Daily News Archive

Fear of Pesticides Wafting Over Texas
(Beyond Pesticides, May 22, 2003)
Plumes of smoke that could contain poisonous pesticides amassed in the skies above Houston last week, according to the Houston Chronicle. The smoke, suspected to be from burning fields and rainforests in Mexico and Central America, has appeared in years past as well. Although the smoke that emerged last week has not been tested for pesticide presence, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) tested the smoke in May 1998 and detected trace amounts of toxic pesticides, some of which are banned for use in the United States.

The 1998 research identified nine different pesticides after sampling air in five Texas cities, including Edinburg, Galveston and Austin. DDE, a derivative of DDT, which was banned in the U.S. in 1972, was detected along with three other chemicals that were cancelled in the U.S., including dieldrin, endrin and heptachlor. In addition, lindane and endosulfan were found, both of which are severely restricted for use in the States. Terry Wade, deputy director for environmental sciences at Texas A&M University's Geochemical and Environmental Research Group, noted that the lindane samples contained an impurity characteristic to chemicals in the Third World, suggesting the transport of these chemicals from far away. Wade adds, "We find these pesticides in beluga whales in the Arctic."

Many developing nations still use or have only recently stopped use of extremely toxic chemicals which the U.S. has deemed unsafe to use within its own borders. The U.S. ban does not mean that these chemicals are not manufactured in the U.S. or do not find their way into the country. Workers in Mexico burning fields that have been saturated with insecticides and herbicides stir up a toxic mixture that travels into the atmosphere and is carried by winds. TCEQ spokeswoman Adria Dawidczik commented, "We are pretty much at the mercy of Mother Nature on this. We can't tell another government how to take care of its agriculture. It's just part of global air pollution. This is the same thing as us getting dust from the Sahara Desert."

The smoke prompted a Level Orange health warning issued by Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services, stating the outdoor air is unhealthy for those with asthma and heart and lung conditions. The elderly, children and pregnant women were also told to exercise caution. On Saturday May 17, smoke levels reached Level Red, "Unhealthy," over parts of South Texas. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission is tracking the smoke forecast.