Beyond Pesticides, May 20, 2014

Pesticide Manufacturers Sued over Golf Course Superintendent’s Death

Pittsburgh sportscaster Rich Walsh is suing multinational chemical companies after his father’s untimely death from cancer in 2009. According to a story from local Pittsburgh station WTAE, Mr. Walsh’s father, Tom Walsh, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2008, after a career as a golf course superintendent. “He loved golf. He loved working outside. He loved to take care of golf courses,” Rich told WTAE. Rich’s lawsuit was filed against Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, BASF, Syngenta, Dow Agroscience, Deere and Company, and John Deere Landscapes in 2010.

Genetic testing from Tom’s oncologist showed chromosomal alterations as a result of years of working with pesticides, the only chemicals Mr. Walsh ever worked with. Part of the log books he kept throughout his career included the pesticides he applied, which included the insecticides Dylox and Dursban, active ingredients trichlorfon and chlorpyrifos respectively, and the fungicides Daconil and Chipco, active ingredients chlorothalonil and iprodione. All of these chemicals have been shown to be likely carcinogens, according to Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide Gateway or Pesticide Induced Diseases Database. Chlorpyrifos, for instance, was banned for homeowner use back in 2001, but uses on agriculture and golf courses were allowed to continue despite objections from health and environmental advocates.

Chemical company comments to WTAE followed a familiar line of denial and obfuscation, with Monsanto stating, “The complaint provides no evidence or rationale for asserting that Monsanto products were in any way responsible for Mr. Walsh’s condition.” On Tom Walsh’s oncologists work, Bayer CropScience wrote in one document that, “On its face, that ‘methodology’ is at best, novel science, and, at worst, no science at all.”

Despite pesticide manufacturer statements, studies show that golf course superintendents are at particular risk from exposure to pesticides. A 1996 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine titled “Proportionate mortality study of golf course superintendents” found elevated rates of a number of different types of cancer. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part B Critical Reviews titled “Carcinogenic and genotoxic potential of turf pesticides commonly used on golf courses” summarized that “There appears to be convincing in vitro and in vivo laboratory and epidemiological evidence to support the claim that under certain circumstances, iprodione, chlorothalonil, PMA, and 2,4-D have been associated with cancer in humans and animals.”

Beyond Pesticides’ executive director Jay Feldman was interviewed by WTAE, and noted on pesticide manufacturer’s allegations that, “When you call these types of conclusions junk science then you’re basically ignoring the body of scientific literature. You see incredible connections between brain cancer, leukemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, with a lot of these chemicals that are used in turf management.”

Mr. Walsh notes that his father took the proper precautions, including wearing the required personal protective equipment, around the pesticides he used. “You do what the chemical companies tell you to do but it still didn’t save my dad’s life,” he said to WTAE. Under current statutes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows a certain amount of risk, which they deem “reasonable,” even when pesticide labels are followed as directed. The interpretation of what risk is “reasonable” varies considerably. EPA will often deem a cancer risk of one in a million as “acceptable,” but may sometimes allow risks of one in 10,000. The difference in orders of magnitude means the difference between 300 cancer cases and 30,000 cancer cases from a single pesticide nationwide.

In light of these concerning statistics and rising awareness of the hazards associated with pesticide use in golf, many courses in Pittsburgh and across the country are transitioning to organic practices. Rich Walsh now owns one of the courses employing safer, organic methods of turf maintenance in his Rolling Fields golf course located in Murrysville, PA. Rich told WTAE that he hopes something positive will come from the lawsuit. When asked whether he was trying to send a message with his lawsuit, Rich responded, “Yeah. I don’t know if one person can do it but I’m going to try.”

For more information on the hazards associated with pesticide use on golf courses and the trend towards organic practices, see Beyond Pesticides’ Golf and the Environment program page. There you can read about another poisoned golf course worker, Steve Herzog, who spoke out in summer 2011 issue of Pesticides and You on long-term contamination at the golf course where he worked as a groundskeeper. You can also read the interview with Beyond Pesticides’ executive director Jay Feldman in Golf Digest, titled “How Green is Golf?”