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In Oregon, a conflict is brewing between timber companies and residents over a little-known practice: the widespread use of herbicides in private forestry. Companies have been spraying millions of pounds of herbicide on their forestland, prompting health concerns among local residents who say the chemicals are carried by the wind. Last year, 41 residents submitted their urine for laboratory testing, and the results were startling: Every person tested positive for the compound 2,4-D – made famous as an ingredient of Agent Orange – and for the chemical atrazine.
Reporter Ingrid Lobet: Western Oregon’s beautiful forests and fish-filled streams are known as a paradise for nature lovers. But this is also one of the finest timber-growing regions in the world.
With 30 million acres of forestland, Oregon’s timber industry generates $13 billion in sales each year. But in the town of Triangle Lake, some residents worry that timber industry practices are exposing people to harm.
Eron King: I want to see one of those again.
Reporter: Eron King and her family moved here six years ago. They bought a 1-acre farm, wanting to raise their kids close to the land.
King: When we found this place and were able to move in, we thought we had found it – this is it. This is where we are going to be the rest of our lives.
Reporter: King knew she was moving into a timber area, but there was something she didn’t realize.
King: I knew clear-cutting happened, but I didn’t know that the helicopter spray happened.
Reporter: This video, shot by King, shows the typical industry practice. After a clear cut, helicopters spray a potent mixture of herbicides to kill everything on the forest floor except Douglas fir seedlings. By eliminating plants that compete for sun and water, timber companies can grow the trees faster and harvest more frequently.
Residents like King complain that they are repeatedly exposed to potentially harmful chemicals through the air and, possibly, the water.
King: From up here on top of the ridge, what you can see is the big picture. They are spraying with helicopters – all these ridge tops. And so everything they are spraying up top eventually gets down to these residents.
Reporter: Concerned for her family, King says she tried to find out what exactly was being sprayed.
King: They give you this long laundry list of what they could spray that day, but it doesn’t tell you exactly what they are going to spray.
And just knowing exactly when they are going to spray would be incredibly helpful. That way, I could vacate my land completely, although I don’t feel I should have to. But I would love to get my kids out of here.
Reporter: There are a dozen different herbicides commonly sprayed on forests in Oregon, including suspected hormone disrupters like 2,4-D and atrazine.
This Oregon Department of Forestry map shows the extent of privately owned timberland, where herbicides are routinely sprayed by companies like Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Resources and Seneca Jones.
It’s a totally different story on national forests in the Northwest, where nearly all herbicide spraying has been banned since 1984. Back then, residents successfully challenged the use of herbicides, including Agent Orange.
Stu Turner is an expert on pesticide accidents. He’s told Triangle Lake residents the spraying being done in Oregon is not permitted in other states like Idaho.
Stu Turner: You can see this is a clear cut right here, where you can see the snow. And you look very closely here in the photo, you can see a spray helicopter. You can see one of the two rotors and you see the stream of spray that is falling behind the aircraft.
You can see the ground is frozen; it’s got snow on it. They’re putting pesticides on snow. When the snow melts, that herbicide that didn’t go onto a plant, that didn’t land on the ground, isn’t going to be bound up in the forest litter of the soil, and it’s going to go off in runoff.
Reporter: Turner also says that in Oregon’s mountainous terrain, helicopters spray herbicides from much higher elevations than in crop agriculture, and that means the chemicals are more likely to drift down to where people live.
Turner: They are playing with the most potent of our tools; they’re playing with them at the very highest rates allowable for any application. And they’re playing with them under the most challenging application conditions – and under worst-case scenario for product leaving the field.
Lisa Arkin (executive director of Beyond Toxics): All over the state, the phone calls are coming to our office from people who are worried about pesticide exposure, have already been harmed by pesticide exposure, have questions about how do you know if you’ve been exposed to pesticides.
Reporter: The timber companies declined our repeated invitations for interviews. They referred us instead to a trade group, Oregonians for Food and Shelter, where Terry Witt represented the industry for 25 years.
Terry Witt: Forest application of herbicides is done in accordance with the label and in accordance with all state laws, and so we believe that if it’s done responsibly and legally that it does not represent an unreasonable harm.
Reporter: Delivering the herbicides via helicopter, Witt says, is by far the best method.
Witt: It's a very economical way to apply a uniform rate of pesticides according to the label. In many cases, the terrain is such that it becomes very impractical and very dangerous to send people on foot in areas to do spraying.
Reporter: Witt says he hasn’t heard of any cases of wide-scale herbicide contamination from the forest industry.
In Triangle Lake, opposition to the spraying has been growing. Fed up with what they viewed as chemical trespass on their private property, residents banded together, complained to the state and finally contacted Dr. Dana Barr, a national expert in pesticide exposures at Emory University.
Dana Barr: It seemed like a significant enough situation that it should have at least garnered some attention and should have been evaluated.
Reporter: Barr tested the urine of 41 residents.
Barr: I found breakdown products of the herbicides 2,4-D and atrazine in all of the urine samples that we tested.
