The Coastal Post - July 2000

Helicopters Spraying Herbicides In West Marin

By Carol Sterritt

On the gorgeous spring morning of Friday May 5th, 2000, Stephanie McNear decided to drive to Marshall to check out property. Perhaps if she had known of the strange experiences that she'd have on this drive, she'd have stayed at home.

Rounding a curve on the Marshall Petaluma Road, she was startled by the battering cacophony of helicopter blades overhead. As the chopper flew directly over her car, she was amazed to note clouds of a perplexing white composition pluming about the ranchland on either side of her.

These clouds spun aloft all about the hillsides, then drifted in the chipper spring breezes.

Immediately, McNear stopped her car and, camcorder in hand, began filming. At the nearby ranch driveway, she asked a worker what was going on. He replied that an herbicide, Transline, was being used to eradicate the non-native invasive Yellow Star-Thistle.

McNear had no idea of what Transline was, but she did have two immediate concerns: the chemical's impact on her, and just as importantly, its impact on the schoolchildren who at that moment were being driven by their parents to attend their classroom there in the Marshall area.

Not having a wind meter: she did the next best thing: she let her camcorder film the wind hitting the wheat grass on the side of the road. This would serve as forensic evidence that the wind's briskness exceeded the six-mile an hour criteria for spraying. (County and state law forbid any spraying, let alone an aerial blasting, if the wind blows at more than six miles an hour.) Clearly McNear's film footage shows how blatant the helicopter spray company's disregard for established pesticide regulations really was.

McNear's video footage captures in a way that words cannot the nightmare scenario of toxics released in haphazard manner. However those entrenched inside a pro-pesticide mentality will simply shrug and say, "Oh, but Transline is a rather benign substance."

But is it? When the EPA evaluates any toxin, one consideration is something called the LD-50. LD-50 refers to the amount of milligrams per kilogram of body weight that it would take to kill 50% of the population of a chosen mammalian group (usually mice or rats, although sometimes dogs are used in "feeding" surveys.) In terms of LD-50, Transline is one of the less worrisome substances. If dioxin is one of the most lethal, followed by things like benzene, toluene, and other potent brews, Transline falls into the same low lethal arena in which we find Monsanto's RoundUp.

However, many progressive scientists are examining the issue of toxics from the viewpoint of chronic disease rather than lethal dose. So a substance does not kill the rat, so what? Does the scientific body advising the EPA of a low lethal rating also examine the rat to see if the rat later becomes a Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis or fibromyalgia victim later on? No, such studies usually take the surviving rats, autopsy them to look for tumors, and then conclude their study.

However, progressive scientists are taking these chronic illnesses and surveying the human population. They realize that each day, more and more human beings fall prey to one or the other of these autoimmune illnesses. In our nation's classrooms, as many as 50 percent of all school children have some learning disorder, attention deficit problem, asthma or other health problem. And these are little people not yet ten years old. Children's cancer rates are skyrocketing. A glance at local obituary columns shows that in Marin on any given day, a handful of elderly (those over 75) have met the grim reaper. But their number is joined by baby-boomers not yet sixty, who have succumbed to breast cancer, brain cancers and lymphomas. It does seem that such occurrences are in direct proportion to the amounts of increases of low dosage toxins that we must experience each time we drive by a Central Marin CalTrans spraying, a Sausalito Park Maintenance Spraying, a hospital hallway bombardment of Lysol, etc.

The situation is so overwhelming that some researchers deplore the fact that they can no longer find a control population. Most of us are so heavily dosed that it is hard to do a contrast and comparison study between, for example, industry workers heavily inflicted with chemicals and those left poison-free, for there are few who have escaped the wrath of poison. (The Amish, perhaps?)

In the case of Transline, there are as many questions as there are answers. Its main active ingredient, clopyralid, disrupts plant growth. According to "The Journal of Pesticide Reform" it does this by binding to molecules "normally used as receptors for growth" the binding causes abnormal growth that leads to plant death in a few days or weeks. The same journal article mentions that clopyralid causes eye irritation, damage, and even blindness. Also: "When mammals are exposed to clopyralid for a three-month term, the size of liver cells in female increased at two of the four doses that were used. A six month study with dogs found increased liver weights in females and urinary tract problems in males."

