Vineyard spraying: anecdotal evidence must be considered By Stephanie Knapp

I have followed with interest the dialogue over the safety of vineyards in the Virginia Piedmont. I have no doubt that grape growers are trained and licensed to use materials in accordance with USDA and EPA label restrictions, as Lucie Morton asserts in her letter, “Don’t Blame the Grapes” published on March 14.

However, as an observer of environmental issues over more than a decade, I would like to take this opportunity to share a few words of caution:

Regulation often lags reality. Was Vioxx any more safe a year ago? No, we simply had accumulated less scientific data.

The term “scientific” implies a level of examination which may not constitute a realistic yardstick by which to measure either the safety or the harm of vineyard spraying.

For there to be “scientific evidence” that vineyard spraying of pesticide is either safe or harmful, one would need nearly identical experimental and control populations (enough to be statistically significant) living in identical proximity to vineyards, one vineyard using spray, one not.

Furthermore, for the scientific experiment to be double-blind, the viticulturists themselves would have to be unaware of what they were spraying. By definition then, it is extremely unlikely that we will ever have “scientific evidence” of the safety of spray.

But suppose we could design such a study. What would we insist be the threshold standard of harm? Would we insist on cancer? Cancer is the final straw in the insult to DNA, and often occurs only after a long period of repeated exposure.

Many sub-clinical symptoms have also been attributed to chemicals, for example miscarriage, birth defects, or less dramatically, depression or a lack of concentration.

I would encourage citizens to pay close attention to anecdotal evidence. Where there is smoke, there is often fire. When individuals begin to notice a correlation between their new health issues and their shared proximity to vineyards, it is often too late to reverse the course of illness.

None of us can put the toothpaste back into the tube. We can embark on projects of medical mapping in an effort to assemble compelling evidence, but once damage has been done, we will amass precious little consolation from the boon to the tourist or the wine industries.

Land and water contaminated is land and water contaminated forever. Health lost is health lost forever. The European vineyards that have been passed from generation to generation for centuries preceded the advent of the chemical industry.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has the opportunity and the responsibility to take pro-active steps to engage in dialogue without acrimony with both sides of this issue. Pro-active regulation must be enacted to protect the citizens of the Commonwealth, while encouraging the safe agricultural practices of Virginia’s vineyards.

©Times Community Newspapers 2006