Tag Archives: sickness

Illicit marijuana farms decimate western wildlife

Tony Magarrell isn’t very relaxed for someone who just spent a week in the lush backcountry canyons of Lassen National Forest, 165 miles northwest of Reno.

Magarrell, a special agent for the U.S. Forest Service, wasn’t there to enjoy roaring waterfalls or abundant wildlife. He was cleaning up an illicit marijuana operation, a job that gives him a front-row seat to environmental wreckage most people will never see, reported the Reno Gazette-Journal.

“This site has pretty much taken over the whole drainage out here,” said Magarrell of the 60-acre site that yielded about 6,000 pounds of trash, much of it in the form of hazardous chemicals. “It’s been a long week.”

The bags of trash hauled out by helicopter provided evidence of the damage illicit grows can do to the environment. But the damage goes far beyond the trash left behind.

Environmental damage from the grow sites includes widespread sickness and death among wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.

On U.S. Forest Service land in California alone, authorities have identified more than 400 sites in the past two years with an estimated 1.7 million plants. Although hundreds of sites are identified, only a fraction of them are actually remediated. The number of cleanups fluctuates with availability of personnel and funding, Magarrell said.

Law enforcement officials report frequent instances of wildlife poaching by people working at the sites. Even more damaging than poaching is the mass amounts of poison associated with grow sites. That poison is killing wildlife at the site and being carried away by animals that consume it and die elsewhere.

Magarrell suspects the Burney site was the work of large drug trafficking operators from Mexico, who law enforcement believe are behind most major grows, and the environmental damage they cause.

Similar grow sites have been found in Nevada, although they are smaller and much fewer in number. In recent years, officials have found grows with trash, fertilizer and rat poison in the Spring Mountain National Forest Recreation Area near Las Vegas, the Austin Tonopah Ranger District in central Nevada and the Ely Ranger District in White Pine County.

Both California and Nevada voters have recently approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession and issue licenses for marijuana businesses. But it’s too soon to tell if that will affect illicit grows in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere. That’s because the vast majority of what’s grown illicitly is sold through black market channels, which still exist because most states and the federal government still consider marijuana to be illegal.

In 2014, Chris Boehm, assistant director of law enforcement and investigations for the Forest Service, estimated drug trafficking organizations are operating in 72 national forests in 22 states.

“It is a national issue, it is not a California issue,” Magarrell said.

Research quantifies environmental damage

The site near Burney, which Magarrell said was typical for illicit grows, contained tons of evidence of environmental damage.

Law enforcement officials identified three camps each with its own dump sites, 18 miles of pipe diverting water from a creek, 11,360 pounds of trash, 1,250 pounds of fertilizer and a host of toxic chemicals.

The list included: insecticides such as Lorsban 480 EM, Sevin carbaryl and Malathion, the rat poison Bromethalin, Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor which can be used as a pesticide and plant hormone concentrate Hormoviton Calor.

The growers use the chemicals for several purposes. Insecticides and herbicides can be used to prevent weeds and insects from damaging the plants, and the fertilizers promote growth.

Rat poison is often spread around the sites in copious amounts to kill everything from rodents to deer that might damage the plants.

The poison is particularly destructive because it often has a pleasant taste to attract animals, which encourages them to eat it.

When other animals, such as owls, mountain lions or bears, scavenge the contaminated carcasses, they can become sick as well.

“A deer is not going to eat a mouse, but if you have 90 pounds of peanut-butter-flavored rodenticide out there, (the deer) just walks in and starts eating the pellets,” said Mourad Gabriel, executive director and senior ecologist at Integral Ecology Research Center and one of the few researchers dedicated to studying ecological impact of illicit grow sites. “It is mimicking the potential legacy effects that other chemicals like DDT have done with wildlife.”

Gabriel, along with co-researcher Greta Wengert, is considered a leading researcher in the field thanks to his efforts to survey grow sites and document the spread of environmental damage.

His research shows the damage is widespread and affects species and habitat throughout the Sierra Nevada, where there are thought to be hundreds, or even thousands, of illicit grow sites.

