hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues April 2016


State pesticide-reporting effort lags

New York program, adopted with fanfare, yields old, opaque data

Contributing writer


Twenty years ago, a coalition of breast-cancer activists, environmentalists and others celebrated a hard-fought victory when New York agreed to set up a statewide system for tracking the sale and use of pesticides.

When the legislation was signed into law in 1996, supporters called it a big step forward for public health. Advocates hoped the law would soon provide a trove of new data that could be studied to find out whether heavy use of pesticides in some parts of the state might be correlated to the incidence of breast cancer and other ailments.

But two decades later, it appears New York’s pesticide-reporting program is failing to deliver on its promise. The latest set of data available through the program is from 2009. And the only pesticide-use information available in a database that’s searchable by active ingredient is even older and covers just three years – from 2003-05.

Much of the data available through the program is compiled in ways that make it difficult or impossible to draw meaningful conclusions or make apples-to-apples comparisons.
Much of the activity on farms isn’t covered, because farmers don’t have to report their own pesticide use. And the data submitted to the state by commercial pesticide applicators is listed in gallons or pounds of brand-name products – without accounting for the varying concentrations of active ingredients these products may contain.

In a summary accompanying the latest figures from the pesticide-reporting program, from 2009, the state Department of Environmental Conservation cautioned users about the limitations of the data, stating, “There are still significant concerns regarding the validity of the data received from the regulated community.”

By comparison, under a pesticide-reporting system that took effect in 1999, Vermont produces an easy-to-read annual report of commercial pesticide use, broken down by type of application – such as fruit trees, golf courses, lawn care, etc. Figures are per pound of active ingredient statewide, and the most recent report covers 2013. As in New York, Vermont’s law does not cover the pesticides farmers apply directly to their own land or crops.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, reports submitted to the state by commercial pesticide applicators are boxed up and put into storage by the state Department of Agricultural Resources, with no effort to compile or release the data to the public.


Spurred by cancer concerns
The creation of New York’s pesticide-reporting law was the result of a grassroots campaign that unfolded over four years in the early 1990s. One of the main groups pushing for the law was 1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition.

On Long Island, which depends on a sole-source aquifer that is notoriously vulnerable to contamination, numerous hazardous chemicals had found their way into residents’ drinking water. The list included banned agricultural pesticides and industrial solvents. Activists were concerned about the role these chemicals might be playing in the island’s high incidence of breast cancer, and they wanted to know more about the pesticides that were still being applied liberally to lawns and trees in their suburban neighborhoods.

Geri Barish, who was president of 1 in 9 at the time, said she and her allies felt a pesticide reporting system would equip scientists with a critical tool for exploring the relationship between pesticides and cancer. They also believed people had a right to know about the use of toxic chemicals in their communities.

“We wanted to know ... where the pesticides someone purchased were used,” recalled Barish, who has survived three occurrences of breast cancer and one bout with lung cancer.
Told of the current problems with the state’s pesticide-use reporting system, Barish said she wasn’t surprised. She explained that her involvement in a related state initiative had left her disheartened.

“I sat on the Health Research Science Board for a lot of years,” Barish said.
The board, authorized under the pesticide-reporting law, was supposed to review requests from researchers for detailed pesticide-use information and dole out clinical research grants. But many of the other board members were political appointees, and the board’s meetings frequently were canceled, she said. Rather than play along, she eventually resigned in frustration.

Pulling back from the political arena, Barish and 1 in 9, which she now runs as executive director, have put their energies into helping cancer patients directly. She said her group has provided an array of free services to 28,000 cancer patients and their families in a home-like environment at Hewlett House on Long Island.


The California model
Outside New York and Vermont, very few other states have any sort of system for public disclosure of pesticide use. Oregon instituted a system for two years about a decade ago but then suspended the effort amid state budget cuts.

The standout exception is California, which in 1990 became the first state to require full reporting of pesticide use in agriculture. Its program is still recognized as the most comprehensive in the world.

As co-author of “Generation in Jeopardy,” Kristin Schafer, policy director for the Pesticide Action Network of North America, has documented links between pesticide exposure and increases in neurodevelopmental problems, birth defects and childhood cancers. She said having the ability to track “what chemicals are used where” makes it possible to craft better policies to protect public health.

Schafer’s organization considers California’s pesticide-reporting program to be a model and is calling for comprehensive and transparent pesticide-use reporting in every state.

California has been requiring some form of pesticide-use reporting since at least 1950, said Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation. California’s Food Safety Act of 1989 gave the agency statutory authority to require full reporting of pesticide use.

