.”

Complaints of pesticides drifting into schools and homes, and over well-traveled roads, have become commonplace across four of Hawai‘i’s six major islands — O‘ahu, Maui, Moloka‘i, and Kauai — where giant agrochemical companies have dominated the agriculture sector over the past two decades, turning the island state’s old sugar and pineapple plantations into the global epicenter for testing new strains of corn genetically modified to withstand highly toxic pesticides.

aerial photo of a cultivated field, new homes clustered nearby
This commissioned drone image shows how the new Kamalani development spreads right alongside a Bayer-Monsanto GM corn farm in Maui.

Despite research showing correlations between proximity to GMO fields and higher rates of cancer and birth defects, for years state officials took no significant action on the issue of pesticide drift. But after nearly a decade of grassroots organizing by community activists and environmental groups in the islands, the tide seemed to turn last year when Hawai‘i passed the first state law significantly regulating the companies’ spraying.

Yet, an investigation by Earth Island Journal has found that some pesticide spraying continues to trigger complaints that companies are violating generally acceptable practices and allowing these harmful chemicals to drift beyond property lines.

THE COZY TIES BETWEEN Hawai‘i’s export-oriented plantation agriculture and its government date back to long before statehood in 1959, when pineapple and sugar plantations were the mainstay of Hawai‘i’s economy. At the end of the last century, as foreign competition led to a slow-motion disappearance of Hawai‘i’s sugar and pineapple farms (the state’s last sugar mill, in Maui, closed in 2016), multinational chemical companies — Syngenta, BASF, DowDuPont, and Bayer-Monsanto — took over much of their land.

These companies were investing in biotechnology — buying up seed companies and developing new strains of genetically modified corn and soy that were immune to pesticides they manufactured and sold. Hawai‘i’s newly available, well-irrigated land and balmy weather, which allows for three or four crops each year versus one or two on the US mainland, was a major attraction. Having an industry-sympathetic government helped as well. These companies are the second largest agricultural land users in the state, farming some 24,000 acres across four islands.

In testing new varieties of feed corn, a study by the Center for Food Safety, a national nonprofit that advocates for environmental safety and sustainable agriculture, found the companies use up to 17 times more restricted-use pesticides (which are so toxic they can only be handled by trained personnel and are not sold to the general public) than do commercial farmers on the mainland, whose fields are usually much farther from population centers.

In 2015, a jury found DuPont Pioneer liable for the health problems of 10 “bellwether” plaintiffs in Kauai.

There is no detailed statewide pesticide-use data available for Hawai‘i because until recently the companies were not required to disclose exactly what pesticides they use, where, and when. All they reported, aggregated by island, were sales of some 70 kinds of restricted-use pesticides (RUPs), including particularly toxic ones like methyl parathion and alachlor, (banned in almost all other countries), atrazine (banned in Switzerland, where it was invented), and chlorpyrifos, a proposed US ban of which was blocked by the Trump administration earlier this year. All these have been used in the four islands where these companies operate.

At first, state regulators largely dismissed complaints from local residents, even when a school adjoining a Dupont Pioneer field in Waimea, on the southwest coast of Kauai, had to be evacuated twice, in 2006 and 2008, because of apparent pesticide fume inhalations. Both times, the state agriculture department blamed it on an odorous plant, stinkweed (Cleome gynandra) and did not immediately ascertain what pesticides the company had been spraying or in what amounts. Carla Nelson, a Waimea pediatrician, told me that between 2010 and 2015 she saw at least nine babies born with heart defects that could be linked to pesticide exposure. This amounts to about 10 times the national rate.

Despite repeated requests by citizens and activists, the state did not conduct a comprehensive study on the adverse health effects on people who live near the GMO farms. The authorities “were under the spell of the agrochemical industry,” says Gary Hooser, a former Democratic state Senate majority leader turned community activist. “Normally, with so many red flags, a state would carry out a comprehensive study. But here, they believed what the companies told them and refused to look at the data and take it seriously.”

