Pesticides in paradise: 10,000 Marched Through Waikiki Tourist District To Battle The Giants
Categories: Health & Nutrition
Pediatrician Carla Nelson remembers catching sight of the unusually pale newborn, then hearing an abnormal heartbeat through the stethoscope and thinking that something was terribly wrong.
The baby was born minutes before with a severe heart malformation that would require complex surgery. What worried her as she waited for the ambulance plane to take the infant from Waimea, on the island of Kauai, to the main children’s hospital in Honolulu, on another Hawaiian island, was that it was the fourth one shehad seen in three years.
After four separate attempts to rein in the companies failed, an estimated 10,000 people marched through Honolulu’s Waikiki tourist district. Photograph: Christopher Pala for the Guardian
In all of Waimea, there have been at least nine in five years, she says, shaking her head. That’s more than 10 times the national rate, according to analysis by localdoctors.
Nelson, a Californian, and other local doctors find themselves in the eye of a storm swirling for the past three years around the Hawaiian archipelago over whether a major cash crop on four of the six main islands, corn that’s been genetically modified to resist pesticides, is a source of prosperity, as the companies claim – or of birth defects and illnesses, as the doctors and many others suspect.
After four separate attempts to rein in the companies over the past two years all failed, an estimated 10,000 people marched on 9 August through Honolulu’s Waikiki tourist district. Some held signs like, “We Deserve the Right to Know: Stop Poisoning Paradise” and “Save Hawaii – Stop GMOs” (Genetically Modified Organisms), while others protested different issues.
“The turnout and the number of groups marching showed how many people are very frustrated with the situation,” says native Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte of the island of Molokai.
Seventeen times more pesticide
Waimea, a small town of low, pastel wood houses built in south-west Kauai for plantation workers in the 19th century, now sustains its economy mostly from a trickle of tourists on their way to a spectacular canyon. Perhaps 200 people work full-time for the four giant chemical companies that grow the corn – all of it exported – on some 12,000 acres leased mostly from the state.
In Kauai, chemical companies Dow, BASF, Syngenta and DuPont spray 17 times more pesticide per acre (mostly herbicides, along with insecticides and fungicides) than on ordinary cornfields in the US mainland, according to the most detailed study of the sector, by the Center for Food Safety.
That’s because they are precisely testing the strain’s resistance to herbicides that kill other plants. About a fourth of the total are called Restricted Use Pesticides because of their harmfulness. Just in Kauai, 18 tons – mostly atrazine, paraquat (both banned in Europe) and chlorpyrifos – were applied in 2012. The World Health Organization this year announced that glyphosate, sold as Roundup, the most common of the non-restricted herbicides, is “probably carcinogenic in humans”.
The cornfields lie above Waimea as the land, developed in the 1870s for the Kekaha Sugar Company plantation, slopes gently up toward arid, craggy hilltops. Most fields are reddish-brown and perfectly furrowed. Some parts are bright green: that’s when the corn is actually grown.
Both parts are sprayed frequently, sometimes every couple of days. Most of the fields lie fallow at any given time as they await the next crop, but they are still sprayed with pesticides to keep anything from growing. “To grow either seed crops or test crops, you need soil that’s essentially sterile,” says professor Hector Valenzuela of the University of Hawaii department of tropical plant and soil science.
Waimea and the GMO fields. The two orange-roof buildings at bottom left are the Middle School. The one to its right is the hospital. Photograph: Christopher Pala for the Guardian
When the spraying is underway and the wind blows downhill from the fields to the town – a time no spraying should occur – residents complain of stinging eyes, headaches and vomiting.
“Your eyes and lungs hurt, you feel dizzy and nauseous. It’s awful,” says middle school special education teacher Howard Hurst, who was present at two evacuations. “Here, 10% of the students get special-ed services, but the state average is 6.3%,” he says. “It’s hard to think the pesticides don’t play a role.”
At these times, many crowd the waiting rooms of the town’s main hospital, which was run until recently by Dow AgroSciences’ former chief lobbyist in Honolulu. It lies beside the middle school, both 1,700ft from Syngenta fields. The hospital, built by the old sugar plantation, has never studied the effects of the pesticides on its patients.
The chemical companies that grow the corn in land previously used for sugar refuse to disclose with any precision which chemicals they use, where and in what amounts, but they insist the pesticides are safe, and most state and local politicians concur. “The Hawai‘i legislature has never given the slightest indication that it intended to regulate genetically engineered crops,” wrote lawyer Paul Achitoff of Earthjustice in a recent court case.
As for the birth defects spike, “We have not seen any credible source of statistical health information to support the claims,” said Bennette Misalucha, executive director of Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, the chemical companies trade association, in a written statement distributed by a publicist. She declined to be interviewed.