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Pesticide Drift on the Pamico Sound
by Billie Karel

In September and October of this year, Hyde County, North Carolina suffered under a cloud of pesticide drift from local cotton spraying. With help from Heather Jacobs of the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation and Jan DeBlieu of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, Toxic Free NC was able to learn more about the effects of drift on water quality, fishing and crabbing, and people’s health along the Pamlico Sound. I also had the opportunity to visit Hyde County this October, where I spread the word about Toxic Free NC’s pesticide drift hotline and spoke with a dozen or more residents about their experiences and concerns.

To quote a local shop owner, Scranton, NC is “about 20 miles from nowhere.” Hyde County is the largest county in North Carolina at 613 square miles, 180 of which are designated national wildlife refuges and include Lake Mattamuskeet, the largest natural lake in North Carolina. The majority of Hyde County’s 5,500 residents are employed in farming, commercial fishing, the public school district (the smallest in the state with 4 schools, 685 students, and about 170 employees), and Hyde Correctional Center (about 220 employees).

Over the course of the past ten years, many of the county’s farmers have switched from growing wheat, corn, and other crops to cotton. Two cotton gins have opened in the county to accommodate all the new production. During the fall harvest, stray cotton bolls fly off the backs of trucks and line the roads that connect the gins to area farms.

Jan DeBlieu of NC Coastal Federation and Mary Midyette of Scranton, NC take note of grass killed by pesticide drift next to a recently harvested cotton field. The canal that drains this field, visible in the foreground, runs directly to the Pamlico Sound.
Photo taken 10/12/04, by Billie Karel.

Residents in every corner of Hyde County are seeing and feeling the toxic effects of pesticide drift much more now than before the large-scale switch to cotton. Conventionally grown cotton is an extremely pesticide intensive crop. Pesticides are often applied to cotton fields in a cocktail of three or more at a time, and usually from the air. The frequency and amount of pesticides to be applied makes aerial application more affordable for these growers than ground application, which requires more labor.

Pesticide runoff and drift into the lake and sound are a major concern for crabbers and fishermen, who wonder aloud whether pesticide contamination isn’t responsible in some part for their declining catches, but are unwilling to accuse the farmers in their county of wrongdoing. Other residents describe immediate symptoms upon smelling a freshly sprayed field - symptoms that may linger for days or even weeks afterwards, such as respiratory distress, nausea, headaches, and muscle tremors. I also spoke with parents and educators in the county who are extremely concerned about the long-term effects of regular exposure to pesticides on their children.

Driving through Hyde County, I saw newly defoliated cotton fields 10 feet from swing sets and back porches, 20 feet off the water’s edge along the north side of Lake Mattamuskeet, and directly across the street from all three mainland public schools. Drainage canals run directly from the fields into the lake and the sound. My host and I smelled cotton defoliants drifting outside a fishing supply shop, and observed how her throat closed up and left hand started to shake from muscle tremors in the hours that followed. The pilot who does most of the aerial application in the Scranton-Swan Quarter area is very conscientious and calls ahead to warn some of the more “sensitive” neighbors when and where he’ll be spraying, but they are hard pressed to find a safe haven from the spraying. Cotton fields are a predominant feature in this community, and so pesticide contamination feels ubiquitous during this time of year.

Perhaps the most difficult conversation I had while in Hyde County was with a farmer whose family grows cotton throughout the Scranton-Swan Quarter area. We talked about his neighbors’ health problems and crabbers’ complaints, about the types of chemicals he most often uses and what the symptoms and effects of exposure might be, and about the challenges of farming in a flood-prone coastal region. I watched this father’s face fall as he realized for the first time the potential for the pesticides he applies so liberally to harm his neighbors, his children, and himself, and I shared his sad frustration at the difficult position in which he finds himself.

Thank you to all the residents of Hyde County who’ve talked with me for their openness and honesty. I’m touched and impressed by your genuine concern for your neighbors’ well being, and desire to cooperate with one another in finding a workable solution to protect your community from pesticide drift. Toxic Free NC is proud to help in any way we can. •


Toxic Free News is a publication of
Toxic Free North Carolina
115 South St. Mary's St., Suite D, Raleigh, NC 27603, (919) 833-5333, Toll-free 1-877-NO-SPRAY

Mission: Toxic Free NC advocates for alternatives to toxic pesticides in North Carolina by empowering people to make sound decisions about their health and environment.

Staff: Executive Director: Fawn Pattison, Program Coordinator: Billie Karel
Interns: Ghassan Hamra, Molly Stapleton

Board of Directors: Allen Spalt, President; Katherine M. Shea, Vice President; Jane Sharp MacRae, Secretary; Mary Jo Windley; Savi Horne; Carolyn Prince; Cindy Soehner; Billie Rogers, Emeritus.

Contributors: Billie Karel, Bob Mulder, Ghassan Hamra, Kate Pattison, and Natalie Lamela.
Webmaster: Billie Karel

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