Has the government sprayed poisons on your route home today?

When you drive home today, will you be putting your health at risk?

That is the question Beyond Toxics put to the Director of Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) yesterday in a one-on-one meeting. Dr. Tom Kerns, one of our board members, and I sat down with Matt Garrett to discuss our recently released report “Assessing Environmental Impact Quotients for Pesticide Use on State Highways in Lane County” and get his response to the report’s recommendations.

In that report, we expose three main things:

1. ODOT has never before measured the environmental impact of their use of herbicides to manage roadside weeds. Our report was written to provide them a model to do so. (After all, if a tiny, hard working non-profit could do such a helpful analysis, why can’t one of the state’s largest agencies?)

2. The greatest health risk to exposure to pesticides on any of the highways in Lane County occurs on the Randy Papé Beltway (formerly known in Eugene as Beltline Highway). This very short stretch of highway in the middle of Eugene has as much as five times greater magnitude of environmental health harm that any other highway in Lane County.

3. ODOT’s herbicides spray program directs their employees to spray dangerous, probable carcinogens and endocrine disruptors many times, every year, along highways that are directly next to bike paths, apartment buildings, homes, schools, bus stops, churches and businesses, not to mention the rivers, wetlands and rare native salmon habitat. We, the public, need ODOT to consider ways to reduce or eliminate the resulting harm for people, pets, animals, and fish.

Case in point … Garrett was interested, engaging and polite as we talked. But as the subject progressed to specific recommendations – such as does ODOT have a policy not to spray pesticides next to schools and school bus stops? – he balked. He hemmed and hawed. Then he insisted that ODOT may not need a policy because his employees were “people who use and live along highways too, so they would naturally be careful about using pesticides.”

Not so, I told him! Employees do as they are told. ODOT employees are told to spray pesticides, and a lot of them. I reminded him that there has been no direction from the person at the top – from the Director’s office – to prioritize environmental protection, to reduce pesticides, to protect people while carrying out ODOT activities. Other state DOT’s such as Washington have implemented strong and effective policies to protect the environment, and they aren’t afraid to promote the value of reducing pesticides.

Dr. Kerns and I pressed harder. We know our science and we know about the right to clean air and water. We work hard to educate about the rights of children to special protections from chemical trespass.

We argued that the research clearly shows that children are especially vulnerable to being poisoned by pesticides. Their nervous system and reproductive organs are more susceptible to neurotoxicity.


Mr. Garrett agreed to look into whether or not ODOT has a policy to establish buffer zones of safety from pesticide harm around schools and school bus stops.

I urge you, the person reading this post, to consider protecting children from pesticides as a dire problem and critical to accomplish. And, our proposed solution for ODOT, to measure and institute reductions and alternatives pesticides everywhere, is imperative because ODOT is the largest single user of pesticides in the State system.

If we are to begin a paradigm shift to reduce harm and protect the environment, we must start with a commitment to protect the healthy development of children. There shouldn’t be any “if”s, “and’s,” or “but’s” when it comes to protecting Oregon’s kids from exposure to chemicals that can make them sick or kill them ODOT must lead the way by eliminating pesticides anywhere near where children hang out is absolutely non-trivial. It is essential and effective action.

We are waiting to hear back from Mr. Garrett about when ODOT will make the right decision to protect school children from pesticides on their way to and from school.

Meeting notes from a meeting with Mr. Garrett (PDF file)

Our new report assesses the environmental impact of pesticides on five state highways

A new report, released in late August, provides Oregonians with an assessment of the environmental impact of pesticides on five state highways.

Eugene, OR, August 30, 2011: A new environmental health report for pesticide use on state highways in Lane County uses mathematical formulas to assess the overall and average health impacts of chemicals used to control weeds. The data-driven assessment indicates a relationship between pesticide uses on state highways and human health. The report, prepared by Oregon Toxics Alliance, measures and compares pesticide application trends across Highways 36, 58, 126-W, 126-E and OR 569 (the Randy Papé Beltway) and provides recommendations to the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to reduce risks to people and the environment.

OTA is currently working together with ODOT to manage parts of Highway 36 without the use of pesticides. The Alliance also works with communities throughout the state to find practical ways to reduce pesticides.

According to the report, the greatest negative environmental health impact from pesticide use occurs on the Randy Papé Beltway (also called OR 569 or Beltline Highway), a commuter route serving heavily populated sections of the Eugene metro area.

The report was written in response to Oregonians’ concerns about health risks from pesticide drift and run-off,” says Arkin. “We get complaints from people who get sick from breathing in pesticide vapors from the practice of using pesticides to kill weeds along the edges of highways.

This is the first prospective study that shows data-driven input useful for the development of balanced, rational policies that reduce the risks of pesticide use while providing practical solutions along with environmental protection strategies. The report also references a Human Rights Assessment for pesticides on public highways that was commissioned by the Alliance.

View a copy of the report

Register Guard’s editorial on Measuring sprays’ effects: Scoring herbicides’ impacts provides useful tool. You can view the actual copy of the scanned newspaper article here. (9/6/2011)