Health and Safety Resource

​October-November 2017

Kaci Buhl

Employer: Oregon State University, College of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology
Associate Professor of Practice: Kaci Buhl
Roles and responsibilities: Coordinator, Statewide Pesticide Safety Education Program; Deputy Director, Pesticide Educational Resources Collaborative (PERC); Co-Investigator, National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC).

Your commitment to reducing pesticide hazards is evident through all of your outreach work at OSU, including your state and national information and education efforts. It isn’t easy work.

What keeps you motivated and driving forward in promoting best practices​?

Many pesticide applicators have shared their stories with me and asked questions, such as “I have been applying pesticides for over 30 years. If I had been more careful … I mean, I have cancer, and I’m only 52.” Sometimes, they ask about their children’s diagnoses: “Could their disease or disorder have been caused by my exposure to pesticides?” The answer is not always clear. It’s very hard to tell which exposure, if any, caused a disease. However, we know that the risk is lower when we minimize exposure and keep those pesticide residues from coming home with us. The links between cancer and pesticides are many, but they vary widely from pesticide to pesticide, and from person to person.

When I get out of bed every morning, I think about ways to make sure every pesticide applicator will come home safely every night. They do some dirty jobs protecting our food supply, our health, and our environment, and they deserve no less.

...I think about ways to make sure every pesticide applicator will come home safety..."

When it comes to pesticide risks and how we deal with them, what have we learned and what do we do well?

Pesticide products go through an exhaustive battery of tests before they are registered (allowed) for use in the United States. That means we have data, lots of data, to inform our decision-making. The tests lead to specific label instructions that reduce identified risks. For example, if laboratory testing reveals that a pesticide is highly toxic to fish, then the label will prohibit application near water bodies.

We also have a strong system in place to train, certify, and re-train pesticide applicators who have access to the most dangerous pesticides (restricted-use pesticides). They have to take a test, register with the state, and continue their education in order to maintain their licenses. That means we have a highly competent and connected workforce that can respond to changing conditions.

When pesticides cause a problem in Oregon, any kind of problem, they can be reported 24/7 by calling 211. There is a board of state agencies and organizations that coordinate to make sure problems are investigated properly, and they make policy recommendations in response to incident trends.

Likewise, what can we do better?

Most Oregonians apply pesticides at some point, but most of us don’t know that “the label is the law.” Pesticide labels contain the keys to reducing risk, but they are too complicated for many readers, especially unlicensed applicators. A big part of my job is interpreting label statements and promoting label comprehension and compliance. 

We also need to keep more pesticides from reaching our surface water and groundwater. Almost every time we look for pesticides in water samples, we find them, and we often find a mixture of pesticides. Those pesticides come from urban areas as much as rural areas, so we know we have a lot of work to do on outreach/education. We can prevent unnecessary pesticide use by promoting alternative pest control tactics and encouraging landscape/structural designs that discourage pests. We can prevent unnecessary water contamination by promoting good practices with pesticide selection, application, storage, transportation, and disposal.

In other states, pesticide applicators and beekeepers have done some great work on coordinating to prevent bee poisoning from pesticides. In Oregon, there is a lot of great work going on, but it all comes down to communication. If beekeepers and pesticide applicators talk to one another about where and when they’re operating, we could protect more pollinators.

Kaci Buhl at her desk

A big part of Kaci Buhl's job is to interpret pesticide label statements, and to promote label comprehension and compliance.

How do you measure success in your line of work?

I’m taking the long view. I will use every tool in my toolbox to make pesticide applicators more vigilant, precautionary, and thoughtful. I will be their partner in problem-solving, whatever challenges we face. I will document our wins and losses for future generations. At the end of my career, I hope to see fewer pesticides in our water, fewer pesticide-related health impacts, broader adoption of non-pesticide strategies, and a resilient workforce that knows how to protect itself and our state.

What do you see as an emerging issue?

Pesticide drift is in the national spotlight because of new herbicides that can damage soybean fields in very small doses. Just a little bit of dicamba floating on the breeze can tip the neighbor’s bottom line from profitability to debt. Oregon has seen more drift complaints with the proliferation of new vineyards; grapevines are also very sensitive to certain herbicides. Now, we are seeing hazelnut orchards proliferate in the state. As those trees mature, more air-blast sprayers will be used, and the mist from air-blast applications is more prone to drifting than pesticides applied in other ways. We’re going to have to work harder and harder to keep pesticides on target.

What’s an especially important challenge in addressing the risks of pesticides​​?

With pesticides, we often have to weigh one health risk against another health risk, so there are no “safe” options. For example, in flood-ravaged communities, they are choosing between increases in mosquito-borne illness and increases in pesticide exposure due to mosquito control efforts. Communities have to decide on a strategy, and decide which risks are acceptable to them. I hope I can help communities in Oregon make pesticide-related decisions based on the best science available.