Family pleads for curb on pesticides - Blueberry growers back farm in Hope

By Tom Groening Of the NEWS Staff

  UNION -- Twelve-year-old Codey Brown never set foot in the basement of the Union town office Wednesday, but her story visibly moved some of the 200 people at a hearing there of the state Board of Pesticides Control.

A board member wiped away tears after hearing Codey's sister describe what she said was a life of pain and isolation that Codey faces daily.

Codey suffers from chemical sensitivity brought on, her physician and family say, by exposure to insecticides and herbicides sprayed by a neighboring blueberry farm.  The condition is so bad that Codey can't attend Hope Elementary School for fear of having violent reactions to chemicals in perfumes, soaps, detergents and carpeting.

Codey and her father, Bruce Brown, her mother, Debbie Brown, and her sister Haley say they have all been devastated by the effects of the spraying.  The family has petitioned the Board of Pesticides Control for a rule that would prohibit blueberry farmer Tim Crabtree and his father, Everette Crabtree, from using pesticides within a half-mile of the Browns' home.

If granted, the ban would be the first "critical pesticide control area" designated for a homeowner in Maine.

Tim Crabtree and his supporters argued that any symptoms the Browns suffer are coincidental to the spraying and that unless a definite medical connection could be proved, the board could not prevent the farmer from legally applying pesticides.

Close to half of those in attendance Wednesday appeared to support Crabtree. Many wore buttons distributed at the door that read, "I Support Maine Farmers. " When people supporting the Crabtrees had their turn at the microphone, they explained that if a ban on pesticides could be adopted in a 1-square-mile area of Hope, it could be adopted anywhere in Maine, thereby threateningthe livelihood of farmers.

Reading from a prepared statement, Debbie Brown described her family's life on Crabtree Road in Hope for the past 8 1/2 years.

Both she and her husband operated a small, homestead-type farm, raising ducks and chickens, and growing strawberries, raspberries and fruit trees.

Brown said she was first exposed to chemicals in a job at a local manufacturing company with improper ventilation.  In 1992, she said, she became so ill she had to leave work.

"I accept partial responsibility for my illness due to my employment and life ignorance," she said, "but I will not take responsibility for being poisoned by pesticides in our own home and on our own property. "

Brown said she believes a highly toxic pesticide known by the brand names Guthion or Sniper 2-E has been sprayed every year since at least 1992 near her farm.

"During our first years, Bruce and Codey were just outside our home when a helicopter flew directly over them, still releasing visible spray," she said.  "Codey vomited the next morning.  In May of 1994, after an aerial spraying, both of our children were very ill with vomiting and diarrhea. "  In July 1998, Brown said, her husband had a reaction from the apparent drift of Sniper 2-E sprayed by a helicopter, she testified.  Debbie and the two girls were inside sleeping.  Bruce closed the windows, "but it was too late.  The stench had permeated our home. " Codey was ill for days, and the chemical sensitivity became pronounced, her mother said.

"Codey's life now includes many doctors' visits and a constant vigilance of avoidance.  At a time when she should be blossoming socially, her experiences have been ripped away," Debbie said.

"Since the July 1998 spraying, Codey has been plagued with excruciating and debilitating headaches.  Her physical pain has been so intense and repeated that after one particularly bad spell, she looked at me and told me she knows why they are called 'suicide headaches. ' She has visible tremoring and has had to be carried on many occasions to the bathroom, as her legs will not support her. "

Trips to stores or something as simple as a new phone book coming into the house bring on severe symptoms, Brown said.  "Even a much-needed hug can make her ill for days," due to reactions to chemicals inclothing or perfumes and laundry soaps.

Haley, Codey's older sister, told the board what she said it was like to worry about bringing schoolbooks home, "in fear that it will set her off. " Haley, with her father's arm around her, described reading to her sister as she lay in bed, crying from headache pain.

Crabtree told the board that pesticides are "useful, necessary chemicals. " He also disputed the Browns' depiction of their home as being surrounded by blueberry fields.  He said there are no fields to the west or east.

Farmers must use pesticides "or we lose our crop -- it's thatsimple," Crabtree said.  His relatives live on the same road, and he would do nothing that would endanger their health, he said.

Linda Nash, whose family grows blueberries on 1,000 acres in four counties, told the board, "I am confident that what we are doing is safe. " She said her children help out on her farm, and she doesn't believe they are in danger from pesticides.  If the rule is granted, other requests would follow, she said, and "it would greatly reduce our yields.  It would greatly reduce our income. "

John Olson, executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau, said the board should reject the petition for the ban unless there is absolute medical proof the pesticides caused Codey's illness.

"What concerns me most is the potential precedent-setting nature of the board's action," said Fred Olday of Jasper Wyman and Son, a blueberry producer in Washington County.  The relationship between the Crabtrees' use of pesticides and the Browns' sensitivity "is not verifiable," he said.  "It is hearsay, it is coincidental. " Board members questioned Tim Crabtree briefly and learned that all but seven of his 75 acres would be affected by the ban the Browns are seeking.

The board will accept written comments through the end of the year, then will have 120 days to rule on the Browns' request.

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