In early December in Portland I saw my first live Christmas tree of the season strapped to the top of a car. I was saddened. Not because I don't celebrate Christmas (even though I don't) but because the Christmas tree industry is so harmful.
In the days that followed, I saw tree lots springing up all around town. Many had signs reading, "Local," which I thought was pretty funny because what else would they be? Oregon is the biggest grower of Christmas trees in the US, with 42,000 acres producing five to seven million trees per year. Clackamas county, which grows the most in the state, is right next to Portland. So, local? Yeah. But, sustainable? Nope.
I first became aware of the toxic nature of Christmas tree farming in 2011 when I was farming in Polk County with my friend Clarabelle, in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Though not as prevalent as grass seed farms (which take up fully half of the farmland in the valley) Christmas tree plantations were a common sight, often on slopes that are less suitable for other crops. Our concernsince we were organic growers coming into this zone of conventional agriculturewas what chemicals were being used nearby and in our watershed that might taint our own crops. We didn't like what we found and only planted there one season.
Chemically speaking, conventional farming is a dirty business, and when the crop isn't food, it's even worse. With Christmas tree farming, synthetic chemical use is virtually ubiquitous, with organic trees making up just 1% of the market. Aesthetics are obviously of paramount importance with this product, and a sleigh-load of toxic substances are used to kill pests, strike down diseases and accentuate their color. Six to ten years of this damaging activity goes into making a decoration that is displayed for a few weeks and then usually sent to the landfill.
Over 90% of Oregon trees are exported to other states and different countries, with Mexico importing nearly a quarter of all the Douglas-firs that are cut. Since other nations (and the state of Hawaii) have strict rules forbidding the importation of pests, chemical treatment of these trees is compulsory.
It's easy to say (or read), "Christmas tree farms use toxic chemicals," and then move right along without anything sinking in. So I am presenting a list of pesticides that are routinely used in Christmas tree cultivation, along with some of their known effects on animals and humans. I want to convey a sense of just how dangerous the business is to the environment and to the people who work in it.
There are a few types of substances in the list. "Organophosphate" insecticides work the same way as chemical warfare nerve agents such as sarin. Humans exposed to organophosphates through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact just once can experience a wide range of symptoms including nausea, dizziness, confusion, weakness, headaches, tightness in the chest, coughing, blurred vision, nonreactive pinpoint pupils, salivation, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and slurred speech. In extreme cases, poisoning results in respiratory paralysis and death. Repeated exposure can lead to long-term problems with memory and concentration, depression and moodiness, speech and reflexes, and nightmares and insomnia.
"Organochlorine" insecticides affect the central nervous system. In humans, inhalation can cause irritation of the throat and mucus membranes, blurry vision and respiratory problems. Skin contact can lead to dermatitis and eye contact to conjunctivitis. Ingestion can lead to nausea, vomiting, mental confusion, seizures and unconsciousness. Very serious cases can result in death. Chronic exposure can cause kidney and liver damage, anorexia and central nervous system disorders.
"Pyrethroid" insecticides are extracted from certain types of Chrysanthemum flowers, which might sound benign, but they are highly toxic to fish and other aquatic animals. Pyrethroids have mild effects on humans and naturally derived forms are allowed in certified organic agriculture.
"Herbicides" are plant-killers, used to suppress weeds. "Roundup" is a well-known herbicide. Different herbicides cause various deleterious effects on human health both short and long term. See list for specifics.
The danger of these chemicals is not necessarily that you are bringing poisons into your home when you buy a Christmas tree. Most of these substances are applied in the spring and summer and have had time to dissipate or be rained off by the time the tree is cut down in the winter. However, the fauna and flora of the ecosystems on or nearby the farms are directly affected season after season. As for humans, farmworkers are regularly the victims of chemical poisoning. This is especially problematic since farmworkers are often undocumented immigrants with inadequate health care, narrow employment options and little legal recourse. So with Christmas trees we have environmental abuses compounded by human rights issues.
Here, then, is a list of chemicals that is not comprehensive but is bad enough as it stands. I have provided the scientific name, with common or brand names in parenthesis, so you can look these substances up yourself for confirmation or more information. The abbreviation, "PAN BA," designates the substance as being on the Pesticide Action Network's "Bad Actor" list of "most toxic" chemicals.
- Acephate (Orthene): organophosphate insecticide used to kill aphids. It is moderately toxic to birds and even in small quantities, can confuse the navigation systems of songbirds such as the white-throated sparrow so that they are unable to tell north from south. PAN BA
- Atrazine: herbicide, second most widely used in the US after glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup). Banned by the European Union in 2004 and approved as safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that same year. It is highly persistent in water and is the most commonly detected pesticide in drinking water in the US. Its environmental and health effects are a subject of controversy due to the wildly contradictory results of different studies, but many of the "it's safe" claims have come from research sponsored by Syngentia, atrazine's producer. Nonetheless, atrazine has been implicated with hermaphroditism in frog tadpoles and with birth defects in humans. Atrazine is also plausibly linked to cancer because it stimulates a cancer-promoting substance in the body called aromatase. Interestingly, Syngenta also manufactures aromatase inhibiting drugs for cancer treatment, so, though they deny their herbicide's health effects, they've got their bases covered, profit-wise. In 2012, Syngenta settled a class-action lawsuit over atrazine in water supplies, agreeing to pay $105 million in damages, but denying any wrongdoing as part of the deal. PAN BA
- Biphenthrin/Bifenthrin (Talstar): pyrethroid insecticide. Affects bees by decreasing their reproductive rate and slowing their maturation. Extremely toxic to fish, which it kills by inhibiting their ability to take up oxygen through their gills.
