My First Day at LEAH
Crossposted from A Stick in The Mud. - GH
It’s 6:30 in the morning. I’m at the house of a stranger. The lights are off and I am trying to break in. Ten minutes go by, fifteen. I’m pounding on the door, circling the house, cussing at the door, peaking through the window, pleading with door, but it does not open.
I met Ellen the day before. I also work at Staples and I was helping her lift a box of paper into the trunk of her car. We got into a conversation about the non-profit she is running, The LEAH Advocacy Group (Staples calls this customer communication technique the Selling FunnelTM). Before long, she had hired me on to help support a bill set to hit the floor of the New Hampshire House the very next day.
For those of you who don’t know Ellen, she is a bit disorganized and, that morning, she was still asleep. It took some time, pleading with the door of my employer-to-be, but she finally came downstairs to open the door.
“Would you mind taking off your shoes?” And just as I was about to, she added, as if needing explanation, “I just don’t want you to track in any pesticides into my house.”
Boy, I thought, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
One hour and one green juice later, I was in the car, getting the pesticide crash course. She first talked about Pyrethroids, and 2,4-D and Dicamba and their links to cancer and asthma and endocrine dysfunction. She referred to the bill, HB495 “Healthy Kids, Healthy Lawns”, aimed at phasing out pesticides on schools lawn and playing fields in NH. Then she talked about her personal life.
Twenty years ago they started spraying at her condo complex and the surrounding area of her ski resort town, Waterville Valley, NH. Every month, in the middle of the White Mountains, when they sprayed, Ellen couldn’t breathe, her heart raced, her face felt flushed and exhaustion. After one particularly lengthy spraying, she suffered a real poisoning. She started hyperventilating and her heart started racing so fast she couldn’t lie down. She looked me in the eye and said, “I was sitting up in bed that night, praying that I would not die.”
After the first night, the symptoms morphed: muscle aches, loss of co-ordination, a persistent wheezing, memory loss, dizziness, headaches and shooting pains in her heart, rapid heart rate and exhaustion, depression for another six months. Around certain lawns breathing became labored and so she worried about going outside. She mentioned, for a moment, reproductive issues, but her voice pauses and tails off.
Ellen’s mother, Arlyne experienced some of the same symptoms, the rapid heart rate, pulse 165, hospitalization. Pesticides? Her eyes ask me to believe. “That screech that sounds like a cross between a crow and a three pack a day smoker, Camel no filters. I think pesticides…” Ellen’s mother died three years ago; it became clear that much of her money was used to fund The LEAH Advocacy Group.
We eventually reached The New Hampshire State Capitol building. Ellen stationed me by the entrance to the debate floor, to hand out “Support HB 495: Healthy Lawns, Healthy Kids” flyers to all the caucusing representatives. Duke, Kaija and Alyssa, LEAH reinforcements, all from around Middle-of-Nowhere New Hampshire arrive on the scene. People everywhere are handing out fliers. Ellen looks at the tall attractive woman and the two guys beside her with the orange “Lobbyist” emblazoned badges. “I could pay a fee and become a lobbyist, but I would still much rather be seen as a concerned citizen.” Across the hallway a middle aged woman with round glasses and a home-knit sweater hands out black and white fliers written in sensationalizing caps. Is the other end of the spectrum how she would want to be seen either?
With only 100 fewer delegates than the United States Congress, The New Hampshire General Court is the fourth largest English speaking legislative body of the world. The House of Representatives has 400 members, each representing an average of 3300 New Hampshire citizens. Although most have a genuine interest in the welfare of the state, many seem to be retired WASPs types, who can both afford the $100 annual salary and desire the exclusiveness of this whitewashed social club. One could argue that this is not the best political system for the people of New Hampshire.
This year, the house is one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third Tea Party. Highlight of the Day: ‘the bad guys aren’t registering their guns, so why punish the good guys? Let’s weaken gun laws’. House colleagues spent hours listening to a former FDA employee attempt to explain away EPA regulations. Dr. Lu’s warning, Ellen told me, that the federal government is not even halfway done compiling pesticide toxicity data on children and the elderly was quickly shut down. Dr. Lu sits on the EPA Scientific Advisory Panel.
At around one, Duke, Kaija and Alyssa left. Of course, Ellen wanted to wait around five more hours listening to gun bill after gun bill for a chance to see her bill. We heard bills disenfranchising college students; bills establishing a supermajority for future tax raises, and a bill urging Congress to drop out of the United Nations. After pointing out a particularly heinous bill which would establish a state militia, Ellen began complaining about the “tea party fanatics” that had taken over New Hampshire. Yet here we were, waiting like the nerds in their tents before the grand opening of an Apple Store. I can still hear Kaija’s ominous words, “Just give it some time. You’ll be sucked in before long.”
For awhile, it looked as if we would have to return tomorrow to see the fate of HB 495. But our bill ended up being one of the last to hit the floor. Representative Suzanne Smith, the main sponsor, went up to the podium to speak . She cited the President’s Cancer Panel report, explaining children were especially vulnerable to carcinogens. Rep. Smith laid out links to asthma, endocrine disruption, cancer, neurological defects and other diseases. She attacked the myths surrounding IPM, she clarified that the bill would not infringe on individual rights, and she provided a viable alternative to pesticide based lawn care by calling attention to the growing demand for organic turf management. Rep. Smith ended with a persuasive argument. “We in the New Hampshire legislature have erred on the side of caution where our children are concerned. We may not require adults to wear seat belts or helmets, but we do require that of our children. If we can grow good quality playing fields and grass and not put children at risk from even the possibility of short or long term health issues, what is the argument not to do something?”
“That was the best speech of the day,” Ellen enthused. And even in my unbiased opinion I had to agree. It was insightful, persuasive and well-rehearsed. It was a shame that most members of the house were twiddling with their phones or chatting through the one green bill on the floor that session. The Chair of the Environment and Agriculture Committee, Bob Haefner and our bill’s main opponent, walked to the podium. He littered his speech with “uhms” and pauses and the occasional backward glances at the invisible teleprompter by his feet. If Ellen writing this review, I would be skeptical, but you can trust me. After he finished, the speaker called for a vote, and it was voted down, as anticlimactic as that.
After a consolation dinner at a Thai Restaurant, we headed back. “Let’s not talk about pesticides anymore,” Ellen said as she turned on NPR. But the conversation invariably drifted back. “I wouldn’t be doing this,” she told me, “If I were the only person getting sick. I’ve heard so many stories…” She told me about the hundreds of studies linking pesticides to everything from childhood lymphoma to frog abnormalities. And yet she still seemed worried that she only sounded like a concerned PTA mother. A couple weeks later when I mentioned how IBT Labs fabricated data for Monsanto, she pulled aside, “look when you are giving damning evidence like that, you better cite who’s doing the investigation and how they found out, or else you’ll sound like a conspiracy theorist”.
NPR had a special on pilgrimages to Mt. Kailash. We both wanted to listen. So we listened in silence.