For the Birds Radio Program: New Year's Resolution

Original Air Date: Jan. 8, 2003

The bad news: so many pesticides in use led Laura to a New Years Resolution. The good news: chickadees!

Duration: 5′41″


When I woke up on January 1, the first bird of the New Year was a Black-capped Chickadee, which seemed a happy and auspicious sign of hope. I needed that—the day before, I’d read a report published by the American Bird Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation titled A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Global Warming, which talks about predicted and already observed shifts in species ranges and migration patterns. I’m also trying to work out a strategy for requiring lawn care companies to need documented evidence of insect damage before applying insecticides in their lawn applications. Weed killers over every square inch of lawn are bad enough, but why add insecticides, which kill birds and beneficial insects and endanger pets and humans when few lawns have insect pests? That was weighing on my mind, because I’d made a New Year’s Resolution to do something about all those pesticides.

I saw a few birds for my new year list at my mother-in-law’s in Port Wing that day, and tried to stop worrying, despite all the Say No to War in Iraq signs reminding me of frightening possibilities looming for the whole planet. But then I started reading newspapers, and read a report that the January 2, 2003 issue of Nature has a paper about the changes global is already having on the ranges and migration of species throughout the world. The studies were put together by researchers at the University of Texas, Wesleyan, Stanford and elsewhere, and their conclusions are very gloomy. And I read another article about the new federal plan to replace wetlands. The National Academy of Science has come out against it, but the Bush administration claims that “regulators may find that ‘it’s a numerical loss, but it’s an ecological gain.’”

Then I read a news report that in December, a Nicaraguan judge ordered three U.S. companies, Dow Chemical, Shell Oil Company and Standard Fruit (which is the Dole Food Company in the U.S.), to pay 490 million US dollars in compensation to 583 banana workers injured by Nemagon, an extremely toxic soil fumigant that has sterilized thousands of Central American banana workers. The pesticide, used to control burrowing rootworms or nematodes, is also known to cause impotence, depression and is suspected in increased rates of stomach cancer. Nemagon’s active ingredient is dibromochloropropane or DBCP, formerly classified “extremely hazardous” and now classified “obsolete or discontinued” by the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

The nematicide was first produced in the late 1950’s by Dow and Shell, which conducted toxicity tests before U.S. registration. Those early tests revealed that DBCP reduced sperm counts and atrophied testicles of rabbits and monkeys: however, neither Dow nor Shell revealed that information to government regulators. In 1964, the U.S. government approved DBCP for commercial use, and the companies proceeded to market the pesticide but did not divulge its full toxicity or recommend protective clothing. In 1977, workers and their union at a formulating plant in Occidental, California, identified the first human sterility cases linked to DBCP. The product was banned in the U.S. after the California cases became public, but exports of DBCP continued. Two of the three major banana-producing companies in Central America switched to other, more expensive nematicides in 1977, but Dole continued using Nemagon. A similar lawsuit was started in the early 1990s, when more than 16,000 banana plantation workers from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Philippines filed a class-action lawsuit in Texas against a number of U.S. fruit and chemical companies asking for compensation for permanent sterility linked to DBCP exposure. In 1997, the four chemical corporations that produced DBCP–Amvac, Dow, Occidental and Shell–agreed to pay US$41.5 million in an out-of court settlement that resulted in relatively small payments to affected workers. The case against the banana plantation owners, Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte, is ongoing.

So that led me to make another New Year’s Resolution, to stop eating any but organic bananas. I love feeling hopeful at the start of a New Year. I’m glad the chickadees give me something to be happy about.