July-31-2001 Fear Is In the Air In Oregon Town That's Home to Ornamental Tree Farm; Residents Blame Illnesses on Pesticides.
At first Tom Lee, 53, doubted that his family's headaches, fatigue, and burning skin and eyes could be related to the pesticides applied at ornamental tree farms surrounding his home.
Now he's not sure. "It could be a number of things, but it's lasted so long," he said.
Lee, a carpenter, said that after two or three hours of labor he needs a nap and can have difficulty concentrating. Since his divorce a year ago, four of his children spend half their time with him, half with his ex-wife in a more urban area. When they stay with dad, they feel sick, he said. Other residents here worry, too.
Now, after years of questionable state studies finding no harm from tree-spraying here, the federal government is stepping in for a closer look.
The results could have ramifications for Washington's growing ornamental tree industry, which uses similar pesticides.
"We needed more of a study to understand what's going on," said Marie Jennings, manager of the pesticides unit of the Environmental Protection Agency's Northwest office. "There is a possibility these people's health could be impacted. They live in the middle of nurseries."
Operators of Gresham's ornamental tree nurseries deny harming anyone and say they use less toxic chemicals and spraying techniques less prone to cause pesticide drift. Since 1996, Oregon state agencies have conducted about a dozen investigations - all concluding the nurseries spray safely.
But a recent review by the EPA questioned the state's techniques, which included waiting a month after a spray to sample for pesticides. The EPA concluded there was insufficient information to determine if pesticide drift has sickened residents.
And so, for the first time, the federal government will do its own study of pesticide drift and illness. Next month, investigators from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are coming from across the country to try to unravel the mystery.
Since 1996, at least a dozen residents have complained of ailments including burning skin and eyes, vomiting, headaches, blurred vision, fatigue and nausea. Pets have diarrhea, sores on their legs and stillborn offspring, residents say. But can the symptoms be traced to chemicals?
"Maybe it's just coincidence, but maybe it's not," said resident Greg Brown. "They're contaminating my environment. Not just for me, but my horses and my dogs and my goats."
The story takes place in Oregon, but could be anywhere. Nationally the acreage dedicated to ornamental plants is growing rapidly. And as populations boom, more people are moving into agricultural areas where pesticides are common.
The fields in this community near Gresham used to bear mostly strawberries and .phpberries, residents say. But now ornamental tree farms abound, tucked behind homes, in converted front yards and along miles of country roads.
The growth is fueled by profits. In Oregon, nurseries can earn up to $14,000 an acre and are responsible for 20 percent of all agricultural sales despite occupying slightly more than 1 percent of agricultural lands, according to the Oregon Association of Nurserymen.
Across Oregon the number of acres devoted to nursery crops skyrocketed 183.5 percent from 37,078 acres in 1992 to 105,098 acres in 1997, according to the most recent U.S. Agriculture Department figures. This includes land used for nursery and greenhouse crops, Christmas trees, mushrooms and sod.
In Washington, the number of acres used for nursery trees, plants and Christmas trees soared 53.5 percent over the same five years from 30,088 acres to 46,179 acres.
Each new ornamental pine needle is another thorn in the side of Multnomah County residents. The tree farms use pesticides to combat weeds, insects, disease and mildew that can damage the decorative trees.
Leading the fight against pesticides in this community is Angela Parker, a petite woman with red hair piled in curls atop her head.
More than 15 years ago she bought 20 acres of land on Carpenter Lane to pursue a lifelong dream of training horses. But for the past five years she's been out of the saddle and her dream has nearly vanished - all because of the pesticides, she says.
Parker, 51, describes seeing clouds of chemicals among the rows of trees near her property. "It looked like a bowling alley and everything was rolling my way," she said.
Parker says she suffers from headaches, nausea, fatigue, aching joints and confusion. Occupying the space for her left eyebrow is a small pink lesion that won't heal.
Over the past decade at least, her animals have sickened and even died because of the chemicals that waft onto her land, she said.
She protects her 10 horses from the chemicals, allowing them into the field for limited periods and always with full bellies so they won't graze on land that might be contaminated.
"Most people can't figure out why I haven't left," Parker said. But she can't afford to relocate.
Now she may have no choice. Business has lagged and Parker's blue-gray eyes well up with tears when she contemplates her future. She doesn't know how she'll raise the money she needs to pay her bills next month. She could lose the farm.
In 1998 Parker and her former partner, Glen Colbert, sued Moller's Nursery Inc. and the company that bought its land, John Holmlund Nursery Inc. They accused Moller's of contaminating their land and making them and their animals sick.
