Activist recalls herbicide battles

PHOTOS BY SHELBY WOLFE/Newport News-Times | Above: Dr. Renee Stringham, retired family physician and activist, is seen outside a Lincoln County Community Rights member’s home in Waldport, on Wednesday, Nov. 28. Below: Debra Fant, a Lincoln County Community Rights member, presents Dr. Renee Stringham with a bouquet of flowers and the group’s first-ever Community Rights Warrior award after sharing her experiences as a family physician and anti-herbicide activist in the 1970s and 80s at the Samaritan Center for Health Education building on Tuesday, Nov. 27.

A Lincoln City family physician became a nationally recognized expert on herbicide exposure in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Today, at 78-years-old, Renee Stringham remembers her time as an activist trying to call public attention to practices she believed were endangering the health of those around her.

She remembers the 10 patients she treated for aerial pesticide spray while practicing as a family physician in Lincoln City. She remembers the 27 babies she delivered with brain defects. She remembers the research, the public speaking and the day she had to decide to give all that up and put her life’s work behind her.

Stringham was at home with her sons, Lars and Leif, when two men in suits knocked on her door, asking if they could come in and talk to her about herbicides. Stringham said they identified themselves by name but not by profession.

As Stringham answered the mens’ questions she said she soon realized they were pro-herbicide.

“It was clear that they were on the other side of the issue,” Stringham said.

When Stringham suggested that they leave, one of the men asked her a question which she interpreted as a threat.

“I still remember this with a lot of emotion,” Stringham said, “one of them said, ‘have you ever seen the movie ‘Silkwood?’’”

The man was referring to Karen Silkwood, a lab technician and nuclear safety activist in the 1970s who was known for raising concerns about lax corporate practices related to radioactive exposure in a nuclear facility, and whose death was the source of heavy speculation.

Stringham insisted again that they leave, to which they responded by asking her whether or not she always knew where her children were.

“And that was it,” Stringham said. “I felt this was a credible threat. I realized I couldn’t protect my children.”

She collected her documents of research, donated them to the Northwest Center For Alternatives to Pesticides in Eugene and withdrew from public speaking and activism centered around herbicides in the early 1980s.

“I packed up all my five file boxes full of records and files and took them all up to Eugene,” Stringham said.

Soon after this encounter, Stringham looked up the names of the visitors and found that one of them was associated with the timber industry and the other with the chemical industry.

A hotbed for birth defects

In June of 1979, Stringham and her husband Charles, who is also a family physician, were invited to a conference in Portland. The event, held in the auditorium of the Oregon Health & Science University Hospital, hosted experts on herbicides who spoke about correlating health effects from exposure.

As Stringham listened, she said she began thinking back on the babies with brain defects she had delivered.

“I delivered an anencephalic child; that’s a child that has no conscious brain,” Stringham said.

The incidence of these types of malformations is narrow, Stringham said, but she recalls delivering one after the other.

“By the time we finished, out of 202 deliveries, we had 27 major malformations,” Stringham said.

She also treated 10 of the 75 people who were directly sprayed by a helicopter with Tordon 101, a combination of 2,4-D and Picloram chemicals, during a non-violent protest in June 1977. She followed those patients and their families for many years and observed varying degrees of symptoms including increased anxiety, chemical sensitivities and skin rashes.

The conference ignited her interest.

“It gave me scientific basis behind the birth defects I was seeing in my practice,” Stringham said.

She started making phone calls to state health representatives and asking about birth defects in relation to 2,4,5-T, and 2,4-D herbicides. She wrote a paper about what she had experienced with her patients who had been sprayed, as far as birth defects, chemical sensitivities, bleeding, and other symptoms. She provided herbicide education opportunities for medical societies organized by community activists, and put forward a voters' initiative in Lincoln County to ban herbicide spraying within 100 yards of any running stream, school, playground or bus stops in Oregon.

“It was very carefully worded so that there were still areas they could spray but they couldn't spray where they would contaminate our water,” Stringham said. “They were broadcast spraying over the surface water that we all drank and they had no restrictions around this.”

News outlets such as the Los Angeles Times wrote about the Stringhams and herbicide spraying in Oregon.

“This was big, Stringham said. “It was getting national news.”

“As things progressed, because I had done the research and I had done these papers, other physicians continued to call me and that was why they identified me as an expert,” Stringham said.

The director of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the time, Godfrey Oakley, called her to find out what was happening on the central coast of Oregon. He told Stringham he was aware that Lincoln County was one of four hot spots in the nation for anencephaly, a neural-tube defect.

“I just kept amassing information,” Stringham said.

Cause of defects still not proven

When Renee and Charles Stringham moved to Lincoln City, where they both practiced family medicine from 1975 until 1989, they had no idea what they were stepping into.

“I was already a peace activist and had been very active in a number of things during the Vietnam War,” Stringham said. “So I came with a history of activism, not intending to be an activist here.”

Although Stringham has done years of research, and has observed patients suffering acute and chronic symptoms after being sprayed with herbicide, she is still not able to definitively state that herbicides have caused these defects and symptoms.

“I can say we are experiencing these things,” Stringham said. “They seem to be related to the spraying, but I cannot say it’s causal.”

Stringham emphasized the importance of applying the precautionary principle, which is a principle that says until something is proven to be safe, it should not be released into the human population.

The trouble with determining cause and effect in humans, Stringham said, is the varying degrees of freedom and epigenetics.

“You can’t isolate the one factor in a human population,” Stringham said. “So the studies in a human population aren’t very accurate.”

Epigenetics, Stringham explained, is the study of biological mechanisms which regulate whether or not a particular gene is turned on or off.

“We all have a different genetic sensitivity to things,” Stringham said. “I can’t say that those symptoms are from the herbicides, but I can say herbicides are one of the chemicals that have been studied in this whole program.”

Because of the lack of knowledge around epigenetics and the degrees of freedom, Stringham said it’s nearly impossible to prove that the birth defects and symptoms she has witnessed are directly caused by herbicide exposure.

“We have to use our common sense,” Stringham said. “There’s an emotional intellect, there is an instinct that we inherited from our ancestors that says this is wrong, and we have to listen to that and be aware.”

Spray ban gained

On Tuesday, Nov. 27, the Lincoln County Community Rights group hosted a public event with Stringham, where she shared her medical and political experiences during the time when aerial herbicide spraying of logging company lands and national forests was unregulated.

“I think Renee has a really unique story and perspective because she understands medicine, she’s a researcher, but she is also an activist at heart and she understands community at a very particular and essential way for us,” said Jan Kenyon, a Lincoln County Community Rights member.

Last year, members of the Lincoln County Community Rights group introduced an ordinance to ban aerial pesticide spraying in Lincoln County that became known as measure 21-177 on the ballot. In May 2017, the measure passed by 61 votes, making Lincoln County the first in the United States to ban aerial pesticides by the vote of the people.

“It’s only with a community that we can ever succeed at changing things,” Stringham said.

Despite opposition, the ban has remained in effect for more than a year and is currently county law. However, it is now being challenged by pre-emptive state law.

“I don’t know a lot about current herbicide literature,” Stringham said. “I stopped when that threat to my children came. But I’ve been active in the thing which took my heart early on, which was peace, and that’s where my focus has been for the last number of years.”

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