Moloka`i Farmer Suspects Illness Was Caused by Heptachlor Exposure

posted in: November 2000 | 1

Last year, Moloka`i farmer Lonnie Williams lost his crops, tens of thousands of dollars, and his farm lease because of heptachlor epoxide contamination. Now, he says, it has cost him his health as well.

For the last two months, Williams has been laid up with health problems, including liver and eye damage, at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. The hospital has been running tests to pin down the cause of his ailments, which he believes result from exposure to the chemical. Heptachlor expoxide is a breakdown product of heptachlor, an organo-chlorine pesticide that has been banned for years.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, short-term exposure to heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide, can cause liver and nervous system damage, with long-term exposure further damaging the liver and possibly leading to cancer.

Williams, who says other Molokai residents share his symptoms, has indicated he will be suing those whom he holds responsible for his plight. His attorney, Jonathan Littenberg, is investigating Williams’ claims regarding these other Molokai residents. Because of the possible legal action, Williams is tight-lipped about discussing his predicament, but he urges the public, especially government agencies, to read up on the health effects of the two chemicals. While there is little data on health effects heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide on humans, the EPA has banned heptachlor use in the United States because of its potential to endanger human health.

Williams farmed land on Moloka`i for four years and was surrounded by soils that have yielded heptachlor epoxide-contaminated produce. Last year, cucumbers from a neighboring farm were recalled and destroyed because their heptachlor epoxide levels exceeded federal limits. Williams held back the sale of his own produce for testing and ended up losing thousands of dollars worth of crops. Without the money those crops would have brought him, Williams lost his lease from Moloka`i Ranch.

Since then, Williams and University of Hawai`i extension agent Alton Arakaki have tested the ability of several cucumbers and squashes to reduce heptachlor levels in Moloka`i soil, which had been doused with the pesticide for years while under pineapple cultivation. They found that the roots of a Filipino squash had absorbed 387 parts per billion of heptachlor epoxide, and the stem had 185 ppb. With their findings, they hoped to develop a method of extracting the harmful chemical from the soil. Since their initial work, however, the project has not moved forward, Williams says, but he expects to pursue funding for further research and implementation when he gets out of the hospital.

(For more on Lonnie Williams and heptachlor, see the February 2000 issue of Environment Hawai`i.)

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Family Sues Nursery Over Pesticide Drift

William Schirman lived and raised a family on his back-road lot in rural Waimanalo. He’s lived there in relative peace since 1964. But ever since the summer of 1997, when Hawaiian Island Orchid nursery moved in next door, Schirman and his family have suffered headaches, throat and eye irritation, and other health effects that they believe are caused by chemicals the nursery routinely sprays to control insects.

In September, Schirman and his family, including Matthew Schirman, Cory R. Gibson, and Heather Gibson, filed a complaint against HIO and others for negligent pesticide use, seeking punitive damages and injunctive relief. The Schirman family maintains that as long as HIO continues to spray insecticides, family members’ neurological and respiratory systems are at risk.

Waimanalo is dotted with flower nurseries and many are nestled among dirt roads that wind toward the Ko`olau mountains. Schirman’s and HIO’s agricultural lots are three-acre parcels, says Schirman’s attorney Dennis Potts. Still, the pesticides, “including, but not limited to Malathion and Chlorpyrifos,” have migrated and continue to migrate to William Schirman’s property, resulting in “personal injury which is ongoing, although the exact extent and nature of that personal injury is as yet unknown or undetermined,” the complaint states. Potts says that Schirman had tried but was unable to resolve the matter informally.

By mid-October, HIO had not responded to the complaint.

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Pesticide Drift to Schools A Frequent Occurrence

In late September, five children from Makakilo Elementary School on O`ahu were hospitalized after Malathion fumes drifted into their classrooms. The incident, caused when a neighbor of the school sprayed the pesticide on plants, made headlines in Honolulu papers and topped the evening news.

The incident is perhaps the most serious so far this year, but incidents like this are not uncommon and occur about once every year. The state Department of Health’s Hazard Emergency Evaluation and Response branch has received several calls reporting similar events over the years, where students and teachers are evacuated or experience headaches and nausea because of pesticide drifting in from neighboring businesses or residences.

Since 1995, O`ahu’s Mililani Uka, Fern Elementary, Puohala Elementary, and Our Lady of Sorrow schools and King Kaumuali`i Elementary School on Kaua`i have all reported incidents of pesticide drift to HEER.

— Teresa Dawson

Volume 11, Number 5 November 2000

One Response

  1. Susanne Nohoikaiu

    My son is a heptaclor baby born March 24/1982 in Hawaii & yes I drank a lot of contaminated milk during pregnancy. I looked into it then but Hawaii hushed up the matter. I almost lost him twice before he was 4 yrs. old due to a brachial cleft sinus. Any more info would be a blessing. Some of his male friends have already succumbed to cancer. The issue has resurfaced.

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