Birth defects are on the rise in Hawaii, leaving many to wonder if pesticides are to blame – including some pediatricians who are witnessing a spike in birth defects in babies.

In the town of Waimea, pediatrician Carla Nelson has seen at least 9 severe heart malformations in babies in the last five years, 10 times more than the national average. For the past three years, Nelson and other local doctors have found themselves at the center of a controversy over whether a cash crop of GM corn modified to withstand pesticides on four of the six main islands is the cause of an economic boom, or the source of the birth defects and illnesses. [1]

Hawaiians have attempted four times to rein in GMO manufacturers over the past two years, to no avail. On August 9, 10,000 people marched through Honolulu’s Waikiki tourist district, some of them holdings signs reading, “We Deserve the Right to Know: Stop Poisoning Paradise” and “Save Hawaii – Stop GMOs.” [1]

“The turnout and the number of groups marching showed how many people are very frustrated with the situation,” says native Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte of the island of Molokai.

The small town of Waimea is home to about 200 people who work full-time for the four giant chemical companies that grow the GM corn on 12,000 leased acres. All of the crops are exported. Chemical companies Dow, Syngenta, and DuPont spray 17 times more pesticides per acre (primarily herbicides, along with pesticides and fungicides) than on ordinary cornfields on the U.S. mainland, the Center for Food Safety noted in a detailed study of the sector.

The companies are precisely testing the strain’s resistance to herbicides that kill other plants. About a fourth of the chemicals are called Restricted Use Pesticides because they are so harmful. About 18 tons of the pesticides – mostly atrazine, paraquat (both banned in Europe) and chlorpyrifos – were applied in 2012 in Kauai alone. This year, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate, sold as Roundup, as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The cornfields lie above Waimea. One section is reddish-brown and perfectly furrowed. Another section is bright green, which is when the corn is actually grown. Every couple of days, both parts of sprayed. Even when the fields have been harvested clean and are awaiting the next crop, they are still sprayed with pesticides to keep anything from growing. That’s because the soil needs to be essentially sterile in order to seed or test crops. Locals often complain of stinging eyes, headaches and vomiting when the wind blows the chemicals in their direction.

“Your eyes and lungs hurt, you feel dizzy and nauseous. It’s awful,” says middle school special education teacher Howard Hurst, who was present at two evacuations. “Here, 10 percent of the students get special-ed services, but the state average is 6.3% percent” he says. “It’s hard to think the pesticides don’t play a role.”

During spraying times, the town’s main hospital – which was run until recently by Dow’s AgroSciences’ former chief lobbyist in Honolulu – is filled with residents physically affected by the pesticides. The facility lies beside the middle school, which are both 1,700 feet from Syngenta fields. The hospital has never studied the effects of the pesticides on its patients.

The chemical companies that grow the corn refuse to disclose which chemicals they use, where or in what amounts. They insist the chemicals are safe, and are backed by local and state politicians.

As for the birth defects spike, “We have not seen any credible source of statistical health information to support the claims,” said Bennette Misalucha, executive director of Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, the chemical companies trade association, in a written statement distributed by a publicist. She declined to be interviewed by The Guardian.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said in a report that it had found “an association between pesticides and adverse birth outcomes, including physical birth defects,” Nelson points out. She says that doctors need to be notified before spraying occurs, noting: “It’s hard to treat a child when you don’t know which chemical he’s been exposed to.” Local schools have been evacuated twice and children sent to the hospital due to pesticide drift.

Nelson is not the only pediatrician to notice a spike in in birth defects in Hawaii. Sidney Johnson, a pediatric surgeon at the Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children who oversees all children born in Hawaii with major birth defects and operates on many, says he has noticed that the number of babies born there with their abdominal organs on the outside, a rare condition known as gastroschisis, has increased from three a year in the 1980s to about a dozen now.

Because Hawaii is known for its clean air and water, Johnson and a medical student are working on a study of his hospital records to determine whether the parents of the gastroschisis infants were living near fields that were being sprayed around the time of conception and early pregnancy. He told The Guardian he plans to extend the study to parents of babies suffering from heart defects.

“You kind of wonder why this wasn’t done before,” he says. “Data from other states show there might be a link, and Hawaii might be the best place to prove it.”

Two other physicians are also investigating the potential link, but local residents in Waimea don’t trust the researchers. They’re both members of a state-county commission appointed this year to “determine if there are human harms coming from these pesticides.” The panel of nine part-time volunteers also includes two scientists from the chemical companies and several of their critics. The group won’t be doing any original research – it will merely gather information and make recommendations.

In the last three years, the Joint Fact-Finding Study Group on Genetically Modified Crops and Pesticides on Kauaʻi panel is the only success story angry locals can claim. In 11 other states, companies must disclose what they spray and create buffer zones where crops receive far less chemicals per acre. Prior attempts at legislating chemical companies’ spraying have been watered down so much they became laughable.

In one instance, a group of Maui County residents calling themselves the Shaka Movement launched a ballot initiative that called for a moratorium on all GMO farming until a full environmental impact statement could be completed there. Monsanto and other companies spent $7.2 million on what was reported to be the most expensive political campaign in Hawaii history and lost.

The companies sued in court and a judge ruled that the Maui County initiative was preempted by federal law. The ruling is being appealed.

This article originally appeared at Natural Society.


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