Gabriel’s most prominent research found rat poison contamination in 85 percent of fisher carcasses tested for all of California. Fishers are forest-dwelling animals related to wolverines, minks and otters.

Gabriel’s research suggests, “contamination is widespread within the fisher’s range in California, which encompasses mostly public forest and park lands.”

The effects go beyond fishers. Gabriel has detected contamination in 67 percent of spotted owls tested.

And he’s documented contamination in black-tailed deer, bears, fox and upland game birds.

One trail camera photo from a grow site in a prime hunting zone captured a trophy buck browsing in a pile of refuse and poison at a grow site.

“This is a deer people would wait a lifetime to hunt,” Gabriel said. “Yet we have these folks who are in there illegally poaching them and illegally poisoning them.”

Important, but dangerous, work

The research is important because it quantifies environmental damage from illicit grows, an overlooked problem.

Recent statewide votes in California and Nevada in favor of relaxing anti-marijuana statutes show much of the public is ambivalent about prohibition.

Environmental damage, however, is a separate issue. Much of the public cares deeply about protecting wildlife and public land and the people who work on cleaning up grow sites want people to know about the damage.

“I believe the research that Mourad and Greta are doing should have already rattled the cages of every environmentalist, every hunter, anybody who gives a damn,” said Kary Schlick, a Forest Service wildlife biologist who has worked on spotted owl research.

The notion of prosecuting growers, when they’re caught, for environment-related offenses in addition to drug offenses is gaining steam among some prosecutors.

Karen Escobar, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California in Fresno, cited cases in which prosecutors highlighted environmental damage as a key component in making cases against growers.

In one case a grower was sentenced for producing plants in the Canebrake Ecological Reserve in Kern County.

In the statement announcing the guilty plea prosecutors highlighted the environmental and cultural sensitivity of the area above the number of plants.

“It was first inhabited in about 1000 B.C. by the Tubatulabel culture and is currently home to numerous rare and protected plants and animals, including the federally protected golden and bald eagles and peregrine falcon, the federally threatened California red-legged frog and Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, and the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher,” they wrote in the statement.

In another statement announcing a 10-year sentence against a grower they highlighted the grower’s, “involvement in a toxic marijuana cultivation operation in the Greenhorn Creek area of the Sequoia National Forest.”

Escobar credited the work of Gabriel and other researchers for providing much needed data in the effort to enhance sentences for environmental offenses related to illicit grows.

When Boehm described the problem to the sentencing commission he said armed guards are a threat to the safety of employees and visitors and cultivation techniques damage the environment.

“It is unknown how many tons of fertilizers, gallons of toxic liquids, or pounds of solid poisons are applied and used during the cultivation process on our public lands,” he testified. “However, we do know that the impacts are significant and far reaching.”

Despite the importance of data to efforts to eradicate damage from grows research into the problem is still limited.

That’s due in part to the fact it can be dangerous to researchers.

Gabriel has been subjected to threats, including the poisoning of his dog with rat poison in 2014. Authorities in Humboldt County, Calif., offered a $20,000 reward but did not identify any suspects.

And Schlick said she’s had to pull spotted owl researchers from the field in Northern California because they were encountering signs of dangerous cartel activity.

“What does it mean to the environment? We are diminishing our survey efforts and possibly not surveying anymore because the risk is too great,” Schlick said. “The quality of the data is at risk.”

In Minnesota, medical marijuana is now legal but not easy to get for some

It’s a 400-mile, seven-hour, $100 or more journey from Maria Botker’s home in tiny Clinton, Minnesota, to the nearest clinic where she can buy medical marijuana — the only drug that does the trick for her daughter’s rare and aggressive seizure disorder.

In addition to the medicine’s high cost, the short list of qualifying conditions and the difficulty in getting a doctor’s approval to sign up, there’s one more thing making the program difficult for Minnesota patients. Some have to come an awfully long way to get it, with only two of eight dispensaries opening since the July 1 launch.

