Pesticides in the air? Your move, California. | Pesticide Action Network
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Pesticides in the air? Your move, California.

Jibril Kyser's picture
Spraying pesticides on farm

Data released from California’s pesticide drift air monitoring program — which measured air monitoring data every year from 2010 to 2018 — revealed that many pesticides were measured at significant concentrations in the air. Some pesticides were present at concentrations higher than state designated “health screening levels”, which denote a high enough concentration of pesticide drift known to regulatory agencies to cause health harms in humans. The air monitoring stations were all located at elementary, middle, and high schools. 

This is alarming in and of itself. But even worse? Following the release of this data, the only regulatory action that will be taken is to continue the air monitoring efforts. No plans are in the works to curb community members’ continual exposure to this toxic pesticide drift. 

What’s the goal?

California is the only state in the U.S. with a pesticide drift air monitoring program. Two organizations work in partnership to run this program: The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). 

DPR deploys an Air Monitoring Network (AMN) to communities across the state to perform air monitoring, and CARB conducts the air monitoring itself. With two agencies at the helm of this program, and years of data proving dangerous pesticide exposure, farmworkers and farming communities deserve more rigid and protective regulatory action from the state. 

Highly toxic and drift-prone

Of the pesticides detected in DPR and CARB’s statewide air monitoring locations, fumigants were the most commonly found.

Fumigant pesticides are used to indiscriminately kill any and all soil microbes, bacteria, fungi, and bugs that could potentially cause crop loss. In the fumigation process, beneficial soil organisms that facilitate nutrient cycling are killed off, which forces farmers to add expensive and toxic chemical fertilizers back into the soil to support crop growth. Many fumigants are carcinogens (causing cancer), mutagens (causing genetic mutation), and teratogens (disrupting embryo growth).

These pesticides have warranted specific monitoring attention from DPR and CARB because they are highly toxic and prone to drift into non-target areas. From 2010 to 2016, the air monitoring program detected 11 fumigant pesticides in their testing, with the four most common (telone, carbon disulfide, methyl bromide, and chloropicrin) present at levels higher than the “health screening levels” in agricultural communities like Watsonville, Santa Maria, Oxnard, Ripon and Salinas. The levels at which these chemicals were found are known to the State of California to cause harm to humans. 

Children at risk

Of particular concern is the fact that some of these fumigants were detected at schools. In 2017, six different schools in Santa Maria experienced chloropicrin pesticide drift on a weekly basis in quantities higher than health screening levels. 

ARB released a specific seasonal report about 2017 methyl bromide and chloropicrin air contamination in Siskiyou County. Samples were taken at elementary schools across the county, and out of 141 air samples taken, 42 contained significant amounts of methyl bromide. Currently, a statewide phaseout of methyl bromide is in effect because of its ozone depleting capacity and its high carcinogenicity. As for chloropicrin, out of 144 air samples taken at schools, 59 had significant levels of the fumigant.

In addition to fumigants, the air monitoring project also evaluated a number of organophosphate pesticides. These neurotoxic insecticides can cause negative, long-lasting impacts on children’s brain development with prenatal exposure. CARB collected air samples from schools in Fresno and Tulare counties, and out of 189 total samples, eight contained significant levels of chlorpyrifos, while 27 samples contained trace amounts. Considering that chlorpyrifos is a confirmed neurotoxicant that’s registration was just cancelled by the state of California, any amount inhaled by elementary school students is concerning.

Swift action is needed

The data speaks for itself. California farmworkers, children, and rural communities need swift regulatory action to address the health-harming pesticide drift crisis in the state. Continued air monitoring alone is not a solution, and mitigating pesticide use is a short-term answer to the larger problem of the industrial agricultural system that relies on toxic pesticides to produce food. Although transitioning California’s industrial agricultural system to agroecology is the only systemic, long term, and permanent solution to stopping toxic pesticide drift from poisoning people and our environment, there are regulatory actions that can be taken now to incentivize farmers to minimize pesticide drift, protect farmworkers, communities, and ecosystems, and support solutions proposed by farmers and workers on the frontlines of pesticide exposure.

For more on these potential solutions, see the work of our partners at the California Farmer Justice Collaborative and Californians for Pesticide Reform

Jibril Kyser
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Jibril Kyser's picture
Jibril Kyser

Jibril Kyser is a Grassroots Science Fellow at PAN with scientific research experience in both analytical chemistry and developmental endocrinology. He works with PAN Staff Scientist Dr. Emily Marquez to detect pesticide drift in farming communities in California’s Central Valley.