Healing Our World: They Just Donít Seem to Get It

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

They Just Donít Seem to Get It

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion

-- Thich Nhat Hanh

The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), in a move that threatens public safety and continues archaic pest control practices, plans to spray three sites in the state with the insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki (Btk).

The spraying is directed at the Gypsy moth, an introduced insect whose caterpillar form eats the leaves from many trees.


Caterpillar form of a gypsy moth (Photo courtesy Forestry Sciences Laboratory)
Aerial spraying from helicopters is planned for a 725-acre site (about one square mile) in the communities of Ballard and Magnolia in Seattle. You might assume that this drastic measure is in response to finding thousands of moths in that area, but the reality is that one moth was found there in the summer of 1999. Only 42 were found in the entire state of Washington during that summer.

Pesticide manufacturers will tell you that Btk is safe. In fact, it is approved for use for over 200 food and fiber crops. It is even approved for use by organic farmers.

But Bt may not be all that benign. In 1998, French doctors discovered that a sub-type of the Bt bacterium caused a serious infection in a soldier wounded in Bosnia. A microbiologist in a military hospital near Paris looked into the matter further, injecting the bacterium into mice with weakened immune systems. He found that the bacterium began destroying the walls of the blood cells.

Ecogen Inc, the U.S. company that markets some Bt sprays, insisted that they are safe because the bacteria are not exposed to blood. I guess they never heard of anyone getting a cut.

Chemical companies claim that there are no harmful affects from ingesting Btk since the bacteria are rendered harmless by stomach acid. However, Canadian doctors, scientists, and health professionals have expressed concern about possible long-term toxic or other adverse effects on individuals with low stomach acidity, such as the elderly, or individuals using antacid medications.

Btk kills by disrupting the critical balances in the insectsí stomachs. Soon the insects stop eating and starve to death.

There have been many reports of human toxicity from exposure to Btk. Here are a few. Documentation for all these cases can be found at http://www.rage.org.nz/bt-science.html.

Many health effects of Btk spraying probably go unreported, since many doctors are unaware of the connection between the bacteria and illness.


Using a pin inoculator, technician Ashaki Shropshire can simultaneously test 32 separate Bacillus thuringiensis isolates. (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)
Btk is approved for use on more than 200 food and grain crops in the United States. Health Canada has approved the formulation and registered Foray 48B for use in agriculture, forestry, and urban applications.

The communities of Ballard and Magnolia in Seattle have a high percentage of senior residents and children, people who often show higher than usual sensitivities to chemical products and insecticides.

Representatives of the WSDA held an informational session on February 16 in the Ballard High School Library in Seattle. Sadly, it was not a session that allowed interaction with the community and the WSDA made no attempt to solicit local concerns by means of legally mandated public comments.

The gathering had more the feel of a trade show where a company tries to sell its product. WSDA representatives, wearing no identifying name tags or uniforms, mingled among the crowd talking like sales people about the safety of the spraying. All the concerns being voiced by the confused and concerned residents were brushed off and minimized.

The WSDA representatives refused to acknowledge that when pesticides are sprayed from the air, only five or 10 percent of the material ever reaches its target. The rest drifts as much as 12 miles from the target site.

When I asked a representative when the formal public comment period was and where I could send comments, he became instantly quiet, unable to speak for nearly a minute. He then pointed to a colleague who, when questioned, could not answer my questions. "We will be sending out the required notices," he said. There was not one piece of literature or poster that solicited public comment. The spraying was being presented as if was a done deal.

To make matters worse, the helicopters will not be spraying pure Btk. They will be spraying a chemical known as Foray 48B. In addition to containing the Btk bacteria, Foray 48B contains a host of ingredients the manufacturer calls "inert." Most of these ingredients are considered trade secrets and do not have to be divulged, even though Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer of Foray 48B, admits that people with existing allergies to some of the ingredients could be affected.

A memo from Novo Nordisk, the manufacturer of Foray 48B, cited in a 1994 paper by Carrie Swadener, Ecological Agriculture Projects, McGill University, addresses the issue of allergies. It states that the amount of the spray a person would be exposed to would be too small to develop new allergies. However, "It is possible that someone that already has developed an allergy to one of the components of Foray 48B or has asthma...could be affected by exposure to small quantities of Foray 48B," Novo Nordisk wrote.


Aerial spraying of pesticides by helicopter (Photo courtesy Northern Mountain Helicopters)
Foray 48B may contain as "inert" ingredients substances that can cause health problems in some people.

They include sodium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and phosphoric acid (Novo Nordisk. Undated. Foray 48B Inert Ingredients. Danbury, CT.), methyl paraben (Hutton, P. Product Manager, Insecticide-Rodenticide Branch, Registration Division. U.S. EPA. Date unreadable. Letter to J. Overholt, Novo Nordisk Re: Label Changes for Foray 48B.) and potassium phosphate (Bell, J. Asian Gypsy Moth Project Team. Government of Canada. 1992. Memorandum to Mr. Edwards, Asian Gypsy Moth Project Team. Re: Contents of Foray 48B).

Evidence exists that there are considerable ecological implications of Btk spraying. Many beneficial insects are affected and birds that consume those insects can be harmed as well.

Agriculture and timber industries, the primary proponents of this spraying, cannot be allowed to rule the land. We cannot allow even the slightest hint of adverse health effects from the application of Btk to be ignored nor can we allow the people in the path of the spraying to be considered incidental to the protection of the products below.

The health of the web of life must be our first consideration, not the health of the web of business.

I am much more afraid of the actions of the frightened businessperson and overconfident biologist than I am of the one moth found in the Ballard/Magnolia area last summer.

The moth, at least, is behaving rationally.

[The preceding commentary reflects the personal views of the author and do not represent the opinions of the City of Seattle, the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation or Discovery Park.]


1. A very thorough discussion of the various aspects of Btk can be found at a New Zealand activist website at http://www.rage.org.nz/bt-science.html and in the Journal of Pesticide Reform at http://eap.mcgill.ca/MagRack/JPR/JPR_22.htm

2. Read about the protests to Btk spraying on Vancouver Island in another Environment News Service article at http://www.ens.lycos.com/ens/may99/1999L-05-21-04.html

3. Even if this has not affected your community yet, it is only a matter of time before it does. Please join the residents of Seattle in protesting this spraying.

4. Find out who your elected representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them this has to stop. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html or you can search by state at http://www.webslingerz.com/jhoffman/congress-email.html. You can also find your representatives at http://congress.nw.dc.us/innovate/index.html

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and the Environmental Education Programs Manger and the Manager of Discovery Park for the City of Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. He can be found in his new home in Seattle which is located in the Btk target area, wondering what to do when the helicopters come. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his web site at www.healingourworld.com}