GROWING COMPLAINTS ABOUT health problems from inhaled pesticides eventually led to a lawsuit in 2011 by more than 100 residents of a neighborhood in Waimea, Kauai, against DuPont Pioneer. In the lawsuit’s discovery process, the company was forced to release several years of detailed records — a first peek into a highly secretive industry. These were submitted by the plaintiffs to several experts, whose reports, so far unpublished, were obtained by the Journal.

In one expert report, Camille Sears, a California-based particulate matter dispersion specialist, concluded that the company often sprayed outside the manufacturer’s recommended wind speed window of 2 to 8 miles an hour, even when the prevailing winds were blowing from the fields to the town.

In May 2018, Hawai‘i passed a law that requires companies share information about when and where they apply all restricted-use pesticides.

Wind is one of the most common contributors to pesticide drift, and while it may seem counterintuitive that spraying isn’t allowed when wind speeds are below 2 miles per hour, that’s because low wind speeds are often unpredictable and can change direction rapidly. Additionally, they may indicate a temperature inversion, potentially allowing a concentrated cloud of fine pesticide-containing droplets to remain suspended in the air and drift great distances. (See here for a more detailed explanation.)

In May 2018, Hawai‘i passed a law that requires companies share information about when and where they apply all restricted-use pesticides.

Michael DiBartolomeis, a Hawai‘i-based toxicologist, wrote that Pioneer “applied an average of 22.2 pounds [of pesticides] per acre for the three-year span” for which data was provided. “Pioneer has used 82 or more pesticide products containing 63 or more active ingredients representing 34 different chemical classes.” The ingredients, he added, “cause a myriad of health effects in experimental animals from repeated exposures,” including cancer and birth defects, damage to the reproductive, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems,” and to the “liver, kidney, blood, stomach, and skin.”

Hector Valenzuela, a professor of tropical plant and soil science at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, who also looked at the data, reported that the company did not follow “Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices” — basically, current science-based farm management practices that promote sound environmental stewardship. The jury that heard the case later reached the same conclusion in 2015, finding DuPont Pioneer liable for approximately $500,000 for 10 “bellwether” plaintiffs. Following the trial, the parties reached a confidential settlement believed to amount to $6 million for all 100 plaintiffs.

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The DuPont Pioneer staff “were constantly cutting corners and not following the law [regarding pesticide use], not just best practices,” Valenzuela told me later. “They followed very tight schedules, and if the schedule called for spraying a field at such-and-such-a-time, they did it, regardless of where the wind was blowing. Their own guys were saying in memos there were improper [pesticide application] practices. I thought the county would sue, but they didn’t.”

A spokesperson for DowDuPont’s agriculture division (now renamed Corteva Agricience), Gregg Schmidt, did not respond to several requests for comment.

As the Waimea residents’ suit was proceeding, in 2013 and 2014, activists sidestepped what they saw as the tight hold the companies had over the legislature and persuaded the Kauai and Big Island county councils to pass laws restricting the companies’ pesticide spraying operations — variously requiring the detailed disclosure of pesticides used and the creation of buffer zones. In Maui and Moloka‘i county voters narrowly passed a bitterly fought referendum calling for a moratorium on GMO crops until an environmental assessment was done. All three actions were eventually overturned in 2016 by a federal court, which found that only the state and not the counties could regulate the companies.

hawaii gmo protest march
Despite widespread protests between 2012 and 2014, and repeated requests by citizens and activists, Hawaii did not conduct a comprehensive study on the adverse health effects on people who live near the GMO farms. Photo by Christopher Pala.

In Honolulu, physician Josh Green, then a state senator, drafted legislation in 2015 to mandate some prior disclosure and some buffer zones, but it wasn’t even brought up for a vote in the agriculture committee, let alone the full legislature.

That same year, the state agriculture department and Kauai County appointed a joint fact-finding commission to examine claims that pesticides were making people sick. The commission found no studies proving such a link — because none had been carried out. But it did uncover some disturbing correlations.