Under California’s system, farmers and other applicators file monthly reports of all agricultural pesticide use with their county agriculture commissioner. They’re encouraged to file electronically, and two-thirds of farmers and pesticide applicators now do so. These county officials then send the data electronically to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.
But California’s program staff used to have to manually enter data from more than a million records each year, Fadipe explained in an e-mail.

For the purpose of its reporting law, California defines agriculture broadly to include parks, golf courses, cemeteries, rangeland, pasture and roadside and railroad rights-of-way -- plus all agricultural crops, poultry and fish production and some livestock applications. Home and garden and most industrial and institutional uses are not covered.

The state produces summaries of the data and analysis of trends. It also creates county reports, indexed by chemical or commodity. Every year, the state program also releases a series of Top 5 and Top 100 lists. With a few keystrokes, anyone can find out the most commonly used pesticide active ingredients in a county -- and the five sites where those leading pesticides are used in greatest amounts. California’s program also provides data on the cumulative number of acres treated with each of the most common pesticides.

Schafer cites a 2014 California Department of Public Health report to illustrate the value of pesticide-use reporting. By examining the application of 10 or 12 pesticides of concern in 15 agricultural counties, the state agency was able to determine that nearly 500,000 children were attending school within a quarter-mile of fields where these pesticides were sprayed.
This conclusion “has set in motion a process where the California Department of Pesticide Regulation is developing new rules to protect children in schools,” Schafer said.


New York lags behind
New York’s pesticide reporting law requires all commercial applicators and permitted dealers to submit reports annually by Feb. 1 detailing their pesticide activities for the prior year. Commercial applicators must report the date, address and ZIP code of every pesticide application.
But in contrast to California’s comprehensive reporting system, New York’s law does not cover pesticides applied by farmers. This exemption is significant, given that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 80 percent of the nation’s pesticide use is agricultural.

In Vermont, certified applicators in the commercial, non-commercial and government categories are required to file annual summaries of their pesticide use, by county and type of use, with the state Agency on Agriculture. As in New York, farmers do not report their own pesticides use.
In its annual public reports, Vermont provides statewide totals, by pounds of active ingredient, for various pesticides. The totals are organized by type of application – such as the amounts used on golf courses, lawns, in forestry, along highways and so on. But the reports don’t break down the data by county or other parameters that would reveal exactly where the pesticides are being applied.

New York’s reporting system appears to lag behind California’s and even Vermont’s in several ways.

Although 2014 is the most recent year for which data is available under California’s reporting system, and Vermont’s latest report is for 2013, the most recent New York report is based on 2009 pesticide sales and use.

New York’s most recent data also lists pesticides by brand name, rather than active ingredient. The state has a database that’s searchable by active pesticide ingredient, but the most recent data in that system is from 2005.

New York contracts with Cornell University to transform raw pesticide sales and use reports into a usable form. For more than a decade, the Cornell program employed eight people to do this job. Then in 2011, state budget cuts slashed the staff to 2.5 full-time equivalents. The workload did not decrease.

Employees are responsible for cleaning up and correcting the data and developing and managing software. Pesticide applicators and businesses are allowed to submit handwritten annual reports as long as they’re legible, though sometimes they’re not. The staff at Cornell must flag and correct errors, such as when applicators sometimes report the quantity of diluted pesticide they sprayed, rather than the amount used from the product jug or bag.

Robert Warfield, who has worked in information technology with the Cornell Pesticide Sales and Use Reporting database group since its inception two decades ago, said the Department of Environmental Conservation has been slow to give the go-ahead to post the databases his unit has corrected. Like his unit, the state agency has also been subjected to significant staff cuts.


Translation, context lacking
California and Vermont present their states’ pesticide-use reports in pounds of active ingredients. At the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, products containing varying concentrations of pesticides are automatically converted in pounds of active ingredient using agency software in conjunction with a pesticide label database and specific-gravity information for liquid products.
But New York’s reports simply identify the Top 10 pesticide products sold and used. The result isn’t terribly meaningful, because some products are highly concentrated while others come in more dilute formulations. And just as grocery stores display many different types of orange juices and yogurts, pesticide manufacturers offer a wide array of products for every purpose and preference. New York’s DEC has registered 14,125 different pesticide products, each containing one or more of the about 500 active ingredients.

New York further reduces the usefulness of its data by totaling up usage either by weight or volume. As a result, there are Top 10 lists for granular and powdered products in pounds and for liquid products in gallons.