- Carbaryl (Sevin): Third-most-used insecticide in the United State. Moderately toxic to fish and can have sever effects on mice and rabbits. For humans, it can cause nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, difficulty breathing and comas. PAN BA
- Chlorpyrifos (Dursban, Lorsban, Killmaster): organophosphate insecticide used on mites. Highly toxic to birds, extremely toxic to fish. nervous system damage in humans, incl. headaches to unconsciousness; exposure has been linked to neurological effects. Banned for home use since 2001 since fetal exposure leads to the retardation of mental development and autoimmune disorders. However it remains one of the most used organophosphates in agriculture. PAN BA
- Cyfluthrin (Tempo): pyrethroid insecticide. Extremely toxic to fish.
- Diazinon (Diazinon, Spectracide, Knox-Out): organophosphate insecticide developed in 1952 to replace DDT. Hazardous to fish and birds. Banned by the EPA in 1988 on golf courses and sod farms because it regularly killed birds that congregated in such places. Banned for residential use in 2004. PAN BA
- Dicofol (Kelthane): organochlorine pesticide closely related to DDT. Highly toxic to fish and birds. In the latter, it leads to egg-shell thinning. Dicofol can be stored in fatty tissue with the result that symptoms can reappear long after exposure following intense physical activity or starvation. The EPA considers it a possible human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). PAN BA
- Dimethoate (Cygon, De-Fend): organophosphate insecticide used to kill mites and aphids. Highly toxic to honeybees. PAN BA
- Esfenvalerate (Asana XL): synthetic pyrethroid insecticide that is extremely toxic to fish.
- Ethion (Nialate): organophosphate insecticide. Highly toxic to fish, moderately toxic to birds and mammals. Ethion was approved for use based on data from Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories (IBT), which is pretty sketchy. In court proceedings in the early 80's, it was proven that IBT widely engaged in scientific misconduct, and its president and several top executives were convicted of fraud. PAN BA
- Fenbutatin-oxide (Vendex): insecticide that specifically target mites, but is also used for aphids, thrips, mealybugs, whiteflies and scales. It is a severe eye irritant in humans, and is also highly toxic to aquatic organisms. PAN BA
- Fenitrothion (Sumithion): organophosphate insecticide. Highly toxic to birds and moderately toxic to fish. In humans, causes nausea, dizziness, headaches, and in higher doses, seizures and loss of consciousness. PAN BA
- Fluvalinate (Mavrik): pyrethroid insecticide used to kill mites. Extremely toxic to fish.
- Hexazinone (Velpar): herbicide used to kill weeds and grasses. Slightly toxic to fish. Known ground water contaminant. In studies, caused rats and dogs to lose weight and decreased the size of fetal rats. PAN BA
- Hexythiazox (Savey): insecticide. Moderately toxic to fish. Considered a "likely" carcinogen by the EPA. PAN BA
- Glyphosate (active ingredient in Roundup): herbicide that is not strongly toxic alone, but becomes more dangerous when formulated with other substances, which it almost always is. Roundup comes in several such formulations that are much more toxic to amphibians and fish and have occasionally been used by despondent farmers to kill themselves with. Glyphosate has been found to be an endocrine disruptor that is linked to birth defects.
- Isazofos (Triumph): insecticide that is extremely toxic to fish, highly toxic to birds and moderately toxic to mammals, including rabbits. Humans who come into contact with it are advised to dispose of any clothing it has touched. PAN BA
- Malathion (Cythion): organophosphate insecticide that is a neurotoxin and is extremely toxic to aquatic animals and moderately toxic to birds. Well known in its use for mosquito eradication. In 1998, its use against a medfly outbreak in Florida led to 123 people becoming ill. PAN BA
- Oxydemeton-methyl (Metasystox-R): organothiophosphate insecticide primarily used to control aphids, mites, and thrips. Highly toxic to birds, moderately toxic to mammals.
- Oxythioquinox (Morestan): insecticide and fungicide (fungus killer) highly toxic to fish. PAN BA
- Permethrin (Atroban, Ambush, Pounce, Pramex): synthetic pyrethroid insecticide that is extremely toxic to fish and is lethal for bees. PAN BA
- Phosmet (Imidan): organophosphate insecticide used for aphids and mites, highly toxic to fish and moderately toxic to mammals. PAN BA
- Pyrethrum (Pyrethrin, Sectrol): pyrethroid insecticide that is highly toxic to aquatic animals.
What a poisonous picture this paints! And no amount of tinsel and twinkling lights can make it pretty.
Chemicals applied outdoors enter the greater environment in a number of ways. Some are taken up by the plant tissues, including nectar, and consumed by animals and insects. Others leech into ground water, persist in the soil, or are carried into nearby waterways with run-off from irrigation or rain. Nitrogen fertilizers commonly lead to algae blooms and a resulting lack of oxygen in surface water in agricultural areas. Fish and other aquatic animals suffer. Chemicals that are applied through spraying can be carried by the wind onto neighboring areas, which Clarabelle and I experienced more than once when the blueberry farm next to our place sprayed. One application in particular gave us headaches and made my heart race. No chemical has been developed that respects property lines.
A 2008 report from the US Geological Survey [PDF] found 63 different herbicides and pesticides in the Clackamas River watershed, of which 15 were still present in drinking water after treatment. Christmas tree farms are not the only agricultural operations in this 940 square mile area, but they are common there.