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: 2013-2017 Cancer Incidence Rates by County for Selected Sites per 100,000 Population Age-Adjusted to the 2000 US Census

2013-2017 North Carolina Cancer Incidence Rates per 100,000 Population Age-Adjusted to the 2000 US Census

Colon/Rectum Cancer: NC Average = 36.0
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: Swain 56.4 1
Avery 41.1 28
Mitchell 40.9 30
Ashe 36.1 56
Jackson 34.7 72
Watauga 30.1 91
Alleghany 26.4 98
Lowest ranking county: Hyde 21.5 100
Lung/Bronchus Cancer: NC Average = 66.0
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: Pamlico 107.4 1
Alleghany  76.2 21
Mitchell  71.3 36
Avery  61.6 76
Ashe  60.5 81
Jackson  56.8 87
Watauga  45.0 100
Lowest ranking county: Watauga 100
Female Breast Cancer: NC Average = 160.2
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: Orange 190.7 1
Avery 164.2 20
Watauga 160.9 28
Mitchell 153.9 47
Ashe 135.0 79
Jackson 113.5 96
Alleghany  106.2 99
Lowest ranking county: Hyde  90.8 100
Prostate Cancer: NC Average = 111.9
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: Camden 115.6 1
Avery 96.9 69
Alleghany 95.5 71
Mitchell 89.6 85
Ashe 89.1 87
Watauga 88.1 89
Jackson 77.3 98
Lowest ranking county: Graham 48.6 100
All Cancers: NC Average = 470.0
County Rate Rank from Highest to Lowest
Highest ranking county: Pamlico 573.9 1
Avery 477.2 35
Mitchell 453.9 66
Watauga 438.2 77
Ashe 434.8 82
Alleghany 414.0 90
Jackson 388.1 97
Lowest ranking county: Hyde 355.8 100

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