New Hampshire May Be Poised to Make a Major Anti-Pesticide Splash, or Maybe Not
Business has been good during June at the Manchester, N.H., airport, at least on the flights leading to and from Washington, D.C. With that state’s legislature considering bills this month affecting both bio-engineered crops AND lawn and garden pesticides, many of the chemical industry’s finest suits have been frequenting the hallways of the statehouse in Concord on Tuesdays with a singular message: “Business as usual is working, so don’t let these fringe environmentalists sway your vote.”
I attended a committee hearing Tuesday afternoon, June 22, at the request of Rep. Suzanne Smith, the sponsor of bill HB 1456, as well as the LEAH Collective, an upstart environmental group that has done a remarkably good job of making a lot of productive noise in New Hampshire since its inception in February.
HB 1456 enacted law that formed a committee to study “the use of pesticides, herbicides, and their alternatives in residential neighborhoods, school properties, playgrounds, and other places children congregate.” And though it’s just a study bill, the nation’s leading pesticide salesmen want to make sure the committee gets all the “right” facts during its hearings each Tuesday afternoon in June.
The lineup of pesticide “experts” was prodigious. The way they deliver their well-rehearsed lines would seemingly make their act run as smoothly as a long-running Broadway show. Here are just a few of the zingers:
From Bayer Crop Science: “We know more about pesticides than any other classification of industrial chemicals. If something is found not to be safe, it is taken off the market. At this point, all the dangerous pesticides have been removed.”
Even if you take this statement to be accurate, the inherent flaw in the system is obvious. Only when something is found to be dangerous is it then taken off the market. Bayer and the others stressed over and over that the Environmental Protection Agency provides a “rigorous” 10-year risk assessment analysis of each chemical approved for use and yet Jeremiah Duncan, a chemist from Plymouth State University, testified that while he worked at the EPA, the budget cuts were so severe under the Bush administration that the EPA closed its library and carted away the documents necessary to make a risk assessment in the first place.
And another from Bayer: “When pesticides break down in the environment, we carefully study the metabolites (byproducts) just as rigidly as we study the primary compounds and if these metabolites are proven to be toxic, we don’t use them.”
Recently, the General Accounting Office of Congress noted that the EPA was at least a full decade behind in its mandated assessments of pesticide compounds. The EPA does not, in any substantive measure, evaluate metabolites of toxic compounds. When these breakdown products are studied by independent laboratories, they are often found to be far more toxic than the primary pesticide.
From Scott Miracle Gro’s Director of Environmental Stewardship, Chris Wible: “It’s our goal to create a safe, healthy environment for children.”
As soon as Mr. Wible offered that party line, I asked the committee chair for permission to address him directly. “How does killing a dandelion, a clover plant or a piece of plantain create a safe environment for children?” I asked.
Without skipping a beat, he calmly explained that dandelions, clover and other weeds attracted bees, and therefore you don’t want those plants around. “My daughter, who is allergic to bees, ought to have the same right to play on the school fields without fear of being stung,” he said. “And the school nurse does not allow her to bring the EpiPen onto the field; she keeps it all the way in her office.”
I honestly thought the pathologist sitting next to me was going to fall out of his chair on that one. Dr. Jerome Silbert was in town from Connecticut, where he was instrumental in helping to pass the historic Connecticut law banning pesticides around schools in 2005.
“They should fire the nurse,” he said aloud.
Lasting little more than two hours, the unusually informal hearing was at once curious, humorous, inspiring, frustrating and at times outright maddening. Remarkably civil for the most part, the seating pattern literally pitted environmental activists shoulder-to-shoulder and chair to chair with chemical lobbyists whom they not-so-secretly loathe, and visa versa. I, for one, was delighted to be seated way down one side of the table from Jim Campanella, the outspoken owner of the LawnDawg company of Nashua, N.H., who smugly announced during the pre-hearing introductions that he was there “on behalf of his 15,000 customers who wanted a nice lawn.” I’ve never had a real conversation with the man, but I’ve been told many stories about how he vehemently scoffs at the growing body of pesticide toxicity evidence and thinks only of improving his company’s bottom line. When I heard him openly declare in February that “we are the true environmentalists,” I witnessed his delusion first hand.
It’s tough to sit there and listen to people tell outright lies at worst or, at best, bend the hell out of the truth. The primary intent of Rep. Smith’s bill is to look at removing weed killers from lawns, much like lawmakers have done in Canada. She would like to, at a minimum, consider a school pesticide bill like the ones enacted in Connecticut and New York. On Tuesday, the pesticide lobbyists constantly tried to instill fear in the minds of the New Hampshire committee, however, by talking about everything from termites and ticks, to Eastern equine encephalitis and just about every other insect-borne disease. No one on our side is talking about removing pesticides absolutely necessary when a public health issue is involved, but the chemical industry will literally say anything to confuse, distort and muddy the issue.
I left there feeling incredibly sorry for the committee members, all of whom who are basically unpaid volunteers struggling to sort through fact and the high, smelly piles of fiction. I left there feeling disgusted that the votes for and against doing something seem to be literally following party lines; the Democrats come talk to me, Dr. Silbert and the folks from LEAH afterward and the Republicans canoodle in the aisles with Scotts Miracle Gro, Bayer Crop Science and the master spin doctors themselves, the paid shills of The Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment.
It’s tough to read how this will go. It may well be that, if no compromise can be reached, the lobbyists will lift a toast on that last flight back to Washington — content in business as usual in New Hampshire for a while longer. The Democrat lawmakers in the room really want this process to lead to something and they implored us to find common ground where synthetic and chemical and organic approaches can peacefully co-exist.
But if you’ve ever looked at soil life under a microscope you know that the two are like the oil and water flowing through the Gulf right now. Soil microbes can’t survive in an environment polluted by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, anymore than the fish and crustaceans can make it off the northern Florida coast . . . so what are we supposed to do? A compromise is tough.
And besides, it’s not easy to work with a man who would have us be rid of all bees anywhere children might congregate. But if you’d like to pass your condolences for his daughter’s condition along to Chris Wible at Scotts, his email is Chris.Wible@Scotts.com.
Or, better still, come to New Hampshire and meet him in person next Tuesday afternoon. If you have an extra EpiPen to share, I’m sure he’d appreciate the gesture.