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New Report: Cancer-causing strawberry pesticide found in the air

On Chavez Day, farmworker advocates and community representatives challenge inadequacy of current rules meant to protect communities from hazardous fumigants

For Immediate Release: March 31, 2015

Paul Towers, Pesticide Action Network, 916-216-1082, [email protected]
Mark Weller, Californians for Pesticide Reform, 831-325-1681, [email protected]


Watsonville, CA – To mark the Cesar E. Chavez holiday, a diverse coalition of farmworker groups, labor unions, teachers, parents and scientists gathered to release a new report documenting the presence of a cancer-causing pesticide found in the air in this historical farmworker town. The report highlights inadequacies of recently proposed new pesticide rules, and calls on leaders to do more to protect California communities from the millions of pounds of hazardous fumigant pesticides used on the state’s strawberry fields every year.

“The current rules for these volatile, drift-prone fumigant pesticides fail to address the realities on the ground,” said Emily Marquez, staff scientist at Pesticide Action Network and leader of the Drift Catcher project. “Regulators need to heed the science to better protect farmworkers and rural communities from cancer-causing chloropicrin.”

Earlier this year, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) announced that new restrictions on the widely used fumigant pesticide chloropicrin. The proposed new rules would require slightly larger no-fumigation buffer zones around residents’ homes and farmworkers in neighboring fields — but based on this new data, the expanded buffers will not adequately protect rural communities.

Special education teacher and Watsonville resident Justin Matlow used the Drift Catcher to sample for chloropicrin in the air near his home in early November, when nearby fields were undergoing fumigation. Two weeks of monitoring with the Drift Catcher — a simple and accurate community air monitoring tool — documented concerning levels of this difficult-to-control pesticide. 

Independent laboratory analysis found levels of the chemical in the air samples at concentrations that pose elevated cancer risk and are at or above levels that regulators consider “of concern.” In fact, during one 12-hour period, chloropicrin was measured at concentrations four times greater than levels considered “of concern” by EPA.

Air monitoring was conducted for nine days, the period state officials say the chemical is off-gassing from the field most intensely. The two fields where chloropicrin was being applied were 350 and 850 feet from where the Drift Catcher was placed at Matlow’s home.

DPR’s proposed new restrictions would include 25 to 100 foot no-fumigation buffer zones around schools and residences if special “totally impermeable film” (TIF) tarps are used. In Matlow’s case, the required buffer zone between the treated field and his home would have been 40 feet. With concerning levels of chloropicrin found in the air from applications (using TIF tarps) more than 10 times that far away, the data released today illustrates that the proposed new rules will not be sufficiently protective.

“This is a concern not only for me and my neighbors, but also for the many families across the Central Coast and the state that live near fields fumigated with chloropicrin,” said Mr. Matlow, who is also the father of two young children.

This isn’t the only case where fumigants have been found in the air at levels of health concern. Another cancer-causing fumigant called Telone (1,3-D) was found in air sampling projects conducted by state air monitors at Ohlone Elementary School, also in Watsonville. In neighboring Monterey County, air sampling at the Salinas airport has found elevated levels of chloropicrin at an even great distance from farm field applications. The limited sampling captures only the tip-of the iceberg given extensive use in the Monterey Region, especially in close proximity to schools.

Dr. Ann Lopez, executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families, farmworker advocate and California Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, United Farm Worker’s (UFW) Central Coast regional director Lauro Barajas, and local union officials pressed for better protections for farmworkers and their families.

“We sampled the air of a few families, but the results demonstrate what communities are facing across the state,” said Dr. Lopez.  “This represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exposure to health-harming pesticides for farmworkers and their families.”

Over 33 million pounds of fumigants are used in California agriculture each year, with over 9 million of cancer-causing chloropicrin alone. For strawberries grown in the state, fumigants account for 87% of all pesticide use. A 2014 report by the California Department of Public Health found that fumigants are the top five pesticides of public health concern used in close proximity to schools, with chloropicrin at the top of the list.

Critics of the new restrictions cite concerns about their adequacy. One of DPR’s new “target levels,” for example, is 25 times higher (less protective) than the exposure limit recommended by state agency toxicologists and independent scientists.

“These proposed new restrictions are quite simply not good enough,” said Anne Katten, MPH, a pesticide and work safety specialist at California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. “State officials need to tighten rules and enlarge buffer zones to protect the most vulnerable – farmworkers and children.”

More than twenty years since his passing, people across the country honor Cesar Chavez, founder of UFW and parent. He fasted, spoke out and highlighted the plight of farmworkers affected by pesticides – a concern that still remains today.

A copy of the report “Fumigant Pesticides Put Central Coast Communities At Risk” is available HERE.


Californians for Pesticide Reform is a diverse, statewide coalition of over 185 member groups working to strengthen pesticide policies in California to protect public health and the environment. Member groups include public and children's health advocates, clean air and water groups, health practitioners, environmental justice groups, labor, education, farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates from across the state.

The Monterey Bay Central Labor Council is the local body of the AFL-CIO. Over 60 unions are affiliated with the MBCLC, representing more than 35,000 union members and their families in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

Pesticide Action Network links consumer, labor, health, environment and agriculture groups into an international citizens’ action network working to replace hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound and socially just alternatives.


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Pesticide Action Network is dedicated to advancing alternatives to pesticides worldwide. Follow @pesticideaction

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