The product has several possible inert ingredients (the term "inert" is a misnomer in that it usually refers to chemicals that are just as active as the active ingredient but that the manufacturer, in this case, Dow-Elanco, claim as proprietary knowledge.) All possible inerts for this product underscore the earlier hazard: eye damage. If the inert used is cyclohexanone: that product is noted for eye irritation including tearing and burning. Ditto the inert trilsopropanolamine. Both these products can also cause lung damage if inhaled, with spasms and fluid accumulation that can lead to death. Other possible inerts are triethylamine, also ethelenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) and polyoxy-ethelkeneamine (POEA). Triethylamine can cause eye irritation, skin irritation, and respiratory problems. So does EDTA. POEA can cause eye burns, skin redness, and blistering; nausea and diarrhea. POEA has under certain conditions biodegraded into 1, 4 dioxane, which is one of the Super Fund contaminants we taxpayers have to clean up.

Among the most serious warnings about Transline are those in regard to water. The National Forest Service puts out a sheet on the product and that advises that every precaution be taken to avoid water contamination. Although one local rancher has told me that he has taken precautions regarding a natural spring that his cattle drink from, he was not also advised to protect the other springs on his property, all of which provide water for wildlife.

Transline also kills all members of the legume and sunflower families. These families of plants include several species of native plants that fall into the endangered species list and that reside in the same Bolinas Ridge hills where ranchers consider spraying.

Most ironic of all, the very basis for using Transline is questionable. It is used to control the non-native invasive weeds, such as Yellow Star Thistle. But once again from "The Journal of Pesticide Reform", a study conducted in Glacier Park found only mixed results. After clopyralid treatment, non-native broad-leaved plants decreased. However, natives in that category also decreased and were replaced with non-native grasses. In Washington State, a substance quite similar to clopyralid, picoloram, was successful against the Star Thistle for only two years. By year three, the plant had successfully mutated in order to adapt to the chemical with great resistance.

But locally Transline's greatest foe was having a video artist alert the public to the May 5th transgression. The final results of Stephanie McNear's close encounter can be a cause for relief. On Tuesday, June 13th, the Marin Weed Management Area met in Pt. Reyes to outline their plans for Yellow Star Thistle eradication. Stacy Carlsen, County Agricultural Commissioner, explained that he had to pull out of the Transline program on account of one or two individuals in the County who defamed him. He also stated that Transline spraying was never an important part of the Marin Weed Management Area's overall program. Now the County is focusing on hand pulling of the thistle. Already County personnel and National Park Service Rangers have identified and mapped areas where the thistle is entrenched. They are also attempting to identify those areas where native endangered plants are growing.

These efforts are underwritten by a grant that Carlsen obtained from the state for the amount of $23,000. In terms of all the work needing to be done, the money falls into the "typical a little bit too little, and perhaps too late category." (This being due to state constraints rather than anything done locally.) The Marin Weed Management Area will put their weed pullers in place on July 20th. If this weed pull is a success, it ensures continued enthusiasm for a no-spray philosophy in West Marin. Anyone or any group wishing to volunteer and work with the program on that day should call 499-6700 and ask for Amanda Stephens, assistant to the County Ag Commissioner.

And I do not want to end a discussion of "no-spray" without mentioning the fine efforts of the Fairfax City Council in examining a more comprehensive town ban on pesticides. Over the last fifteen years, Fairfax has offered the other municipalities of Marin a wonderful example with its no-spray emphasis on keeping it green. The June 19th meeting heard various Council members re-iterate that even in the case of spraying town oaks for the fungal and beetle invasion decimating these trees, the town will insist on notifying nearby residences, blocking off treated trees from public access, and using a least toxic preparation, pyrethrin, as their mainstay in this fight. (I do hope you are listening, City of San Rafael, and City of Sausalito!)

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