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Group seeks pesticide, toy chemical changes

ST. PAUL - A group of environmental and social service agencies believes Minnesotans should be protected from certain chemicals and alerted to pesticide applications.

Healthy Legacy, a consortium of dozens of organizations including Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota and the Minnesota Nurses Association, want legislators to approve three proposals this year.

The so-called Pesticide Right to Know proposal, authored by Democratic Rep. Ken Tschumper of La Crescent, would require pesticide applicators to give 48 hours advance notification to an area where pesticides will be sprayed, both in urban and rural areas, and what kind of pesticide would be used.

The legislation also calls for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to create an Internet database indicating the time and location of pesticide application. Under the measure, pesticide applicators would have to report to the Agriculture Department every 30 days.

Currently, pesticide drift is illegal in Minnesota. Applicators are required to keep detailed records, but only have to release them when the information is requested from state agriculture officials, a medical doctor or veterinarian.

Those supporting the bill say the Agriculture Department does not enforce current law. They say more oversight and public information is needed.

Todd County farmer Sue Meyer said some of her children developed skin rashes and respiratory and neurological problems after being exposed to pesticides sprayed on a nearby poplar tree farm. Meyer said her farm animals also are showing negative health effects. Rabbits on her farm have become infertile, and when they do have offspring, they're deformed.

"Pesticides are made to kill," Meyer said. "It seems absurd that we don't know what we're being exposed to. We need this bill to better protect ourselves."

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, who leads a House agriculture funding committee, said he is opposed to the pesticide bill. Junke says he is concerned the legislation would impinge on the privacy rights of pesticide applicators and farmers.

"People are private. We don't want our information, our name, address, given out to just anyone," Juhnke said, adding the information already is available to agriculture officials and health caregivers. "Beyond that, I'm hard pressed to understand why we'd want to do this, other than to appease some anti-chemical activists."

Tschumper concedes his bill is getting a lot of heat.

"It's tough. I will admit," he said. "I think everybody recognizes we've got to do something here. But it's really hard to figure out the exact details on how to do it without being overly onerous to the farmers and applicators, and yet still offering people some protection."

Another Healthy Legacy proposal, the Children's Safety Products bill, would ban two chemicals - Phthalates and Bisphenol-A - in products made for children under 3 years old.

Phthalates are used to soften vinyl in many baby products, including teething rings, toys and bibs. Bisphenol-A is used to make toys, baby bottles and "sippy" cups for babies.

David Wallinga, food and public health program director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, said the two chemicals are linked to negative health effects including respiratory diseases and brain development. He said the chemicals are hormone disrupters, meaning they interfere with the development of female and male sex hormones.

"Very young children are the most vulnerable because their bodies and brains are still developing," Wallinga said. "Their defense mechanisms are immature to defend against toxins."

The bill calls for elimination of the chemicals by the end of 2008. California is so far the only state to pass a law banning Phthalates in baby products. The chemicals are banned in the European Union.

The American Chemical Council, which opposes the legislation, says low doses of the chemicals found in most products have no effects on human health.

A third measure would phase out a toxic flame retardant called deca-BDE. Supporters say studies indicate that deca is toxic to the brain, reproductive system and liver, and disrupts the thyroid system. House and Senate hearings on the bill are scheduled for next week.

The Minnesota Farmers Union has passed a resolution in support of getting more pesticide information to the public.

However, the union's Thom Petersen said the bill's 48-hour notification provision "probably won't work for farmers."

Ken Peterson owns an aerial spraying business in Staples. He said notifying neighbors 48 hours in advance would be too difficult and keep him from getting his work done. He also opposes the bill because he doesn't want his customer data to become public information.

"My competitors could go online, find who my customers are, and contact them, try to make them deals and sway them away from me," Peterson said. "They can find out what mixtures I'm using that work better on certain things, and you know, it would be like giving up trade secrets."