Poisoned without warning

PORTLAND, Ore. -- As spring season moves into high gear attention turns to lawns and gardens, but many yard products contain dangerous chemicals that could harm the environment.

How do you know which products are safe?

It's harder to figure out than it should be. Stores line shelves with hundreds of products, many of which put salmon at risk.

Pacific University senior Alexa Clement enjoys getting outdoors, especially at the off-campus sustainability site called the " ."

That's because the site does not spray or apply chemical pesticides, insecticides, fungicides or fertilizers; the university's "Go Green" policy forbids it.

"You're certainly killing off the weeds with chemicals," noted Clement, "but you're also killing off spiders and snakes and different bacteria that are really important for healthy soil."

Staying healthy was a critical part of Clement's recent senior project - and she also looked at the health and sustainability of Pacific salmon.

Many pesticides used for yard work run off when it rains hard and end up in creeks, where baby salmon live.

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Dr. Deke Gunderson, Clement's advisor and a Pacific University toxicology professor, said pesticides are dangerous.

"They are certainly dangerous for aquatic life and frankly, most people don't know how to use these things responsibly," he said.

Clement, who majors in Environmental Chemistry, wanted to know why stores don't post " " signs warning that some pesticides kill salmon.

Three years ago, a federal judge ordered the signs alert consumers to pesticides that harm salmon populations.

Clement looked for the signs in dozens of Portland metro area garden and nursery stores in a project that took months to complete.

"It was a slow tedious process," Clement said. "Some of the stores had hundreds of products and I had to go through each and every label, mark off what the product was and how many were on the shelves."

The Salmon Hazard signs are supposed to be posted next to pesticides like Sevin and Malathion.

But among all the products in 31 stores that Clement surveyed, she found just one sign - hidden behind a rack of gloves.

"I was shocked that many businesses weren't complying," she said.

How does it happen that the signs aren't posted - and where does it leave the homeowner who wants more information?

It turns out that the EPA did send out thousands of the "Salmon Hazard" signs to more than 500 regional retailers just as the federal court had ordered.

However, it turns out the judge's order did not obligate retailers to post the signs.

Laurie Gordon, Pesticide Specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, insists that many retailers did post the warning signs, yet admits they didn't last.

"The problem was they weren't laminated and so they were easily damaged or torn through the years, on the shelves -- or they may have been damaged or faded and they were discarded," she said. "There wasn't a plan to keep a constant steady supply for them."

Conservationist Aimee Code works for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. She agrees that the signs were not a success because stores didn't have to post them.

She noted that the signs are now gone but that new warnings are coming -- this time on the products themselves. But the labels won't be available for another year, at the earliest, she said.

"When you pick up a product, right there on the label it's going to tell you that this might be a harm (to salmon) and it's going to tell you what you can do to make a change," Code said.

Back at Pacific University, Alexa Clement is proud of her efforts and her senior project because it helped many people make informed decisions about using safe products in the yard and garden.

"It's really not that hard to do. It's just that people need to be on the same page for it (information) to work properly," she said.

The state agriculture department maintains a web page informing residents about .

The NW Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides offers its own tips and suggestions for providing .

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