SOUNDOFF: Highway spray may hurt kids

Residents of Whidbey Island should be aware that herbicides continue to be sprayed along Highway 525 several times each year. In the spring of 2002, Island County stopped spraying herbicides along its 583 miles of roadsides. However, because the state maintains Highway 525, there continues to be spraying along 51 out of 53 miles of roads between Deception Pass to the Clinton Ferry. Unfortunately, these chemicals do not simply stay along the side of the road. They move into the air and water, and they are absorbed by plants, animals and humans.

Given that children are more susceptible to chemical exposures than adults, we need to take special care to ensure they are protected. Children breathe, eat and drink more pound-per-pound than adults. They crawl on the floor where pesticide residues settle from the air and they may place contaminated objects in their mouths. In addition, their biological systems are still developing, meaning they have more at stake when they are exposed. For infants, children and babies in utero, exposure to certain chemicals may damage the nervous, immune, reproductive and endocrine systems in early stages of formation. In fact, research is showing that exposures during early years may result in life-long impairment or increased likelihood of disease and disability later in life.

It is in this context that we need to consider the question of whether or not we should employ chemical means to control roadside vegetation. Some would say that we should simply continue to use a chemical unless there is undeniable scientific proof of harm. However we must consider what we are risking when we do not take appropriate action in the face of scientific uncertainty. In the cases of lead and tobacco, we spent decades researching “proof of harm,” while children’s brains and lungs were being sorely impacted. Higher health care costs have resulted as these individuals are cared for in their adult years. In hindsight, lives could have been saved and a better quality of life for many could have been ensured had we acted sooner.

The medley of herbicides sprayed by the state includes known and probable human neurotoxicants, carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. Recent research suggests that their widespread use may be a significant reason we are seeing rising rates of learning and developmental disabilities, childhood cancers, birth defects and reproductive effects.

In this light, the common sense and precautionary approach would be use of the least harmful alternatives available. Mowing is such an alternative and is economically feasible based on the experience of no-spray counties throughout Washington state as well as British Columbia.

As the Washington State Department of Transportation discusses whether to continue spraying herbicides on Highway 525 this spring and holds a public discussion on the spray issue April 6 at Coupeville High School’s Performing Arts Center, we hope these concerns will be fully considered. We don’t need to wait for any more proof. The increased health of our children and the ecological health of our community are reasons enough to take precautionary action now.

Kristin Hoelting and Elise Miller, M.Ed. are with Institute for Children’s Environmental Health in Freeland.

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