Cover Story

Image: Joan Conrow

Herbicides are more than just a headache for Hawai‘i residents


Cover image for Jul 8, 2009

Diane Koerner travels with an oxygen tank in the trunk of her car, all the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on recirculate. The Big Island resident, who suffers from severe Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, takes such precautions because smelling the herbicide Roundup can leave her with a debilitating migraine. And given that chemicals are used to suppress vegetation along nearly every mile of roadway in the Islands, an unpleasant chance encounter is not an unlikely risk.

Koerner is not alone. Other persons with MCS have reported experiencing dizziness, brain fog, asthma attacks or neurological problems that make it difficult to walk and talk after exposure to roadside herbicides. And even those who haven’t been diagnosed with MCS complain of headaches and flu-like symptoms after traveling in areas that have been sprayed. Still others worry about the impact of weed-suppression chemicals on children, pets and the environment.

“There you are, walking your baby, thinking you’re getting healthy walking, or riding your bike, or riding in the back of a pick-up truck, and you didn’t even know you were being poisoned unless you got home and had a headache,” said Caren Diamond, a North Shore Kauai resident who has been active for nearly two decades in efforts to halt the use of herbicides along public roads.

Such initiatives have met with very limited success, largely because state and county highway maintenance officials maintain that herbicides are too useful to abandon outright.

“It’s a matter of safety and economy and practicality,” said Jiro Sumada, deputy director of highways for the state Department of Transportation. “Those things are considered in which type of equipment we use and vegetation control we use. There’s a whole array of factors we consider. It’s also based on the availability of manpower.”

Christina Pilkington is the Kauai coordinator for the Americans With Disabilities Act. When she began receiving calls from persons with MCS who complained of suffering ill effects from herbicides used on roadways and parks, she began exploring ways the state and county could address their concerns.

“We were wondering why we were using herbicides at all,” Pilkington said. “The bottom line was manpower. It took less time than getting guys out there weed-whacking.”

That wasn’t the only obstacle she encountered.

A quiet policy

“There was also a big issue with the chemical company–Monsanto,” Pilkington said. “At one meeting, their rep said, ‘Roundup is so safe you can drink it.’ Well, I offered everyone a cup of Roundup who thought it was so safe to drink: We’ll watch you drink it first. That didn’t happen, of course.”

Pilkington said she also ran into some deep-rooted resistance to change.

“People would say, ‘I grew up in plantation days. We used to follow the poison trucks and play in the spray and they were using stuff stronger than Roundup and we’re still thriving.’ That’s the kind of attitude we got in the beginning. People were used to doing things a certain way and not seeing the negative effects. And people who were complaining weren’t necessarily from Kauai, so that got a little sticky.”

But Pilkington said the turning point came when the asthmatic son of a county worker — “someone who had lived here a long time, a local woman” — suffered an adverse reaction to chemicals that had been sprayed in a ballpark. “That kind of drove it home.”

Ultimately, Pilkington said, the county eliminated the use of herbicides in some East Kauai parks and developed a policy that called for posting warning signs 24 hours prior to spraying along roads. However, she acknowledged that approach isn’t always effective because maintenance plans are often affected by weather, and so the signs may not accurately reflect the situation.

Further, while Sumada said the state posts roadside signs prior to as well as during spraying, each county takes a different approach.

Maui County posts signs right before its crews begin roadside spraying, but not in advance, said transportation division chief Brian Hashiro.

The City and County of Honolulu does not post warning signs to identify herbicide usage and Honolulu officials describe herbicides Rodeo and Roundup as “basic,” and “over the counter” solutions for overgrowth control.

“The herbicide is mixed with water as recommended by the manufacturer and applied in accordance with the directions on the container,” wrote Facility Maintenance Department Director Jeoffrey Cudiamat in a statement. “Use of herbicides has in the past been halted and overgrowth control methods modified if complaints are received.”

The Big Island used to put up advance notice signs “because some of the residents had requested it,” said Stanley Nakasone, highways division chief for Hawaii County. “When they see you spraying, they want to know what you’re spraying.”

But the county did away with that practice because “the signs got stolen and you can travel long distances on our highways, so putting up the signs took up a lot of time,” he said. Instead, it posts a sign on the spray truck.

Koerner said her name is on a list of persons who are called when roadside spraying is planned so she can adjust her travel plans accordingly. “But a lot of times in the Islands, there is no alternate route,” she said. “So then I just don’t go out.”

Pilkington said she advocated for an extensive pesticide notification program that went beyond roadside spraying.

“What I really wanted was a state-county hotline, a number workers and yard people could call and say, ‘I’m going to spray today at such and such a place and anybody with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity could call that hotline and find out who was gonna spray,” she said. “But no one liked that idea.”

She was effective, however, in getting Kauai County to review the list of chemicals it was using, and it subsequently stopped using all those that were restricted — a designation assigned to pesticides that pose a relatively higher hazard to humans and the environment.

A similar approach was adopted on the Big Island.

A vast Roundup

“When this issue came up, we did a lot of research,” Nakasone said. “We went to the mainland to see what they were doing there. We studied it to see how we could accomplish our responsibility and also protect the environment. We used to use over 30 chemicals and now we’re down to one.”

That one is Roundup, the most ubiquitous herbicide in Hawaii’s roadside maintenance programs.

“We felt that for environmental safety and everyone’s safety, including our employees, we want to use as little possible, and we found we can get away with a 1 percent solution,” Nakasone said.