Reporter: These herbicides don’t stay in the body, so that meant people had been exposed recently.
Barr: It was not what I’m used to seeing, that we don’t frequently detect these chemicals in urine samples. It was surprising to find it all of the samples tested.
Turner: When Dr. Barr’s sort of results came back, I was stunned. I was shocked. Some of these subjects were children that just have never been exposed. They live in the country. And they live on a basically organic franchise, on this little farm. So the only real source has to be the forestry.
Reporter: Dana Barr’s findings also caught the attention of Oregon’s Health Authority.
Gail Shibley (of the Oregon Health Authority): Some folks in the Triangle Lake, Highway 36 area had been concerned for quite some time about potential exposures. We’d been stymied and frustrated to try to figure out, well, how would we even begin to look at this? We can’t really assess this.
Reporter: The Oregon Health Authority launched a two-year study with help from the Centers for Disease Control. The first round of testing also found the herbicide 2,4-D in residents’ urine.
Herbicides are designed to work on plants, but a growing body of research suggests some may have profound effects on humans. Suzanne Fenton works for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Suzanne Fenton: Herbicides are understudied. There’s not a lot of funding for it. But even worse than that is the fact that early life exposures to herbicides are really understudied. We know that many herbicides are endocrine disruptors.
Reporter: Endocrine disruptors act like hormones, but they relay the wrong signals to and from the brain and reproductive system.
Fenton has found that mice whose mothers were exposed to atrazine for just three days while pregnant experienced changes that lasted throughout their lives. Atrazine is heavily used in Oregon forestry.
Fenton: It can affect pubertal timing, so it can affect breast development during the period of puberty. It can then also – if it persists, if the effect persists – it can affect lactation. So it can affect the ability of the mom to provide nutrients to her offspring.
Reporter: Mary and Orville Camp live 200 miles south of Triangle Lake, near Selma, Ore. Their neighbor, Perpetua Forests Company, clear-cut the property up above them and then, unbeknownst to them, sprayed. One afternoon, Orville Camp was out walking.
Orville Camp: And the afternoon breeze came up, so that wind picked up all that vaporized stuff and apparently blew it down on me. And so I came back to the house and really never thought too much about it, until 3 o’clock in the morning.
I woke up with all kinds of crazy things going on. I was dizzy, disoriented, my blood pressure had gone way up. For the first time, I could kind of relate to how people with PTSD must feel, because everything was out of proportion. There was something about my brain that wasn’t getting things into proportion.
Reporter: Despite repeated efforts, his doctor has not been able to find out from the state what he was exposed to.
Mary Camp: We feel that is a real human rights issue. First of all, you shouldn’t be exposed to poisons. And if you are exposed to poisons, you should have the right to know when and what kind and how much – and none of that were we informed.
Reporter: Instead, Oregon’s Department of Forestry sends out notifications like this one, giving a possible 12-month window for spraying and a long list of herbicides that could be used.
Of course, none of this is an issue on federal land, where nearly all spraying has been banned in Oregon since the 1980s. Jim Furnish, a former Forest Service deputy chief, says his agency had to find a new way to raise timber without herbicides and soon discovered that hand-cutting unwanted brush was just as effective.
Jim Furnish: Suddenly, herbicides were no longer essential or necessary. Maybe preferable economically, but you have to bear in mind this Douglas fir timber is worth a lot of money, so you can afford more costly methods, provided that they are still effective, and turn a handsome profit.
Reporter: Last spring, concerned residents from Triangle Lake got an unwelcome surprise. The state said it would not be testing this year for people’s exposure to chemical spraying.
Residents packed into a town hall meeting called by state officials, who assured them the study would resume in 2013.
Jae Douglas (Oregon Health Authority): This investigation is ongoing. We are going to stay here; we will stay here. We are committed to this investigation.
Reporter: The industry says it welcomes the state’s investigation into its spraying practices.
Witt: And if there's data that shows that the practices need to be altered or changed, the industry is more than willing to look at what recommendations or change in practices could be employed.
Reporter: Under the heightened scrutiny, timber companies quietly decided not to spray atrazine and 2,4-D near populated areas this spring. So the state said there was nothing it could test for.
While some residents at the meeting said they weren’t concerned about the exposure, others called for a full moratorium on forest spraying.
Sally Crumb: The problem is now and the problem is here. The problem is people are getting sick and getting hurt, and you are talking about a scientific solution that is somewhere in the future.
Man: I have three small grandchildren. These are country girls; they go outside and play. And so I’m very concerned if there is the drift, it’s picked up in the rain, the fog. They’re going to have that exposure.
Reporter: Residents say they’ll take their concerns to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, asking him to halt to all spraying on private forest.
Reporter: Ingrid Lobet
Producer, Camera, Editor: Serene Fang
Additional Camera: Matthew Sidle
Executive Producer for CIR: Sharon Tiller
Senior Producer: Stephen Talbot
Senior Digital Editor and Graphics: David Ritsher
This story was produced in collaboration with Living on Earth, Public Radio International's environmental news magazine.