Bill Would Place Nation’s Capitol at Forefront of Pesticide Reduction
Dr. Jerome Paulson of the Children’s National Medical Center testifies on behalf of pesticide reduction on Monday, flanked by Dr. Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Paul Tukey of the Safe Lawns Foundation on Monday. (Chris Weiss photos)
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Interviewing witnesses with the precision of a prosecutorial judge, District of Columbia councilwoman Mary Cheh set the stage for an American pesticide showdown Monday afternoon.
In a remarkable session on behalf of the DC Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation the tenured professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University drilled relentlessly into the nuances of a bill, B19-643, “The Pesticide Education and Control Amendment Act of 2012.” Cheh, a Democrat, called every witness, asked every question and displayed extraordinary stamina in a session that grilled 18 individuals and lasted more than four hours.
I’ve sat through dozens, if not hundreds, of similar sessions and never seen anything quite like Cheh’s attention to detail. In addition to doctors and activists who testified on behalf of the bill, Cheh singlehandedly called pesticide professionals, citizens and a government witness.
The general goal of the Pesticide Education and Control Amendment Act of 2012 is to review the myriad chemical compounds used as insect, weed and fungal killers and to eliminate all but the least toxic — except in cases of public health where no “safe” alternatives exist. Of the 18 witnesses called, five spoke in favor of the status quo that allows for unrestricted use of synthetic chemicals and 13 were in favor of some measure of pesticide reduction. SafeLawns testified on behalf of a complete elimination of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the landscape, citing several examples of success stories — including nearby Glenstone — where beautiful aesthetics are achieved without synthetic chemical products.
Cheh was especially inquisitive of three doctors who testified on behalf of pesticide reduction strategies.
“Children or adults (exposed to pesticides) can suffer from asthma, heart problems, irregular heart rhythms, recurrent infections, rashes, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, muscle aches, attention deficit-like behavior, altered vision, sense of smell, hearing, taste or touch, balance, Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, dementia, seizures, weight gain, altered hormones — including premature puberty, growth disruption, ovarian and testicular dysfunction, thyroid problems, and diabetes,” said Dr. Alan Vinitsky, a pediatrician and internist from Gaithersburg, Md. “There can be increased infertility, increased miscarriages, increased congenital malformations, or a fetus can take on the pesticides, and be saddled with the pesticide burden at birth.”
The representatives of the synthetic chemical pesticide industry, on the other hand, generally pointed to EPA approval of their products as an endorsement for safety “when used as directed by the label.”
Kate Shenk of RISE, right, said she feared her local parks, playgrounds and schools would be overrun with pesticides if the District of Columbia disallows synthetic chemical pesticides.
“So you’re saying that these previous witnesses are not truthful?” asked Cheh of Kate Shenk, a recent college graduate who represented herself as a paid advisor to the Responsible Industry of a Sound Environment (RISE), the lead lobbying industry for the synthetic chemical fertilizer and pesticide industry. RISE representatives appear at virtually all U.S. legislative attempts to reduce pesticides. The organization’s goal is to advance the theory that without the synthetic chemical pesticides then children’s and environmental health will suffer — yet Cheh was clearly not buying into the paid rhetoric.
“We clearly have more work to do here to determine who is telling the truth,” she said.
Though the hearing was preliminary in nature, the bill is historically sweeping in its potential. Although all synthetic chemical pesticides would still be available under the bill in cases of public health situations where no reduced-risk alternatives exist, the spirt of the DC bill calls for elimination of synthetic chemicals except as a last resort.
In reality, the District of Columbia is a small market due to the relatively small population of less than a million people. Yet people on both sides of the argument were clearly aware of the District of Columbia’s strategic importance in the pesticide debate.
In other words, if an elected official in Maryland, or Virginia, or Oregon for that matter, hears that Washington, D.C., has banned or restricted pesticides, it will likely get that politician’s attention.
It’s too soon to tell how the DC legislation will play out, but if the day’s final witness was any indication, then history may be in the making.
“I’m here to testify on behalf of the Pesticide Education and Control Amendment Act of 2012,” said Christophe Tulou, director of the DC Department of the Environment.
Why is that significant?
Because it would be Tulou’s job to do the extra work to monitor, manage and enforce the new pesticide law if it passes.
Most government officials we’ve met in the past have voted against extra hours, tasks and procedures.
Both Cheh and Tulou are saying loudly and clearly: Bring it on.
Christophe Tulou welcomed the challenge of pesticide reduction in the District of Columbia.