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Paul Towers

The volatile pesticides next door

Should parents, families and teachers be warned when hazardous and volatile pesticides are used next door? That was the question before a panel of experts in California last week. Their answer may provide the basis for critical new rules for use of pesticide fumigants, and any neighbor’s right to know.

Fumigant pesticides are a problem for the Golden State. They are highly volatile, likely to drift and linked to a wide range of health impacts, including cancer. Yet every year, over 40 million pounds of these soil-sterilizing chemicals are used on California fields.

Between 2003 and 2012, at least 30 separate incidents of fumigant drift affected over 800 people. And these are just the reported incidents. Moreover, monitoring by state officials has found the pesticides in the air more than half a mile from any field — at concentrations above “target” levels set by the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR).

Communities have a right to know when harmful chemicals are being applied near their homes and schools.

Just this month, PAN released the results from a Drift Catcher project with Watsonville residents documenting fumigant pesticides in the air near their homes. In this case, the pesticides applied in neighboring strawberry fields were found hundreds of feet away — even when all the rules were followed and “totally impermeable film” tarps were used to control the fumigants.

Many farmers — as well as farmworker and health advocates — agree it’s time for the state to invest in cutting-edge, sustainable alternative practices. Meanwhile, communities have a right to know when these harmful, volatile chemicals are being applied near their homes and schools.

“Dangerously inadequate” notification

Neighborhood notification is required for just one of the many fumigants commonly used in California: methyl bromide. These relatively weak requirements were put in place back in 2001; methyl bromide was then banned in 2005, with a gradual phaseout still moving forward at a snail’s pace today.

Meanwhile, communities receive little to no information about the application of other fumigants, despite mounting evidence of both their volatility and health harms. Drift-prone fumigant pesticides like chloropicrin, Telone (1,3-D), metam sodium and metam potassium have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption and developmental impacts.

In a letter to DPR Director Brian Leahy delivered at last week’s hearing, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson called current notification requirements “dangerously inadequate in helping neighboring communities protect their health.”

Residents on the front lines of exposure echo these concerns. This from Minerva Pineda of Padres Socios en la Salud y la Educación, a parent organization in Lamont, California:

“There are many people with cancer in my community. And parents in rural communities like Lamont have the right to know what’s being used next door. Cancer-causing pesticides are not good neighbors, and until political leaders get rid of these chemicals, we should be warned when our families and children might be exposed to them — so that we may take precautions.”

In their panel presentation, speakers for Californians for Pesticide Reform (of which PAN is a member organization) and California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation offered a concrete plan for notifying residences, schools, employee housing and businesses when fumigants are applied in nearby fields. Here are some key elements of the plan:

  • Increase notification zones to one mile, and notify in both English and Spanish;
  • Ensure notices include information and graphics, including information on health effects. Re-notice residents if there is a delay or a shift in schedule; and
  • Supplement with robo-calls through schools to parents if appropriate and to residents whose language is not a written language (e.g. Hmong).

In addition, the plan calls for the immediate notification of nearby residents and schools when air monitors show elevated concentrations of fumigants in communities, or when health-protective “caps” on fumigant use are exceeded.  

Unifying around modern farming

There will no doubt be debate about the right size of notification zones and culturally appropriate ways to reach residents. But farmer, farmworker, health and teacher organizations are unified around the urgent need to put alternative practices in place that will both protect rural communities and keep farming prosperous in the state.

To get there, we need to get serious about investing in modern, environmentally sound farming to support farmers as they transition away from hazardous fumigants. After years of pressure, the state has taken a step in the right direction with new budget allocations for fumigant alternatives, and a competitive grant-making program at DPR. But it’s not nearly enough.

State leaders need to reward innovative farmers who are leading the way.

State leaders at both DPR and California’s Department of Food and Agriculture need to accelerate investments in alternative practices, including studies, field trials and plant breeding. They also need to find ways to reward innovative farmers who are leading the way.

As we work towards the shared goal of healthy and prosperous agriculture in California, communities have a right to know what’s being used near their homes, schools and workplaces. With better information, they can also play a more active role in building a better food system that serves their needs.

Picture of Paul Towers

Paul Towers

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