More than two decades ago, Ruth Berlin had a life-changing experience, and not in a good way. While living in Los Angeles, her son, then 4, went into anaphylactic shock. She also became gravely ill. Suddenly, Berlin, a psychotherapist, was too dizzy to stand, chronically exhausted, and was unable to remember details.
They weren’t the only ones. Many residents of Los Angeles reported similar symptoms that summer. The common link, it turned out, was Malathion, a pesticide that the state had been spraying to eradicate a fruit fly that was killing crops in California’s verdant central valley.
Thus began a lifelong fight for her health, and a battle to inform the public on when and where pesticides are being used, which ones are being used and what is actually in them.
Berlin and her family moved to Annapolis, and she continued her fight. In the mid-1990s, she founded the Maryland Pesticide Network, a coalition of organic farmers, nurses, doctors and environmentalists concerned about the human health effects of pesticides.
In 1998, she helped pass a law mandating integrated pest management in elementary schools, meaning that eradicating pests was not just about spraying but also using nonchemical pest prevention. The law also requires school districts to notify parents and staff 24 hours before pesticides are sprayed. The next year, she helped pass a law that notified parents and staff of outdoor spraying. She also pressured the city of Annapolis to use a less toxic product than Malathion, and the state to make it easier for individual properties to opt out of spraying.
Berlin has been less successful in her latest push: to create a database of all the chemicals being sprayed in Maryland and where and when they are being sprayed.
Currently, farmers are required to record what pesticides they spray and when they spray them. The EPA regulates the pesticides. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has access to the information, but the public does not. The department has conducted several voluntary surveys of pesticide use, but Berlin said these don’t give a complete picture of what’s being sprayed.
The pesticide database bill was not voted on in 2009, 2010 or 2011. In 2012, legislators voted it down. In 2013, thanks to a major campaign from local moms groups, health care providers and public health advocates, the Maryland legislature passed a bill that set up a workgroup to establish whether a database was needed and what would be the best format for it.
Berlin is hoping that 2014 will be the year that Maryland passes a pesticide database like the one in California, which is the nation’s most comprehensive.
“Pesticides are an issue — for the Bay, for public health and for bees. I don’t think there’s much disagreement that we need more data on the problems associated with them,” Berlin said. “I’m feeling confident that something will come out of this workgroup.”
But the industry groups that have been fighting Berlin’s efforts the last six years are not backing down. The pesticide industry, the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Farm Bureau oppose this bill. And Valerie Connelly, the farm bureau’s director of government relations, said her members want the bureau to vigorously oppose the bill.
“It’s economically unfeasible,” Connelly said. “California can do it because they have the bureaucracy set up — with a huge tax and a staff of people entering the data. We don’t have the wherewithal to do that here in Maryland.”
While it’s true farmers already record the data, Connelly said, most of them keep it on an index card that they can take into the fields. Having to enter the data into a computer adds a time-consuming duty during an already busy season.
Connelly said farmers are also worried that manufacturers won’t want to bother registering products that don’t sell well in Maryland. That could affect crops like blueberries, which have a short growing season but require a pesticide to protect them from worms. Blueberries are a popular crop both as a health food and as a pick-your-own crop.
There are also privacy issues. Connelly said farmers compete and they don’t want to share with each other what, and how much, they are spraying. She also said farmers are afraid of activist groups poring through a database and filing “frivolous” lawsuits against farmers for spraying pesticides that the public may perceive to be a danger but are legal to spray.
“These products are reviewed at the federal level. There are thousands of studies done on their safety. And this happens at the EPA. Are we saying we don’t trust the EPA now?” Connelly asked.
But because Berlin’s group had so much traction last year, Connelly brought members of the House’s Environmental Matters Committee to a Cecil County orchard this fall so they could see what the farmer would endure should the database bill pass.
“This time of year, farmers work around the clock. For him to put in the information is a huge imposition. He told them it would be impossible for him,” Connelly said.
Berlin said she’s heard the criticisms that her real goal is to ban pesticides, but insists it is not. She also recognizes that the bill won’t go all the way toward informing the public; it won’t require individual homeowners to submit reports, though it will require their lawn-care companies to do so.
Toxics are an emerging issue in Chesapeake Bay health. Researchers are investigating the effects of atrazine, a common pesticide, on intersex fish. Berlin said her group is hoping to push the Chesapeake Bay Program to put a greater emphasis on toxins and pesticides as the program continues its efforts to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.
With a broad coalition on her side, Berlin hopes that the database will finally go forward next year. Nearly 24 years after her own exposure, she said, she still feels the ill health effects.
“It’s just so scary, and we’ve been personally impacted, and someone needs to do something,” she said. “It’s not about banning pesticides, though it may mean banning some. It’s really about having the information you need to figure out what is going on.”