In court documents, Moller's Nursery denied that its chemicals traveled onto Parker's property. The company said it had not broken any laws, that there was no conclusive evidence that the pesticides caused injury and that multiple state investigations supported its claims.
A year later, before the case went to trial, Parker and Colbert were paid $185,000 by John Holmlund Nursery in a settlement denying any liability. They received $60,000 from Moller's, court records say.
"We had hopes that an extremely large cash payment of that type would serve as an incentive to modify behavior," said Karl Anuta, Parker's attorney. John Holmlund Nursery, which has tree farms on 900 acres between Portland and Mount Hood, declined an interview.
J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., another Gresham-area tree nursery not involved in the suit, began modifying its pesticide use about six years ago in response to worried residents.
"Once we were aware of the concerns, we made some changes," said J. Eric Smith, production horticulturist for the nursery.
Smith said the company notifies concerned residents before spraying. It uses less toxic pesticides that have to be applied more often. It sprays at a lower pressure, carefully watching the weather to avoid application on windy days and using chemicals that cause the water to form larger droplets that settle quickly on plants rather than remain airborne.
The changes "cost us quite a bit of money," Smith said. "It's all in the idea of decreasing drift."
But the lawsuit and improvements have not brought resolution.
For 10 years Marcelitte Failla and her two children have lived at the end of a dirt drive in a 1921 farmhouse flanked by tree farms. Over the years Failla, a chiropractor, noticed that she and her family suffered from unusual headaches when pesticides were sprayed. They got rashes and stiff muscles, she said.
Failla decided recently to sell and hopes to close next month.
"Whatever the price, let me get out of here," she said.
Across Carpenter Lane from Parker and Failla live David DeBogart and his 14-year-old daughter Ashley.
On a recent afternoon, Ashley sorted through a shoebox of photos while a litter of kittens played in the cuff of her flared blue jeans. Mixed in with pictures of camping trips and old aunts was a photo taken of the nursery next door. A tractor was blowing pesticides among rows of trees, trailing a long white cloud that rose into the air.
Her father began taking pictures a few years ago, after Ashley became ill following a spray. She was sick for two weeks with headaches and vomiting. A doctor's exam and blood tests were inconclusive.
DeBogart, 46, who works for Fred Meyer, read an article about pesticides and breast cancer. He worries about his daughter. When pesticides are applied he keeps her away from windows - even when they're closed.
He knows a cause is hard to pinpoint. "If you die of cancer in 10 years ... it's hard to prove where you got something," DeBogart said.
Lee, a rugged, outdoorsy man with a full brown beard, lives nearby. He inherited his tidy red house from his mother, who bought it in the1960s. When he moved in with his family six years ago, a change came over them.
"We're tired all the time," he said. "It's different than when we were in town."
Lee wished he could afford doctor's tests to conclusively determine the cause of their problems.
"If I had any concrete proof of it (being the pesticides) ... then I'd have to leave," Lee said.
Despite these stories and others, the evidence for pesticide-related illness in the Carpenter Lane area remains largely anecdotal.
Since 1996, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Health Division have investigated claims of pesticide poisoning in this community. Dale Mitchell, assistant administrator for the agriculture department's pesticide division, said there have been about a dozen onsite visits, including sampling for pesticides.
The two departments have "not been able to identify any correlation" between the pesticide use and the ailments, Mitchell said. They also have failed to uncover any pesticide misuse by the nurseries.
While years of state investigations failed to show a correlation between the chemicals and illnesses, the EPA recently reviewed six of the studies and found them inconclusive and questioned some of the approaches used.
In one case a sample was taken more than a month after the pesticide was sprayed, making the likelihood of detection "extremely remote," the EPA said. In another, soil rather than plant samples were taken, though the chemical being investigated was difficult to extract from soil.
In still another investigation only a single sample was taken to test for drift. The EPA noted that "the probability of documenting drift would have been far greater if more than one sample was taken from the Failla property."
Three herbicides have been detected in samples taken from Parker's property. They include 2,4-D and triclopyr, which can irritate eyes, and paraquat, a highly toxic chemical and suspected carcinogen that is hazardous to multiple organs including lungs, heart and liver, according to an Oregon State University database.
The study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry will include a community meeting being scheduled for later in August. The agency wants to determine if enough pesticide exposure for illness is possible. More sampling is expected to fill in the data.
Depending on what the ATSDR finds, it will recommend solutions to the state.
"There are clearly instances where pesticides have made people sick" in other parts of the country, said Richard Kauffman, senior regional representative of ATSDR. But "it's not a given that we're going to be able to make a connection."
Some residents have expressed enthusiasm about the involvement of federal agencies. Parker remains less optimistic.
"I have no hopes. I have no expectations," she said.
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