GroundTruth Blog

California rolls out 'new' air monitoring plan

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by Karl Tupper

A few weeks ago, California's Department of Pesticide Regulation announced the launch of a new, "first of its kind" air monitoring network designed to look for pesticides drifting into populated areas in the state's fertile agricultural valleys. Weekly samples will be collected over the course of a year in three communities: Shafter, Salinas, and Ripon. Each will be analyzed for 34 pesticides including many neurotoxic insecticides and highly toxic fumigants like methyl iodide. It's an ambitious project, and it's sure to yield a ton of interesting data, yet I just can't get excited about it because: a) PAN's been doing a version of this for years; and b) lack of data isn't the problem at this point.

Let me start by saying that California has been -- and remains -- a leader in pesticide air monitoring. Since the 1980s, when the state began this pioneering work, it has carried out scores of monitoring studies, collecting air samples along on the edges of sprayed fields, in city centers, and all sorts of in-between situations. It is the only such program in the country. And, as we highlighted in our Secondhand Pesticides report, this program has been finding pesticide contamination more often than not, and frequently in alarmingly high levels. The California program also served as the inspiration and model for our own "Drift Catcher" pesticide air monitoring program.

So what's not to like about this new network? While more monitoring and more data are always welcome, neither is a substitute for action. We may not know everything we'd like to know about pesticide drift, but we know enough to see that the state has a problem. But rather than do anything to address that problem, the state is taking the much less politically challenging approach of studying the problem some more.

And almost all of the 34 pesticides they'll be looking for are chemicals for which they've already monitored in the past. Three (methyl bromide, endosulfan, and methidathion) are already being phased out, and the fate of a fourth, methyl iodide, is up in the air (no pun intended).

One of the chemicals they won't be looking for is ethylene thiourea (ETU), and this seems like a real missed opportunity to me. ETU is the common breakdown product of two widely used fungicides, mancozeb and maneb. It's very volatile, it's a known carcinogen and developmental toxicant, and nobody has ever looked for it in California's air. You'd think the state would want to investigate the extent of exposure, but maybe they figure that the air monitoring program has already revealed more problem chemicals than they can deal with, and would rather avoid yet another one.

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