The law doesn’t require all eight to be open until July 2016. A third location is slated to open Thursday in Rochester. A Bemidji clinic for the northeast corner of the state likely won’t be running until sometime next year.

And even after all eight facilities open, Botker and others from southwestern Minnesota will still face five-hour trips or longer.

“The southwest part of the state is completely neglected,” she said. “I fear that there’s patients out there that could qualify but can’t make the trip. Those are huge burdens on people with chronic illnesses.”

Shaving two hours off their monthly trip for medicine when a Moorhead clinic opens later this summer sounds like “a treat,” Botker said. But after moving to Colorado to get her daughter, Greta, the medicine she needs, then back to Minnesota to see through a new law that disappointed many advocates, Botker doesn’t mince words about the long list of improvements needed to Minnesota’s medical marijuana program.

Adding more dispensaries is at or near the top of the wish list.

“There’s a long way to go until this system is perfect, or better,” Botker said.

Minnesota’s medical marijuana law passed in the waning days of its 2014 legislative session after some last-minute wrangling to get skeptical law enforcement agencies on board. Sen. Scott Dibble called the tight restrictions, including the limited number of dispensaries, a response to law enforcement’s “artificial concerns.”

After giving the state some time to digest its new medical marijuana program, Dibble said he’ll look to revive that debate in the name of adding more distribution centers.

“I’m very interested in lowering the barriers to people who are sick and are in need,” the Minneapolis Democrat said.

Until then, parents like Dawn Baker will have to spend hours in the car.

Baker and her fiancΘ are eyeing medical marijuana as a last recourse to treat her 4-year-old son Brayden’s epilepsy before brain surgery, but she estimates the six-hour drive to the nearest clinic in Minneapolis will cost at least $100.

Add in childcare for Brayden and their four other kids or a night at a hotel, and it’s likely $250 or more _ all before paying for the medicine itself, a bill that could easily surpass $1,000 a month that insurance won’t cover.

“We have no idea how we’re going to come up with it,” Baker said.

Minnesota’s two medical marijuana manufacturers have little role in expanding clinic access as they focus on growing and cultivating the medicine and opening the eight locations the state allows. For the time being, parents are making the drive, Minnesota Medical Solutions CEO Kyle Kingsley said.

The travel expense is a pittance compared to the $1,400 Botker pays each month for Greta’s seizure medication. Still, Botker looks on the bright side: Compared to the split life their family endured when she and Greta lived in Colorado, it’s worth the cost, she said.

“Is it frustrating getting over the growing pains? A little bit,” she said. “But ultimately, I’m so thankful that we’re getting it here in Minnesota.”

Deer ticks, Lyme disease among the hazards of Wisconsin summers

Ah, summer in Wisconsin. Backyard barbecues and music festivals. Sidewalk dining on streets festooned with colorful flower baskets. Camping, hiking, mountain biking and fishing.

Deer ticks and Lyme disease. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lyme disease, which is spread by deer ticks (also known as black-legged ticks) is the most commonly reported and fastest growing vector-borne disease in the United States. About 300,000 people are affected each year, according to the CDC.

Wisconsin lies within the disease’s primary range. Ninety-five percent of the cases reported in 2012 were in New England, the mid-Atlantic states, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the CDC reported. 

Since 1990, Wisconsin has identified 28,446 confirmed, probable and estimated cases. The state saw steady growth in the number of cases from 1990 to 2011, when 3,609 confirmed and probable cases were reported. There was a drop in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. 

The increased presence of deer ticks in Wisconsin and the growing number of ticks that are infected with Borrelia (Lyme disease) have made Wisconsin’s great outdoors a more dangerous place than it was a decade ago, according to UW-Madison professor of entomology Susan Paskewitz. The tick’s range also is expanding — both northward and southward, she says. The arachnids are now found in eastern and heavily populated southeastern Wisconsin, where people didn’t have to worry about them in the past.

Not only is the number of ticks carrying Lyme disease on the rise, but also the number of diseases carried by the ticks is greater than previously believed.

