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NC State Extension

FAQ: Health Concerns About Pesticide Use in Christmas Tree Production

Are there increased risks of getting cancer by living in areas of Christmas tree production?

Rumors have spread through western North Carolina for years that pesticides used in Christmas tree production cause cancer. One county extension agent in a mountain county even tells of a woman coming into his office and telling him a Christmas tree grower bought the property next to her, and she demanded to know what kind of cancer she was now going to die from.

In reality, cancer rates in NC mountain counties are for the most part lower than other counties in North Carolina. This has been true since the 1990s. The following tables show cancer rates by type for various Christmas tree producing counties compared to other counties in the state. These data are taken from: 2014-2018 Cancer Incidence Rates by County for Selected Sites per 100,000 Population Age-Adjusted to the 2000 US Census

2014-2018 North Carolina Cancer Incidence Rates per 100,000 Population Age-Adjusted to the 2000 US Census

Colon/Rectum Cancer: NC Average = 35.1
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: Swain 60.0 1
MITCHELL 39.6 30
ASHE 37.0 44
JACKSON 35.7 54
AVERY 35.2 59
WATAUGA 31.0 82
ALLEGHANY 19.5 98
Lowest ranking county: HYDE not calculated 100
Lung/Bronchus Cancer: NC Average = 63.0
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: ONSLOW 91.9 1
MITCHELL  68.9 37
ALLEGHANY  66.7 49
AVERY  62.6 70
JACKSON 58.0 82
ASHE  57.8 83
WATAGUA  46.9 98
Lowest ranking county: POLK 41.2 100
Female Breast Cancer: NC Average = 158.7
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: TYRELL 211.1 1
MITCHELL 166.5 21
AVERY 153.0 42
WATAUGA 146.4 54
ASHE 132.4 78
JACKSON 119.4 93
ALLEGHANY  105.8 97
Lowest ranking county: HYDE  86.9 100
Prostate Cancer: NC Average = 113.6
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: TYRELL 171.4 1
AVERY 112.3 36
ALLEGHANY 107.5 48
ASHE 103.7 56
WATAUGA 91.5 81
MITCHELL 87.0 89
JACKSON 78.7 95
Lowest ranking county: GRAHAM 56.0 100
All Cancers: NC Average = 459.1
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: SWAIN 549.0 1
AVERY 469.5 3
MITCHELL 446.7 55
ASHE 442.8 60
WATAUGA 428.8 75
ALLEGHANY 405.8 89
JACKSON 394.2 95
Lowest ranking county: GATES 357.6 100

Should I be concerned about pesticides in my well water?

Residence near a Christmas tree farmOne of the herbicides used in Christmas trees and other crops in western North Carolina, Simazine, was found at high levels in a well associated with a tree farm in the 1990s. This prompted widespread well sampling in which Simazine was found in only a handful of other wells. The only other pesticides found were Atrazine, a herbicide similar to Simazine, and Lindane, an insecticide. These are all older pesticides. Lindane is no longer being manufactured and sold. Atrazine is no longer used by the industry. And once one of the mainstays of weed control in the Christmas tree industry in North Carolina, the use of Simazine (also sold as Princep) continues to decline. Grower surveys through the years indicated the Simazine was used on 72 % of the Fraser fir Christmas tree acreage in 1994 and only on 6 % of the acreage in 2013. Other pesticides are not likely to get into groundwater as they are not as water soluble.

Prepared by Jill Sidebottom, Ph.D.
Area Extension Forestry Specialist, Mountain Conifer IPM
NCSU College of Natural Resources
N.C. Cooperative Extension Service