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Three is too many…

Upon my return to Toronto from our winter home in Florida, I became aware of a 44-year-old superintendent in the area who has been struck with leukemia. This caught my attention because I, also, was diagnosed with chronic leukemia five or so years ago, and more than likely had it for several years prior.

This young fellow has undergone two years of medical treatment but with no positive results. He is now scheduled for a bone marrow transplant from his sister in July. He will be unable to work for at least six months and his chances of a full recovery are uncertain. Like most in his age bracket, he has a wife, a house with a mortgage, and a daughter about to enter college.

Another acquaintance of mine, a pro/superintendent now retired from a different golf course in the area, also struggles with leukemia. He takes medication but, like me, often feels tired and lethargic. Both of us have had our spleens removed to increase the number of platelets in our blood, but the process compromised our immune systems. Infections of any kind are now a serious threat.

Because misery loves company, we keep in touch and compare notes about our health. But, as opposed to the young superintendent in the midst of his life and career, my retired friend and I have lived the bulk of our lives.

Leukemia has been likened to a death sentence with a stay of execution. Thankfully all three of us have been spared so far.

Leukemia has been likened to a death sentence with a stay of execution. Thankfully all three of us have been spared so far…

Of course what all three of us also have in common is that we were exposed to pesticides for prolonged periods during our professional careers on the golf course. Our doctors, all highly qualified hematologists, believe there is a correlation between leukemia and exposure to pesticides. I questioned that conclusion at one time, but three of us now — within shouting distance of each other — are difficult to ignore.

For years experts in our field assured us — not once, or twice… but repeatedly at conferences and seminars — that properly applied pesticides are perfectly safe and will not cause cancer. Could those experts have been wrong? It certainly seems that way that way to me.

For years experts in our field assured us — not once, or twice… but repeatedly at conferences and seminars — that properly applied pesticides are perfectly safe…

Leukemia is a relatively rare disease that only affects about one person in a hundred thousand. For the longest time I believed that my condition was indeed a rarity, but now that we are three, that’s too many for a coincidence… and I’m sure there are others. Our fight with leukemia must not be ignored or swept under the rug. Superintendents have to be made aware of the real dangers they are exposed to in their daily lives on the golf course.  This is not something to be scoffed at or taken lightly.

Even though our application equipment is better, products are much safer than back in the days of mercury, the use of personal protective equipment more common and our education much improved, the dangers still exist. The time has come to apply fewer pesticides (or not at all), and our golfers have to learn to expect less than perfect conditions. There are already many in our ranks who have embraced this philosophy. We should applaud their efforts and advocate their practices for the betterment of golf and for the health of our profession.

9 Responses to “Three is too many…”

  • John Genovesi:

    Maybe its time we do an industry wide survey to find out what percentage of our members are battling cancer and see how it stacks up against the general population.

  • Chuck Barber:

    Gordon,

    Can you find any other similarities in the three of you beyond pesticide exposure? What about local air quality, proximity to coal fired power plants, dry cleaners or nuclear electricity generation. Don’t pigeon hole it into pesticides. Be critical of everything, absolutely, but don’t make the mistake of completely ignoring other factors in an effort to blame something that’s right in front of you. It is very easy to blame pesticides, and popular too, but please point to scientific evidence. Also, are all three of you suffering from the same type of leukemia because there’s more than one type. How about your lifestyles? Are there any common threads? Smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, poor diet? I think the biggest exposure risk for golf course superintendents is to the sun. Do you or your colleagues have a history of basal cell carcinoma? Is there a tendency for susceptibility with a history of skin cancer?

    A local colleague was also diagnosed with leukemia, someone I respect and like a great deal, and I hate this disease as much as anyone. In my professional life I like to think when faced with a question or a challenge that I take a step back and dispassionately come up with decisions based on observable, measurable data. Find someone who doesn’t know the first thing about pesticides, leukemia and golf peek into your life and see if they can come up with a common thread from you and your friends. You may be interested in what you find. Please be careful when demonizing things without the proper information.

  • mike gray:

    Follow the money. Of course they will say their products are safe but common sense dictates otherwise. 30 years ago I’m sure they said the same thing about their products. It’s just big business screwing the little guy.

  • Chuck Barber:

    What common sense? 30 years ago pesticide training, application equipment, ppe, formulations, etc were all different. I sprayed mercury as recently as 1998 in CO but since I’ve seen rates plummet, a.i. percentages become smaller and RUP’s are all but absent in my chemical inventory (I can’t think of one). If you really want to talk about pesticide use and any potential for chronic, terminal illness, talk about row crop agriculture. Golf course pesticide use is environmentally responsible (for most, I believe) and is usually part of a broad spectrum IPM program. These programs are designed to limit or eliminate pesticide use and application because, common sense, it saves money! Row crop agriculture relies on flood irrigation, bare soil herbicide and fertilizer applications and heavy use of fossil fuels. Now THERE is something to look at. I feel Gordon is misguided in his pursuit to demonize pesticides because he’s targeting the wrong people. Further, his generation of superintendent pioneered the early use of elemental pesticides that, sadly, were harmful environmentally and biologically. I also can’t stress enough the importance of lifestyle in this conversation. The Chinese smoke infinitely more than we do in this country but don’t have the accompanying problems with heart disease, lung and throat cancer and the other maladies associated with smoking here in America. The reason: They have a much healthier diet and walk everywhere they go. This may change as they develop but that’s their epidemiology in a nutshell. Superintendents have a tendency towards stress, poor diet, lack of excercise, tobacco and alcohol use and unprotected sunlight exposure. That has to be factored into the equation. Full disclosure: I am guilty at one time or another of all those vices.

    Finally, I keep asking for evidence beyond “PESTICIDES ARE BAD BECAUSE I THINK THEY ARE BAD” but no one here provides it. Not Gordon’s doctors, not fellow superintendents or consultants. Please consider all factors, not just the easy target. My neighbor downstairs has Non-Hodgkins lymphoma and is a lawyer. The sad fact is people get cancer. Cancer is a part of the human genome and if we all lived long enough we would all get it.

  • Chuck Barber:

    No one has further thoughts they’d like to share? This discussion works better with more active participation. I am not so in love with my opinion that I won’t listen to arguments that run counter to my own. Let’s have it.

  • Gordon,
    Didn’t the GCSAA study this back in the 1990s? It seems to me they had a big report about supers and leukemia or cancer back then.

  • gordon witteveen:

    GCSAA commisioned a mortality study of deceased superintendents to determine the cancer rate of superintendents as opposed to the general population. This took place 15-20 years ago. The results were inconclusive as I remember. I would like to know how many superintendents suffer from chronic or acute Leukemia. There’s the three of us in Ontario. There must be more.

    Gordon

  • chuck barber:

    Inconclusive is misleading. The biggest component was lung cancer and the study indicated that superintendents should quit smoking. The conclusions of the study said to follow labels, wash your hands and clothes and be careful in pesticide handling. The study was done in 1994 covering deceased superintendents from 1970 through 1972. Inconclusive is misleading.