To make sense of New York’s most recent data set, from 2009, one would need to consult another database, the Pesticide Ingredient and Manufacturer System, which developed and managed by a unit of Cornell. This database reveals that a given pesticide could appear as an active ingredient in hundreds of different products. If that’s not confusing enough, a particular pesticide could also have multiple chemical forms, and each one could be registered as a separate active ingredient.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture compiled statistics on statewide pesticide use in agriculture and households (the latter obtained by surveys), but only for two years, in 2007 and 2008. The next year, the Legislature suspended the program as a cost-cutting measure, at least until 2013. That year came and went without the program being reinstated.

New York faced a similar threat to its pesticide-use reporting program two years ago Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a state budget that would have eliminated mandated reporting of pesticide use through a small change in the law’s language. In place of the reporting, the state would have collected only sales data. A coalition of 30 groups objected, and the law was preserved.


Limited data on agriculture
In most or perhaps all states, only farmers using more dangerous products classified as “restricted use” are required to become certified or licensed as pesticide applicators. So although New York has more than 35,000 farms, according to the state’s 2012 agricultural census, the state Department of Environmental Conservation lists only 6,044 certified private (agricultural) pesticide applicators.

Still, farmers and their employees are not the only ones that apply pesticides to their land and crops. Many farms hire out some or all of this function to commercial applicators for various reasons, including time pressure, economics, lack of equipment or a desire to leave the job to professionals. In New York and Vermont, by law these commercial applicators must report the names and quantities of all pesticides they apply.

There doesn’t appear to be any data in the public domain, however, that would document what proportion of overall agricultural pesticide use is being contracted to these custom applicators.
In eastern New York and western New England, one of the larger custom operators of pesticides is Carolina Eastern-Vail Inc., better known as CaroVail, which has facilities at Salem in Washington County and at Niverville in Columbia County. Brian Harrington of the company’s administrative office in Salem said CaroVail serves all types of farms, from fruit and vegetable to dairy and field crops. In addition to pesticides, it handles fertilizer applications and also offers organic services.

Aaron Gabriel, an agricultural specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, suggested that farmers who grow fruits or vegetables are more likely to apply pesticides themselves because timing is so critical for controlling plant diseases and insect pests with chemicals. Nursery and greenhouse operators likely would take the same approach.

But Gabriel estimated that a large majority of dairy farmers and feed growers hire out crop spraying. Most commonly, the pesticides being applied in field crops like corn would be herbicides, for which timing need not be as precise.

Among New York farms, 2,000 are considered vegetable farms, nearly 2,300 are fruit growers, another 2,300 are nurseries, greenhouse or flower operations, nearly 2,700 produce grain or oilseeds, and about 4,700 operate dairies.

Although New York doesn’t require farmers to report the pesticides they apply themselves, it does require pesticide dealers to report their sales to farmers who certified to apply pesticides. This sales data, however, does not reveal the locations where the pesticides actually are being used.

In addition, this approach misses any pesticide use by the vast majority of farmers who are not certified applicators. New York’s 281 permitted pesticide dealers are not supposed to report their sales of “general use” pesticide products to this category of farmer.


Mass. records in storage
In Massachusetts, the state Department of Agricultural Resources each year receives an avalanche of annual pesticide-use reports from the pesticide applicators it regulates. And each year all these records are boxed up and stored, according to Stephen Kenyon, operations coordinator for the state’s pesticide program.

Kenyon wrote in an e-mail, “The Department does NOT currently have an electronic system for collecting and organizing the pesticide-use data received.”

Because there is no electronic database, he explained, “there is no way, beyond reviewing the thousands of use reports, to assess the use of any particular products.”

Kenyon said his office gets requests for the kind of data that a pesticide-reporting program could provide, but the office has no way to fulfill them. For example, inquiries come in that are related to pesticide use in agriculture or along road and utility rights of way -- or about the use of products with wildlife toxicity.

“It literally would take someone going through each box” to find information to respond to those requests, he said.
Kenyon said the idea of creating a computerized reporting system has been on the radar of the state Pesticide Board for a while.
“They revisit it every year,” he said, adding that he hopes “we can have that conversation again in 2016.”
In his view, what would make such a program feasible is the growing embrace of electronic recordkeeping.
“We’re getting to the point that the technology is there,” he said.

Kenyon said the data generated would have value for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and for his state agency, among others. Knowing about quantities and locations of usage could help his agency with training to address pesticide applicators on product-specific problems, he suggested.