At a wind farm on top of Kevin Rim in north central Montana, in a conference room filled with a long table and black chairs, I do something I’ve never done before. I say, “No.”
It’s spring and the windswept land holds something tenuous—bare and raw and new. Savanna sparrow nestlings crowd tiny bowls of finely woven grass, their red and yellow mouths gaping. The word I’ve spoken bounces against the blank walls like buckshot hitting bare rock face. My supervisor looks at me with a startled expression.
“I’m not doing the surveys,” I say.
Surrounding the office where I stand, graceful curved rows of green crops hug the mirrored surfaces of cerulean prairie potholes. The wind carries sharp scents of leather, mud, cattle, and sage. To the east is the washed silhouette of the Sweet Grass Hills—purple against looming thunderheads.
I have never refused to work in my life. I grew up on a small farm and learned to work hard as a child. After I became a field biologist, I worked at sea, in hailstorms, wildfires, and flooding rivers. I stayed late and worked in the dark with wet feet and cold hands in gale force winds, wore out work boots and a good marriage. And now I’m saying no.
My supervisor has flown from San Francisco to Great Falls, Montana. He has rented a car and driven two hours north to meet with me at the wind farm. He looks puzzled.
“I’m six-weeks pregnant,” I explain, “I believe the risk is too high for me to go into the fields.” He is still confused.
I place before my boss the herbicide labels that local farmers have submitted to me. The one that concerns me the most is herbicide 2,4-D. It’s a wet spring on the Hi-Line, and dryland farmers are doubling their efforts to produce crops, which means more spraying.
First engineered in the 1940s, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (otherwise known as 2, 4-D), was a main ingredient in Agent Orange—the tactical defoliant sprayed on jungle foliage during the Vietnam War. The patents have long since expired, so the chemical is easily manufactured and, therefore, an inexpensive choice for farmers in Montana to use on their crops.
I perform wildlife surveys on this farmland that the wind farm leases for turbines. Trekking across farmer’s fields in search of wild raptors impacted by the wind farm, I’m aware that I would be exposed to herbicide residue and fresh overspray carried on the strong winds from adjacent fields.
My supervisor studies the labels and notes the safe re-entry times. Would I feel comfortable going into the fields at safe intervals after the spraying?
“No,” I say again.
The re-entry times are based on adult bodies with fully functioning livers. My baby, at only six weeks, is the size of a lentil. He has no liver and is in a vulnerable stage of brain and vital organ development. His nose, mouth, ears, and lungs are just beginning to form. No matter how much my healthy work ethic cringes, I will not budge on this.
In preparation for this meeting, I researched and found that 2,4-D is an active ingredient in over 1500 products around the world. The chemical kills broadleaf plants, but not grasses. For this reason, it is a common ingredient in lawn care products and is also used to kill weeds in cereal crops like wheat.
2,4-D works by emulating the growth hormone auxin, which causes the plants to grow excessively. The stems of the plants curl, the leaves wither, and the plants die. In wheat fields on Kevin Rim, I have seen the sprayed weeds that look like curly green ribbons against the dry soil.
In a 2005 study published by Sierra Club of Canada, a large body of evidence supported the link between exposure to 2,4-D and cancer, immunosuppression, reproductive damage, and neurotoxicity. Linked to prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, 2-4,D is known to produce lower sperm counts and more sperm abnormalities in men who sprayed the herbicide when compared with men who were not exposed to the chemical. Experiments on lab rats exposed to 2,4-D during gestation show that even when animals appeared healthy at birth, they often exhibited abnormal social behavior as adults.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has named 2,4-D as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The herbicide is banned for use on lawns and gardens in Denmark, Kuwait, Norway, Sweden, the Canadian provinces Quebec and Ontario and is carefully controlled in Belize.
Here on Kevin Rim, the land is dry and harsh and beautiful. Fifty-five mph winds suck moisture from the air and soil. In untouched areas, blooming bitterroot hug bare patches between snowberry and fescue. Stunted juniper hunch over long rolling hills of short-grass prairie. The native plants are hardy and drought resistant.
In order to farm this land, Montanans use no irrigation and rely on small amounts of rainfall to grow crops. Dryland farming practices conserve water in various ways. One way is to leave a large portion of cropland unused or “fallow” and only grow crops on them every other year. This involves spraying high concentrations of 2,4-D twice a year on fallow fields. On active fields, there is a need to kill weeds before they draw vital moisture from the ground.
Beyond surveying in the fields during spraying times, I also know that living near large-scale agricultural spraying of 2,4-D and other chemicals in the spring would be dangerous to my unborn child. In Minnesota, a study showed a rise in birth defects in babies conceived in spring near areas with the highest use of 2,4-D and other herbicides of the same class. The spike in birth defects was shown to affect women and babies who were not even directly exposed to the chemicals. 2,4-D has been found in streams, wetlands, and shallow groundwater because it does not bind easily with soil particles and leaches quickly into surface water.
2,4-D has been found in the breastmilk of women who work in agriculture, in eggs laid by chickens exposed to the chemical, and in milk from cows that were contaminated with 2,4-D. Even after cows were removed from exposure, the chemical continued to show up in their milk for a week.
Eventually, my supervisor agrees to hire a young man to help me with fieldwork for the summer. I am given database and human resource management duties to oversee until spray season is finished. I still survey on rangeland that is not sprayed with herbicide.
As I walk among prickly pear blooms and pasqueflower, my belly grows. My surveys become slower and more plodding. Spring turns to summer, and I find I have little desire to work in 100+ degree weather.
I feel like me and not me. I am here and not here. I begin to care very little about keeping the job or making a good impression. I’m squeezing time and letting go of certain ambitions. All I care about now is protecting my baby so he can grow.
What seems like years pass, yet it’s only months. At night, I still dream of those tender stems coiled after spraying, the succulent swelling and breaking. Mostly I dream of the sky above Kevin Rim—wide and blue and bright. It’s still summer, but I am squinting into a brand new sun.
When I became pregnant with my son, Walter, I realized my choices directly affected another person—a tiny vulnerable person. After researching the impacts of herbicide exposure, I discovered my job was potentially dangerous to my unborn son. This information led me to navigate some difficult professional waters, and the experience taught me about priorities and how to talk about this hard topic in the workplace.
Missy Peterson is an Environmental Studies student at the University of Montana where she is on the editorial board for Camas Magazine. Her writing has been published by Seal Press and Oregon Quarterly among others. Her first novel, Jimmy James Blood, earned fourth place in Kirkus Review’s Best Indie books of 2012 and was a finalist for an Indie Excellence National Book Award.