Collection: Herbicide Risks Testimony
One Man’s Chemical Conversion
Paul Tukey knows about pesticides; the man who invented 2,4-D was a distant cousin. When Tukey was a kid in the late 1960s, his grandfather hired a biplane to spray his 300 acres of fields in Maine a couple of times a year. The fields were mostly planted with cattle feed, not with crops intended for human consumption. For Tukey, spraying day was a thrill.
“My grandfather would go out in the field, dressed in his wool underwear and thick heavy pants, and wave the biplane over his field,” Tukey recalled. “They’d drop this white powder, and he’d get back in the truck looking like Frosty the Snowman. Then we’d drive to the next field, and he’d do it again. My grandfather was getting doused 20 times a day, but he would never let me get out of the truck. I always wondered why I couldn’t go out and get dusted.”
Tukey’s grandfather died of a brain tumor at 60.
Tukey also followed his family’s agricultural tradition but charted his own course. For years, he operated one of southern Maine’s largest landscaping services and considered his job ideal. He worked outside in shorts and sandals. He never bothered with putting on protective gear.
In 1993, he started getting nosebleeds. His vision became blurry. But with business booming, Tukey was too busy to worry. One of his jobs was tending the grounds of a hospital where he hired university students for the work. One day, their professor, an eminent horticulturist named Rick Churchill, came by to say hello to his students. Tukey went out to greet him.
Churchill’s eyes were focused on the weeds, which Tukey’s crew had doused with herbicides and which were curling up and turning brown.
Churchill said, “I asked him how anyone in good conscience could be applying pesticides on the grounds of a hospital where there were patients being treated for cancers that could be linked to their exposure to pesticides. I asked whether he knew anything about the toxicity ratings of what he was applying and how dangerous many of these compounds were to an individual compromised by illness.”
The words cut deeply. “It was devastating,” Tukey told me. “In Maine, Rick Churchill is an icon.”
[pullquote]“You have broken bags of poison,” Tukey told the manager. “They all say, ‘Keep out of reach of children’!”[/pullquote]
Tukey did some reading, and what he found was troubling. Pediatric cancers in Los Angeles had been linked to parental exposure to pesticides during pregnancy. In Denver, kids whose yards were treated with pesticides were found to be four times more likely to have soft-tissue cancers than kids whose yards were not. Elsewhere, links had been found between brain tumors in children and the use of weed killers, pest strips, and flea collars.
Tukey also learned that exposure to lawn chemicals was particularly alarming for people who spread them for a living. One study showed a threefold increase in lung cancer among lawn-care workers who used 2,4-D; another found a higher rate of birth defects among the children of chemical appliers. When he finally went to the doctor for his rashes and deteriorating eyesight, he learned that he had developed multiple chemical sensitivity. And his son—conceived in 1992, during the height of Tukey’s use of synthetic chemicals—was diagnosed with one of the worst cases of ADHD his physician had ever seen. (Several recent scientific reports suggest that toxic chemicals may play a role in ADHD.)
“All the evidence indicates that you don’t want pregnant women around these products, but I was walking into the house every single night with my legs coated with pesticides from the knees down,” he said. “Even when my son was a year or two old, … [he] would greet me at the door at night by grabbing me around the legs. He was getting pesticides on his hands and probably his face too.”
Tukey’s Breaking Point
In the midst of his research, Tukey was driving one day when he saw a sign: A store was having a big sale on Scotts Turf Builder. Tukey made a beeline. He was going to buy the store’s entire stock. Once inside, he walked to the lawn-care section. Tukey noticed a woman standing by the lawn chemicals. At her feet, a girl was making sand castles from a broken bag of pesticides. Suddenly, something in him burst—the DDT squirting over his grandfather’s fields, the chemicals that he’d sprayed outside the hospital, and now a child in a pile of pesticides.
Tukey told me, “I said, ‘Ma’am, you really shouldn’t let your child play with that. It’s not safe.’ I’m fundamentally shy, but this just came out of me.”
The store wouldn’t sell the stuff if it wasn’t safe, she told Tukey. She took her child and walked away. A manager came up and asked him if there was a problem. Tukey said there was.
“You have broken bags of poison on the floor,” Tukey said to the manager. “All those bags say, ‘Keep out of reach of children’!”
Those labels are there because of government formality, the manager said. The stuff isn’t dangerous. The store wouldn’t carry it if it was.
“That really was the stake in the heart of my chemical career,” Tukey said. “By then, I’d already made myself sick. I’d already been questioned by Rick Churchill. When I saw that girl making sand castles out of the pesticides, [there] was just a sudden gut-level reaction I couldn’t have anticipated. I was shaking when I left the store.”
Tukey issued a decree to his employees: His business was going organic. It was time to start weaning his company—and customers—off synthetic chemicals. Most clients were fine with his decision, just as long as it didn’t cost any more and as long as their lawns continued to look the same.
More than 170 municipalities in Canada have banned lawn pesticides, especially on public spaces like school yards and sports fields. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have banned 2,4-D. In 2009, the European Parliament passed laws banning 22 pesticides that can cause cancer or disrupt human hormones or reproduction.
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