State Pesticide Approval Process Flawed, Report Finds
Current review of strawberry fumigant chloropicrin suffers from the same
problems highlighted in the report.
OAKLAND, CA—Amidst California’s review of the cancer-causing strawberry fumigant chloropicrin, a report released today by University of California – Los Angeles found serious flaws in the state’s approval process for pesticides. Using the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide as a case study, the report highlights how Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) management failed to take into account the full-range of risks from pesticide exposure, ignored critical data gaps, failed to comply with their statutory obligations to consider whether safe and effective alternatives were available, and put workers and the public at risk by ignoring the advice of their own scientists. These flaws appear to be systemic in DPR’s decision-making, as some of the same issues have come under fire from the agency’s current rule-making process for the fumigant chloropicrin.
Released by the Sustainable Technology & Policy Program at UCLA, the report, entitled Risk and Decision: Evaluating Pesticide Approval in California, reviews the approval process for the strawberry fumigant methyl iodide, approved by DPR in California in 2010 and subsequently pulled from the market by its manufacturer, Arysta LifeScience, in 2012. Prior to and after its approval, independent scientists as well as DPR’s own scientists expressed strong concerns about methyl iodide’s dangers, yet it was still approved, with permissible exposures over 100 times the level the scientists proposed as marginally acceptable.
“UCLA’s report shows that the current system is broken, and that state officials have failed to follow mandated laws to protect California communities from hazardous pesticides,” said Tracey Brieger, co-director of the statewide coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform. “To prevent harm in the future, state officials must adopt a new way of thinking to prioritize green, cutting-edge farming that ensures the long-term prosperity of California’s food system.”
The report outlines some key flaws in DPR’s decision-making process, including gaps in risk evaluation and enforcement of current law. The department conducted the review of methyl iodide too narrowly limiting the scope to the risks of methyl iodide – ignoring common on-farm practice to combine methyl iodide with other fumigants. While officials acknowledged this shortcoming, they failed to consider nearby workers’ and community members’ potential cumulative or ongoing exposure to multiple pesticides. And despite data gaps regarding developmental neurotoxicity, groundwater contamination and emissions of methyl iodide from farm fields—and explicit provisions in California law to prohibit approval in such cases of insufficient data—DPR still approved the fumigant. DPR then ignored both statutory mandates and its own regulations in failing to consider whether safe and effective alternatives to methyl iodide were available.
Recognizing the opportunities for leadership under the Brown Administration, the report recommends that DPR implement reforms to address the current flaws in its approval process: conducting realistic framing and assessment of pesticide risks; using best available science and data, alongside caution in the face of uncertainty; focusing on prevention by thoroughly identifying and evaluating safer alternatives; and implementation of transparent decision-making with meaningful engagement of all stakeholders.
“California officials should follow the recommendations outlined in the report in order to protect the health of Californians and ensure trust in the pesticide review process,” said Paul Towers, Organizing & Media Director for Pesticide Action Network. “Until the agency cleans up the system, and creates greater transparency, pesticide approval appears rigged in favor of manufacturers.”
These recommendations are especially timely given DPR’s current evaluation of the rules for applying the highly toxic fumigant chloropicrin, primarily used for strawberry and raspberry crops. Similar to the methyl iodide registration, DPR management’s proposed rules would allow exposure to chloropicrin at levels significantly higher than those determined by DPR scientists and an external scientific review panel as protective of human health. In addition, DPR management ignored significant concerns raised by their own and other state scientists about the cancer-causing potential of chloropicrin.
In addition to the report’s recommendations to better protect public health by improving DPR’s pesticide approval process, affected communities are pressuring the department to encourage farmers to use safer alternatives for hazardous pesticides, especially fumigants such as chloropicrin. Soil fumigants are some of the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture and, since they become gases, they are difficult to control and prone to drifting away from the application site. Rural families and farmworkers throughout California face the greatest direct threats of exposure to fumigants, especially children who are the most vulnerable to health risks from pesticides.
In response to DPR’s release of the Nonfumigant Strawberry Production Working Group Action Plan, farmers and community groups issued a report entitled Investing in Innovation in April 2013, urging the state to commit to a clear goal of transitioning California agriculture off of fumigants by 2020, including identifying specific benchmarks, funding sources and responsibility for which groups will implement the plan.
“If the Golden State wants to maintain its place as one of the most productive and prosperous agricultural economies in the nation, we must lead the way in innovative farming practices, starting with healthy soil management. Our universities, scientists and tax dollars must immediately invest in tools and techniques that will allow farmers to grow better crops with fewer chemicals. If we do this, we can have fumigant-free fields in California by 2020,” said Margaret Reeves, PhD, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network.
Farmers and entrepreneurs have developed a variety of effective replacements for fumigant pesticides, including use of disease-resistant cultivars, solarization, steam treatments, crop rotations, mustard seed meal and anaerobic soil disinfestation.