But even a 1 percent solution doesn’t sit well with herbicide opponents, especially when it’s sprayed along roadways frequented by pedestrians and bicyclists, and those that cross streams.

Diamond recounted one troubling instance of following a spray vehicle on the road when a family member was riding in the back of her pickup truck.

“An immense amount of spray was coming out,” Diamond said. “It wasn’t little droplets close to the ground like they claim. They do the spraying in sections, so if you’re driving every day, every day you’re exposed to it. Roundup is used like water. It’s so prevalent here.”

Pilkington said she was surprised to learn how extensively herbicides are applied in the Islands–and not just to roadsides.

“When we really started looking into it, we realized, oh my goodness, if you’re looking at a well-kept, well-groomed area in front of a hotel or a bank or anywhere, you’re probably looking at the use of herbicides,” she said.

Still, Pilkington said, she understands that there are two sides to the debate. “One side is really vulnerable because they can be greatly affected and injured by exposure. And on the other side, it’s really hard to convince people who aren’t fazed by it, especially when experts have told them it’s safe.”

Koerner agreed. “It’s a very volatile issue. A lot of people have bought into the safety of Roundup. I think the county and state workers are doing the best they can with their budgets. But it’s not the cheapest in the long run if you consider what you’re spending on health care. In the long run, the cost to society of using this is outrageous. I think in 10 years we’ll look back and say, ‘what were we thinking?’”

The state Legislature did pass a bill in 1995 recommending a 50 percent reduction in herbicide use on state highways, public notification of spraying and the use of non-chemical methods wherever possible, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Ben Cayetano.

Subsequent attempts to address the issue legislatively also have failed, Diamond said. “Getting through the pesticide lobby here, well, it’s the same guys as the GMO [genetically modified organisms] guys. One said I had an unhealthy paranoia. But paranoia is an unreasonable fear, and these fears are quite real.”

The Monsanto Web site maintains that Roundup and other agricultural products containing glyphosate “can be used as part of an environmentally responsible weed control program and fit with the vision of sustainable agriculture and environmental protection.” But Diamond pointed to a recent study conducted by the University of Buenos Aires medical school that linked glyphosate to malformations in amphibian embryos.

Canada’s largest agricultural newspaper, The Western Producer, also reported recently that glyphosate can linger in the soil, and the Danish government banned the use of Roundup after it was found to have polluted groundwater.

“The attitude is, it hasn’t hurt us,” Pilkington said. “Well, maybe no, maybe yes, but hard to say. We’re getting more cases of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and it happens from overexposure [to chemicals]. We don’t always know at what level it will be triggered.”

A better path?

“I think there should be no roadside spraying, period,” Diamond said. “There are other alternatives. Some of the most successful trials now are done with goats. You can move them around and hire people to manage your goats.”

Diamond and Koerner said other options for vegetation suppression include burning, spraying salt water or vinegar, laying down weed cloth and landscaping.

“All these years you’ve been poisoning and poisoning and poisoning, and you still have the problem,” Diamond said. “If they would have addressed it with landscaping, the problem would’ve been solved already.”

Nakasone, however, said the Big Island did field trials to determine the efficacy of burning, salt water and a citrus peel extract. The effects of burning and applying salt water lasted only a short time, he said, “and the grass came back greener than ever. The citrus peel didn’t work. There are other chemical products that will kill weeds for a long time, but the residue stays in the soil and we didn’t want to do that.”

Ryan Nishikawa, chief of field operations and maintenance for Kauai County, said crews do mow along many roadsides, “but with the guinea grass, we just couldn’t keep up. We would need to use herbicides. Otherwise we’d be out there mowing all the time.”

Residents living on the neighbor islands can usually opt out of state and county roadside spraying programs if they agree to maintain the frontage areas themselves, and Koerner said her neighborhood association in Kapoho has chosen to assume that responsibility. Very few have opted out on Maui, Hashiro said, “because it’s too much work.”

On Kauai, Nishikawa said, “normally there has to be a pretty good reason for it.” The county has agreed not to spray in some agricultural areas, he said, “because it wouldn’t look good if we’re on the road spraying where there’s organic farms.”

The prevailing concern for government seems to be liability, whether it’s a landowner getting hurt while maintaining a roadside area, or a motorist or pedestrian getting hurt due to overgrown vegetation.

Still, there’s some leeway even there. Sumada said that on Kauai’s scenic North Shore, the state agreed to stop spraying west of the Hanalei Dolphin–Diamond argues the boundary is the Hanalei Bridge–so long as residents kept the narrow, scenic roadside maintained. Diamond said one retired man does the work single-handedly.

“In being respectful to the community’s concerns, we have adapted how we do things, and that’s one of them,” Sumada said.

The state also has been looking into other methods to reduce its use of herbicides, including a program with Hawaii Correctional Industries in which inmates are paid 50 cents per hour to weed whack and mow. The state also picks up the tab for supervisors and equipment maintenance.

Sumada said five such crews, involving 35 inmates, already have been put to work on Oahu, where he said the arrangement “is working great.” Ray McCormick, state district engineer on Kauai, said he is considering a similar pilot program to both assist inmates on that island and his own small road crew.

“We have 220 lane-miles, and that’s a lot of guardrails,” he said. “Keeping up with them is really tough.”

Koerner welcomed that initiative. “It’s important to take whatever steps you can forward. We’re all working toward the same goal: beautiful, scenic roadsides that don’t look dead and nuked.”

Pilkington agreed. “Any effort we make to make our planet, our island, our wherever we are a safer place to live is good effort made and will help us.”