Dr. Jill Harrison is a professor of environmental sociology at the University of Colorado. She obtained her doctorate from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2006 and her areas of research include environmental sociology, sociology of agriculture and food systems, political theories of justice, and immigration politics.
In 2011 she published the book “Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice.” Her book explores the many social injustices that can be found in low-income communities as a result of many environmental issues, but especially from pesticide drift.
I chose to speak with Dr. Harrison because the main goal of my enterprise story is to explore and expose the real differences between organic and synthetic pesticides. As a researcher in the field of pesticide drift, I figured Dr. Harrison would have some knowledge in the field to help get me on the right track.
While our interview went extremely well, Dr. Harrison has not kept up with her pesticide research since the publishing of her book in 2011, so she was not able to inform me of any progress that may or may not have been made in the past four years. Regardless, her answers were insightful and educational and I look forward to discovering more about the toxic realm of organic pesticides in the next few months.
Q: How did you get interested in researching and writing about pesticides?
A: My dissertation research in graduate school was on pesticide drift conflicts. I was really interested in the intersection of environmental sustainability and social movements especially relating to agriculture but also social justice concerns. While I was looking for a topic, a number of large-scale pesticide drift incidents happened in California where pesticides moved through the air away from where they were applied and into other social spaces and made people sick. I ended up making some decisions about what types of pesticide uses I wanted to critically interrogate the most.
Q: Do you have an opinion that you developed throughout your research on certain pesticides?
A: I mostly focused on soil fumigants. I think anybody would agree these are the most toxic pesticides that are used in agriculture. They come in various forms and their job is to turn into a vapor and move through the soil structure and sterilize it. In California there’s lots of termites and you’ll see houses tented. They wrap the whole thing in big plastic tarps and gas the inside of it. It’s the same chemical they use as a pre-planting treatment for strawberries, tomatoes, roses and potatoes. When you have a certain situation where you can’t afford to have any soil-born diseases or pathogens, you might apply a soil fumigant to sterilize the soil. Super toxic in terms of acute exposure, so if you were to walk into one of those houses that’s been tented before the re-entry interval is up, you could very well die. Somebody dies in the United States for doing that every year for some reason or another, like if they think their cat is still in there. All of the major soil fumigants that are used in the United States entail one or more significant chronic symptoms of exposure. Most of them are listed as probable carcinogens, reproductive and developmental toxicants and endocrine disruptors. I saw them as the worst actors. Those are the fish that I felt like frying.
Q: One organic pesticide that is known to be having harmful effects is rotenone, are you familiar with this?
A: That doesn’t surprise me. Herbicides are targeted towards weeds and the most widely used herbicide in the United States is glyphosate, which is Roundup. For years, everybody said Roundup is really safe compared to other herbicides, it’s very benign, you’d have to drink a gallon of the stuff for it to do anything bad to you and now there’s research coming out every year about how dangerous glyphosate is and the World Health Organization just last year classified it as a probable carcinogen.
Q: Didn’t California do the same a couple weeks ago?
A: That wouldn’t surprise me because California’s department of pesticide regulation often sets the bar and EPA often follows what California EPA does. So many products that are out there on the market have received very little scrutiny. Many of them were grandfathered in under previous eras of pesticide registration when the scrutiny for impacts on human health was really limited. The federal law requires the EPA reevaluate pesticides on a regular basis, but they don’t have enough money to do that all the time. In my mind, part of the problem is EPA has so little funding.
Q: In your book you mention the “precautionary principle.” Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
A: The precautionary principle is the notion that if you have a situation or a product where you have quite a bit of evidence that there is a strong risk of a major hazard, then you should take action proactively to reduce that risk. The sentiment there is that you don’t need 100 percent full scientific certainty before taking action to reduce or eliminate some kind of risk in the human environment. If it poses what many people can agree to be a sufficiently high risk of harm to human health or to the environment, you should take action now to reduce it.
Q: If you could say one thing that is the most pressing issue we need to target with immediate action in relation to anything environmental, what would it be?
A: That’s a big question. What concerns me is the fact that low-income communities and communities of color and other marginalized communities are very disproportionately affected when it comes to environmental harms. In a nation where we profess so much concern about inequality and injustice, it would seem to me that a priority should be reducing those inequalities. The question is, what will that take? We’ll need a technical strategy for reducing environmental inequalities, but also very much a political one.