One glimmer of encouraging news is that the unusually harsh winter of 2013–14 appears to have diminished — or at least delayed — the onslaught of deer ticks in the state. During a recent field trip to state forests in the northern part of the state, Paskewitz found 60 to 90 percent fewer of the critters at the nymph stage than she found at this time last year. The ticks are most infectious at the nymph, or pre-adult, stage of development, because they are so tiny that they can easily evade detection — not much larger than the tip of a pen. 

Difficult to diagnose

Most tick bites do not result in the transmission of Borrelia, the bacteria that causes Lyme. Those that do tend to leave the defining mark of a bull’s-eye rash, which typically appears 3-30 days after the tick bite. Other symptoms include rash, fever, headache, chills, muscle pain and joint pain.

Some people who are infected never become sick, and others exhibit no signs of the disease until it has progressed to later stages, making diagnosis difficult. Early diagnosis and treatment are critical, because untreated Lyme disease can evolve into a debilitating chronic condition that lasts for years.

Even when treated, Lyme disease can cause fatigue, body aches, migraines and fevers long after the initial course of antibiotics is finished.

Many doctors remain unaware of chronic Lyme, which is named after the Connecticut city where it was first identified. Activists have battled with doctors and insurance companies in recent years to recognize chronic Lyme disease and to prescribe and pay for the prolonged treatment it requires. 

A two-day protest by victims of chronic Lyme disease and people who were misdiagnosed was staged May 22–23 at the Infectious Diseases Society of America headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. 

Victims of the disease include 1980s pop star Debbie Gibson, who headlined FruitFest in Madison this year. She had to cancel her appearance at last year’s FruitFest, and she later revealed via blog and to reporters that she was suffering from Lyme disease.

Gibson’s grim experience mirrors that of many people who are infected.

At first, she had a hard time obtaining an accurate diagnosis — an all-too-common problem among Lyme sufferers. The symptoms are similar to those of many other infections. So unless the patient lives in a heavily affected area, Lyme is not usually one of the first possibilities that doctors consider.

Gibson, who thought she had mononucleosis, said that Lyme was the last thing her doctor suspected. Her condition continued to worsen until she suffered from numbness and tingling in her hands and feet — a problem she described to People magazine as “very disconcerting for a pianist and dancer, to say the least.”

Eventually, she told People, she developed night sweats, fever, nerve tremors, nightmares and migraines. She experienced dramatic weight loss that prompted rude remarks and speculation online that she was anorexic. Before she began treatment, Gibson’s cognitive thinking was so impaired that she lost her sense of direction. 

Gibson finally found what she called a “Lyme-literate doctor,” who put her on an intense round of antibiotics and other medications. It was then that her slow recovery finally began.

Multiple infections

Another complication of diagnosing Lyme disease is that deer ticks can carry a host of other infections that have similar symptoms, and patients can be infected with more than one pathogen from a single bite. At least 14 infections are carried by various species of ticks. The most common ones in Wisconsin are: 

• Human anaplasmosis. There are about 500 new cases of this tick-borne disease in Wisconsin each year, Paskewitz says. Symptoms include a sudden onset of high fever (102 degrees or more), chills, severe headache and muscle aches. The symptoms appear 1-3 weeks after an infectious tick bite. Although people of all ages can get anaplasmosis, it is most severe in the elderly. If left untreated with a suitable antibiotic, it can result in organ failure and death. An infected tick must be attached at least 12-24 hours to transmit the human anaplasmosis bacteria.

• Babesiosis. Symptoms include high fever, muscle aches, fatigue, headache and loss of appetite. Symptoms usually appear 1-6 weeks after a deer tick bite, but may take longer in some individuals. Most people infected with the parasite will have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. However, people who are immune compromised may develop a severe, possibly fatal, illness.

• Ehrlichiosis. Symptoms, ranging from mild body aches to severe fever and vomiting, usually appear within a week or two after the bite of an infected tick. If treated quickly with appropriate antibiotics, ehrlichiosis generally improves within a few days. If not, it can result in life-threatening damage to the central nervous system. The disease did not appear in Wisconsin until 2011.

