It was a typical morning when the helicopter flew by. Neila Owen was milking the goats and tending to her garden in the Coastal Range of Oregon when it passed. She watched the herbicide that trailed it form a cloud on a hill above her home, then drift slowly across the valley. Within hours, a heavy feeling gripped her muscles, then settled into her joints. Vomiting followed arthritic aches. Her menstrual cycle arrived five days early, she says, with pelvic pain that felt like bones splitting. Later, the farm’s fruit trees stood dead in the yard.
Owen would report the incident to state officials, without result. The call was not her first. It came two years after she and some 70 of her neighbors took to the streets waving pitchforks to rally against the local timber industry's practice of swiping the trees from the hilltops, which had led to mudslides that wiped out the road to the nearest town. Since their first days of protest with farm implements, the so-called Pitchfork Rebellion, angry over the clear-cuts and sliding earth, has become increasingly concerned with the routine spraying of herbicides on the hills around their homes, a practice that typically follows timber harvests. Since then, their community has become an object of study.
A public health investigation near Triangle Lake, Ore., now involves three federal agencies and the state. It is the first to probe how Americans like Owen, who live in the low-lying areas between patchworks of timberland, fare amid frequent sprays of herbicides. If the study finds evidence that these chemicals are finding their way into people’s bodies there, it could lead to new rules on spraying at the state level and feed into a national inquiry on the matter.
Until now, state officials said they had no more to provoke inquiry in Triangle Lake than reports of flulike symptoms. Photos of rashes and burns lived in private collections. Older women, stricken with rollercoaster menstrual cycles and crushing fatigue, blamed hormones. Right now there's no way to know for sure what to make of these symptoms, but the spraying of herbicides seems like a possible culprit—and one that should be investigated.
There are some more specific signs of a problem. Since those early days of pitchfork waving, several dozen people, including Pitchforkers and schoolchildren, were found to be urinating traces of 2,4-D and Atrazine—two controversial compounds that some have linked to cancer and hormonal disruption. Pitchfork organizer Day Owen, husband to Neila and the face of the Pitchfork Rebellion, recruited Dana Barr of Emory University to conduct the study, and she found signs of exposure in all 44 people she tested. That’s surprising, even in rural areas where residents are frequently exposed to pesticides, because exposure so rarely affects everyone—though the health effects of that exposure are still in question.
Now, the EPA, the CDC, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the state are investigating. Federal experts have criticized Oregon’s Pesticide Analytical Response Center for an erratic handling of potential poisonings in the past, and the Oregon Health Authority is now testing people, plants, and water in the area. State and federal agencies are splitting the cost of a likely $200,000 first-phase tab and targeting the two herbicides that might be dangerous.
The inquiry comes as the EPA takes a second look at Atrazine. Years ago it was shown to be noncarcinogenic, but now there's evidence that it's polluting our water supplies and wreaks havoc on hormones. (Some have taken issue with the noncarcinogenicity findings as well.) The review will include data from local efforts to probe the effects of Atrazine exposure in Arkansas and California, as well as the data now being collected in Oregon. Depending on what they find, we may see new restrictions on spraying crops and timber, particularly above and next to people’s homes. The EPA plans a similar safety review of 2,4-D in 2013.
The first health problems that were said to be caused by this recent spraying of herbicides did little but provoke conflict and derision in Oregon. Pitchforkers say they could find no one in state government with an interest in exploring the issue. After protests escalated, Owen was roughed up and taken to the Lane County jail following a rally on May 30, 2008, arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and interfering with a police officer. There, a stiff-looking man read to him from his own credit card statements, making clear Owen was being watched. An ensuing court case found Owen had been under surveillance by Homeland Security for advocating for “revolution” during rallies. The surveillance and bust-up of the event, along with Owen’s arrest, made such a public display—another organizer was repeatedly TASERed—that the story landed on MTV. The charges against Owen were dropped.