A Conversation with Nancy Alderman
If you’ve shopped at a garden center lately, you know you couldn’t walk past more than three aisles without some aspect of organics screaming out for attention. Whether it’s composts, fertilizers, wetting agents, or mycorrhizal fungi, a whole new generation of products is on the cusp of transforming the green industry.
One of the most compelling bits of news concerning organics in recent years has come out of Connecticut, where the state Legislature has voted to phase in a ban on synthetic lawn pesticides at day care centers and on the grounds of elementary and middle schools.
What is driving this once unhurried train, that seems now to be moving like a locomotive? It’s a combination, really, of science, activism and legislative action. Market forces are the slow train that naturally resists change. But if the government continues to pass legislation, a domino effect will certainly result like the one we’ve seen in Canada — where Home Depot no longer sells products like weed ‘n feed and Roundup.
In this country, especially in Connecticut, Nancy Alderman has become synonymous with the anti-pesticide movement. She’s the president of Environment and Human Health Inc., a non-profit organization of doctors, public health professionals and policy experts committed to the reduction of environmental health risks to individuals. Past president of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and a past member of the Governor’s Pollution Prevention Task Force and also the National Board of Environmental Defense, she gets things done. If she has her way, organics — especially in places where children may be impacted — will be a way of life. To prepare for an interview for the movie, A Chemical Reaction (www.pfzmedia.com), I sat down with Nancy for a wide-ranging talk in 2007:
Paul Tukey: Tell me about how you personally became involved with your organization.
Nancy Alderman: I started out with a masters degree in environmental studies from Yale and from there I worked in the field for years and years at both the national and state level. After a while, I began to realize the largest hole that existed in our understanding and in our data was the environment’s effect on health. I went back to school at that point to get the credentials to be able to study this further.
PT: OK, so tell me about Environment and Human Health.
NA: We have 10 people in our organization. We work on research, education and ultimately policy change. It’s a group of highly qualified, deeply concerned people. Susan Addiss, for example, is the former commissioner of health for the state of Connecticut; Russell Brenneman is an environmental lawyer. We have doctors from Yale. Scientists from Yale.
PT: When did your work begin and what has been the impact?
NA: This group has been together since 1997, but for most of us the work has been ongoing for decades. As EHHI, we have done three pesticide studies. The first we ever did was looking at how lawn care pesticides were getting into people’s private wells, because private wells are not regulated. Wells are tested for bacteria, color and nitrates, for example, but no one routinely tests for the presence of pesticides. The industry has always maintained that pesticides don’t travel through the soil, but we felt it would be important to see whether they did or didn’t.
PT: I’m guessing they do.
NA: We found 11 percent of the wells in our study group had detectable levels of lawn pesticides. One well had five different lawn pesticides present. These were small amounts, mind you, but no one yet knows the threshold of acceptable levels of pesticides, especially when it comes to young children. After that, our second study looked at pesticide uses in public school systems in Connecticut. At the time, we found that pesticides were very, very loosely regulated. Schools could spray pesticides at any time, in any amount. Applicators did not have to be licensed and they didn’t have to leave records. Recording is a huge issue. The lack of records makes it easy for the pesticide industry to tell us that pesticides are not a problem. As a society, we don’t have a formal mechanism to report pesticide poisonings, so the information remains anecdotal and the industry maintains we have no proof.
PT: When you did your studies, what was the impact?
NA: In 1999, we got a law passed that was much more protective of school children. Schools needed to give parents prior notification about pesticide applications. Applicators needed a license to apply pesticides. That study really did move the whole issue forward.
PT: From my industry’s standpoint, the law passed (in 2006) concerning lawn pesticides on school property would seem to have the potential to have a huge impact. If young children bring this kind of information home, parents will pay attention and begin to ask questions about their own use of pesticides.
NA: That’s our hope, of course. Really, we’re after environmental health protection. Protecting our smallest children. That’s what this is all about.
PT: Right now, the law only applies to the youngest children. Do you really see this law expanding to all schools?
NA: After the first law had passed and everything was on the books in July of last year, an article appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association about children who had been harmed by pesticides in schools, in all levels of schools. It stated what we already knew, that most states had no reporting mechanisms for people who had been harmed. But we concluded that if older children are being harmed, we really should expand this law to include middle schools and high schools.
PT: This breakthrough law aside, are you seeing other changes after nine years working with your organization?
NA: One of the things that happens when you begin to get laws passed is that industry responds. We’re seeing more organic products. More availability. It shows there is response to what is happening.
PT: How do you respond to the people, the doctors and scientists outside your group, who still claim that all your evidence is anecdotal, that weed-killers like 2, 4-D are completely safe?
NA: Industry has always claimed that there were not health effects and there were no problems with their products. They have been allowed to get away with it. Just look at the labeling; the type is really, really small, and only talks about potential acute effects — like what to do if you get the product in your eye or on your skin. The label doesn’t tell you anything about long-term health effects. You will not learn from the label if the product is carcinogenic or a neurotoxin. There are two Danish researchers who have done a lot with 2, 4-D. In countries where 2,4-D has been banned for 10 or more years, the incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma had gone down.
PT: Would you like to see 2,4-D completely banned?
NA: I’d like to see multiple pesticides banned. I’ve never been in favor of banning one pesticide at a time because the industry will simply come up with another one. The thing that really concerns me with lawn pesticides is that they’re rarely sold as just one in a formulation. MCPP, Dicamba and 2, 4-D are usually a sold as a mixture of all three and we have absolutely no good information yet on what happens when all three are combined. When we look at medicine, though, where there have been multiple studies, you know that you do get unintended side effects. When you put three pills together, depending on what they are, you get unanticipated results.
PT: You’re taking some strong stands. Has your group been assailed by the pesticide industry the way I have occasionally been . . . I invariably get letters from scientists when I print claims that pesticides are harmful.
NA: No. We haven’t had any of that. I think it’s hard to take on a Yale professor, or a pediatrician or a well-known oncologist. We have the past commissioner of health for Connecticut on our board. Do you really think someone is going to come in and tell these people they don’t know what they’re talking about?
PT: As we sit here today, though, organics is still a small part of the industry.
NA: Until people, all people, understand there is a risk involved with pesticides, they will never go into organics because there is more work (with organics). As long as industry keeps people in the dark about the effects of pesticides, it will be a hard road. I was told in the ’80s and ’90s that the government was never going to take on this issue. It seemed very unfair to me. But we are now beginning to learn there are health effects from pesticides. One may be willing to accept many of those risks to grow food to feed the nation, but when it comes to growing our lawns, those same people probably wouldn’t accept the risk — if they really understood the risks. They’re real. They’re proven.
For more about Nancy Alderman and Environment and Human Health Inc., visit www.ehhi.org.