In addition to worrying about deer ticks, humans need to know that other species of disease-carrying ticks are expanding their range in the direction of Wisconsin. For instance, most of the Lyme disease found in Wisconsin currently is carried by the deer tick, classified by entomologists as Ixodes scapularis. But ticks of the Ixodes affinis genus, which also carry Lyme, have moved from the southeastern United States into states as far away as Wisconsin and New York.

Lone Star ticks, originally confined to the Southeast, have increased their range as far north as northeastern Missouri. The Lone Star tick carries the deadly Heartland virus, which cannot be treated with antibiotics. 

The Wisconsin Department of Health Service strongly urges people to seek medical attention right away if they develop signs or symptoms of any tick-related illnesses after spending time in areas where ticks are found. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital to preventing severe illness. 

“There are over 300,000 cases of Lyme each year and only 10 percent are picked up,” Dr. Robert Bransfield, clinical professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical school, told ABC News. “As a result, many people go on to late-stage symptoms that could have otherwise been avoided.”


While there is a vaccine to protect family pets against Lyme disease, there’s no approved vaccination for humans. The only protection for people is to avoid disease-bearing ticks.

Experts recommend that people spending time outdoors check themselves for ticks periodically and remove them immediately. It takes 24 to 48 hours for the tick to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. The following precautions are advised for people spending time outdoors in the summer:

• Know when you’re in tick habitat — brushy, wooded areas — where you will need to take precautions.   

• Use a good tick repellent, such as a product containing permethrin or DEET, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.   

• Wear clothes that will help to shield you from ticks. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants are best. Tuck your pants into the top of your socks or boots to create a “tick barrier.”   

• Check frequently for ticks and remove them promptly. This is an important step in preventing disease.   

• Remove the tick slowly and gently using a pair of tweezers. Folk remedies like Vaseline, nail polish remover or matches are not safe or effective methods of tick removal.

— Source: Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Farmworkers welcome planned changes to protection standards

Farmworkers welcomed an announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it will soon propose revisions to the Worker Protection Standard, which provides minimal workplace protections against pesticide exposures for farmworkers.

A coalition of farmworker, public health and other nonprofit organizations has long urged the EPA to include stronger protections for farmworkers. More than 20 years has passed since the rules were updated and the EPA has admitted for more than a decade that the standards are inadequate.

Following a review by the federal Office of Management and Budget, advocates expect the EPA will publish the proposed rule for public comment in the next few weeks. The farmworkers want to see updated rules for safety training requirements, safety precautions limiting farmworkers’ contact with pesticides and mechanisms to improve enforcement of workplace protections.

An estimated 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops annually in the United States with the nation’s 1 million to 2 million farmworkers facing the highest threat from the health impacts of the chemicals.

The federal government estimates there are 10,000–20,000 acute pesticide poisonings among workers in the agricultural industry annually. Short-term effects of pesticide exposures include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems and even death.

Long-term exposure can increase the risk of serious chronic health problems such as cancer, birth defects, neurological impairments and Parkinson’s disease for farmworkers, their families and their children.

A petition for reform was filed by Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice in November 2011 on behalf of United Farm Workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc., PCUN/Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, Farm Worker Pesticide Project, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the Pesticide Action Network North America.

“While most Americans benefit from broad workplace protections, farmworkers are fundamentally disadvantaged and face dangerous exposure to poisons over the course of their working life,” said Eve Gartner, attorney for Earthjustice. “We urge the EPA to offer farmworkers a more protective safeguard.”

“Each year pesticide exposure poisons tens of thousands of farmworkers and their families, leading to injury, illness, and death,” said Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health at Farmworker Justice. “We applaud the administration for taking this step to help protect the men, women and children who labor to put food on our tables. We hope that the EPA’s revised Worker Protection Standard will include important safeguards for farmworkers and strengthen their right to a safe workplace.”