One of the physicians on the panel, Douglas Wilmore, a surgeon and professor emeritus at the Harvard Medical School, found that the 2008-2013 rate of cancer deaths per 100,000 people was 175 in Waimea, near the fields, and about 125 in Hanalei, on the other side of the mountainous island, where there are no cornfields.

A statewide study of a birth defect called gastroschisis found rates of 5.8 to 6.7 cases per 10,000 live births versus 2 to 4.9 nationally.

No such discrepancy existed for heart disease, which, unlike cancer, is not associated with pesticide use. The state health department did not follow up.

Two years later, in 2017, a statewide study of a birth defect called gastroschisis (GS) — in which a baby is born with its organs outside its abdomen — found rates of 5.8 to 6.7 cases per 10,000 live births versus 2 to 4.9 nationally. The study, published in the journal Pediatric Surgery International, reported that in Hawai‘i, “85.9 percent of patients shared zip codes” with restricted use pesticide [RUP] areas.

“Hawai‘i is a state where RUPs are used liberally and with few restrictions, yet it is nearly impossible to study possible links between these birth defects and RUPs,” the study’s authors wrote in the paper. “Current governmental or industry data on RUP use are inadequate, making correlation and accurate study of GS and RUP exposure difficult and limited.”

After the county-level legislations were overturned, activists from different islands focused on the state legislature. Coincidentally, Richard Creagan, a physician, became the House agriculture committee chair. With his support and that of Green, both chambers unanimously passed a bill in May 2018 that requires the companies to set up buffer zones around schools and not spray RUPs within 100 feet (30 meters) of them during school hours. It also requires companies to disclose, from 2020 on, what restricted use pesticides they spray, and bans the use of chlorpyrifos, a particularly common and toxic insecticide, by 2022.

Last year, Green was elected lieutenant governor of Hawai‘i. “This matter has to be resolved completely so that the next generation doesn’t grow up having been exposed to a cloud of pesticides,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Journal. “This will be more likely when the chemical companies leave Hawai‘i for different pastures.”

Green is apparently contemplating running for governor in 2022.

IN THE MEANTIME, HAVE the companies started more closely following practices to prevent drift, such as growing corn farther away from homes, buildings, and roads?

Valenzuela, the University of Hawai‘i agronomist, reviewed the drone footage of Bayer-Monsanto’s Maui farm and noted that the company had not planted hedge lines between separate fields that could have mitigated drift. Observing that perhaps a third of the fields were bare, he said: “That’s not good. To keep a field bare and ready to plant, you have to keep spraying it with herbicides.” The herbicides at application not only move with the wind as clouds but also permeate the loose topsoil, and later gusts of wind will carry chemical-laden dust into homes, he says.

The fields are likely being sprayed with any of the 17 restricted-use pesticides that the companies acknowledge using in Maui, he said. Thus, he said, it would be appropriate to set up monitoring stations next to the houses to test how much pesticides reach them.

Bayer’s spokesperson Charla Lord, when told of these complaints and asked why Bayer didn’t move its fields under active cultivation farther away from Kamalani, replied that “anyone with questions about the stewardship, the safety practices, or the 50-year history of our Mokulele farm [may] contact us directly.” (In response to the October suit, the company put out a statement saying it was “confident that pesticide use on our Maui farms did not cause the health claims described in the lawsuit.”)

Asked whether Alexander & Baldwin was aware of Kamalani residents’ complaints and whether the company had installed air-monitoring stations on the property to ensure its residents were safe, company spokesperson Darren Pai evaded the question, saying that ensuring legal and safe pesticide use was the agriculture department’s responsibility. His company, he added, “is not aware of any evidence that indicates any issue with pesticide drift from Monsanto’s farm into Kamalani.” Pai did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit by Max Coleman and Dana Fulton’s families.

