In 2016, California used almost a million pounds of the highly toxic, brain-harming pesticide chlorpyrifos. In November 2018, under pressure from communities around the state who have suffered health consequences of exposure to this pesticide, the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulations (DPR) announced guidelines to protect communities from it.
Disappointingly, DPR’s measures left much to be desired. The recommended restrictions include a minimal 150-foot no-application setback zone around homes, schools and other "sensitive sites" and limited restrictions on the crops and pests the chemical can be used on. Chlorpyrifos will still be sprayed on many common crops across the state.
The science is clear
The new mitigation measures fall far short of the currently challenged national ban on chlorpyrifos ordered by the Federal Appeals Court in August 2018 — and counter what DPR's own Toxic Air Contaminant study says about vulnerable populations like children. DPR’s scientific conclusions about chlorpyrifos were announced at a hearing convened in July 2018 by the state’s Scientific Review Panel, a body of independent scientists overseeing DPR’s risk assessment of chlorpyrifos. The agency’s conclusions largely aligned with those of U.S. EPA scientists, that current uses of chlorpyrifos in the state put children at risk from unsafe levels of exposure from residues on food, contaminated water, and pesticide drift up to a half-mile.
Shocked at DPR's continued foot-dragging and disregard for science, Mark Weller of the Californians for Pesticide Reform coalition said:
“With the new suggested measures that DPR released in November, in a Trump-era move, DPR has chosen not to protect us — to undercut what courts and other states like Hawai‘i are doing to protect rural communities".
No accountability and many exceptions
Furthermore, DPR's guidelines are voluntary — they’re “recommended” measures that DPR has created and left to the county agricultural commissioners to implement. Unless these rules are made mandatory, they could be unevenly enforced. And while the recommended measures listed by DPR do ban aerial applications for chlorpyrifos, they continue to allow ground applications for several crops such as alfalfa, almonds, asparagus, citrus, leafy vegetables, radishes, rutabaga, turnips, cotton, garlic, grapes, onions, peppermint, walnuts, and any crop for “emergencies, special needs, and when required by state/federal agencies.” Particularly puzzling are exceptions made for rutabagas and turnips, given that no use of chlorpyrifos was reported for these crops in 2016, and only 11 lbs of use was reported in 2015.
Further loopholes exist for aerial spraying. In 2016, about 24.3% of all chlorpyrifos was applied by air, but prohibiting aerial applications would not necessarily diminish the quantity of the chemical used. About 73% of applications of chlorpyrifos in 2016 was on three crops: alfalfa, almonds and cotton. With the aforementioned exceptions, the permit conditions would still allow chlorpyrifos use on those three crops, provided that users switched to ground applications. So quantities of pesticide use on these crops might not actually go down because of the new guidelines.
The guidelines set up 24-hour buffer zones of a quarter-mile around the application areas, where no activity other than chlorpyrifos preparation or transport may take place. There are also 150-foot no-application setback zones designated around sensitive sites such as homes, schools, etc. However, what happens when these sensitive sites are within the quarter-mile buffer?
It seems that while a 150-foot setback zone would be observed around the sensitive site that lies within the buffer zone; either the occupants of the sensitive site would have to vacate their their home, school, etc, for the 24-hour duration of the buffer zone, or they would have to waive leaving their home and remain confined inside since no activity other than the transport and preparation of chlorpyrifos may take place during the 24-hour period the buffer zone is in effect in that quarter-mile area. Furthermore, if the occupants of that sensitive site did vacate for the duration the buffer zone is in place, the question of who would pay for alternative accomodation, like a hotel, remains unanswered. This is particularly problematic for people who might not be able to afford alternative accomodation on their own. This part of the guidelines has mystified and concerned communities across the state.
It seems these guidelines were put in place by DPR just as window dressing and to make a show of "taking action" in the face of the intense public pressure against chlorpyrifos. It’s high time DPR officials took some real action, like Hawai‘i did earlier this year when the state fully banned chlorpyrifos use. Californians need actual protection, DPR, not just hollow recommendations.
Photo: J Brew | Flickr