Over in Kauai, according to Hooser and Valenzuela, Corteva hasn’t been growing corn in the fields in Waimea that were closest to the school that was evacuated twice. Hooser, a Kauai resident, calls that progress, though he points out that most other fields lie behind hedges and fences. “Whether they’re hiding or reducing their activities, I do not know,” he says. Valenzuela agrees that the company’s activities are opaque.

One night in January 2019, I came across what might be a possible answer a few miles north of Waimea, where a series of GM cornfields lie along a two-mile stretch of Hawai‘i Route 50, a well-traveled road that contours Kauai’s west coast. A giant tractor appeared in a blaze of lights from the field, 150 feet from the road, straddling four rows of four-feet-tall corn. It stopped for a few minutes at the edge of the field facing the road, which is unprotected by any hedge, and then pivoted into the adjoining field. From its illuminated, hanging nozzles, a thick white spray soaked the glistening, deep-green leaves (see opening photo). Soon the tractor vanished into the rows of corn, where each stalk bore a paper tag — the sign of an experimental crop. The wind was blowing softly from the east, obliquely across the road, where most cars that drove by had their windows open in the evening coolness.

The fields are owned and operated by Hartung Brothers of Wisconsin, which is working as a contractor for ChemChina-Syngenta. (The state-owned ChemChina bought Syngenta in 2017 for $43 billion.)

In pesticides, it is said that the label is the law. The label is actually a list of warnings and instructions, which can run dozens of pages, on how to use the product to minimize harm and maximize efficiency.

Anyone found guilty of not following the instructions, says the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, “shall be fined not more than $25,000 or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.”

wind speed illustration
Hartung claimed the wind was blowing at 2.1 mph away from the road and toward the east when the spraying occurred and included this image to illustrate their point. But the documents they sent also included 11 pages of wind data from the Chico, California, Western Weather Group showing the wind was blowing consistently from the east and toward the road for the day and time of the observation as well as for the days before and after.

Asked whether the spraying I’d observed in the Waimea field had violated the law, the state agriculture department sent an investigator over. According to documents provided by the Hartung Brothers to the investigator and made available by the agriculture department to the Journal, the pesticide sprayed that night was Methoxyfenozide sold as Intrepid 2F — an endocrine disruptor targeted at butterflies and moths. Its label, last revised in 2017, says it is “Harmful if absorbed through skin or inhaled…. Avoid breathing spray mist.” It adds, “To avoid drift … make ground applications when the wind speed favors on-target product depositions (3 to 10 mph).”

The investigator reported that the person who was doing the spraying, whose name was blacked out in the report, said the wind was blowing at 2.1 mph away from the road and toward the east — an unusual statement since wind direction is generally defined by its origin, not its destination. (Hawai‘i’s trade winds almost always blow from the northeast.) The documents included a map and an arrow also showing the wind was blowing toward the east, away from the road. But the document also included 11 pages of wind data from the Chico, California, Western Weather Group showing the wind was blowing consistently from the east and toward the road for the day and time of the observation as well as for the days before and after.

After the inconsistency was pointed out to John McHugh, head of the agriculture department’s pesticides branch, a second report was made available. The investigator wrote that she returned to the company and “documented” that “the wind direction ... was read incorrectly,” with no explanation as to why. She confirmed the applicator found the windspeed to be 2 mph, which is outside the legal threshold. The document concluded, “Violations: none. Enforcement actions: none.”

Asked if the company had instructed the operator to lie about the wind direction, Hartung’s general manager for Hawai‘i operations, Joshua Uyehara, said.: “No one was instructed to provide incorrect information to the HDOA inspector.”

Asked how it was possible that an experienced investigator would not have noticed the discrepancy, which also apparently escaped the attention of the Attorney General’s office (it reviewed the case), McHugh replied: “We have determined that the applicator … made an honest mistake … While it may have created a confusing inspection report, there was no intention, on the part of the applicator, to deceive our inspector.”

“This is what we always get from the state — incompetence rising to the level of gross negligence,” says Hooser, the state senator turned activist. “And the companies have a pattern of showing a complete disregard for public safety and health.”

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