As State Weighs Pesticide Restrictions, California’s Farmworkers and Students Continue to Be Exposed

In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, California used more than 900,000 pounds of chlorpyrifos, a product commonly used on strawberries that is linked to developmental disabilities. Photo credit: Lily Dayton

When teacher Cristin Romo looks out her classroom window at Hall District Elementary School in rural Santa Cruz County, she feels unsettled.

Across the street from the school parking lot are agricultural fields, usually planted with rows upon rows of strawberries. Romo wonders whether pesticides used on those fields could be behind the strange smell that wafts frequently into her classroom. She worries especially about a pesticide called chlorpyrifos, a product commonly used on strawberries that she recently learned is linked to developmental disabilities and other health problems in children.

Romo, who’s taught at Hall Elementary for 16 years, has a 7-year-old son with attention-deficit disorder and a 4-year-old son with autism. There’s no way to prove it, but she wonders if exposure to chlorpyrifos could have affected her sons’ brains while she was pregnant with them. She also wonders why so many of her students have asthma and other health issues.

“We’re the ones that are right, right directly in front of the fields. We’re the first classroom,” she said. “If there’s a drift from all those pesticides, we’re the first ones to get hit. I don’t know, it could just be coincidence, but it makes me think.”

In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, California used more than 900,000 pounds of chlorpyrifos, according to a statewide report. The state requires farmers to get a permit from local agricultural commissioners in order to use the pesticide, and it can only be applied by trained and licensed professionals. The state also recommends local commissioners impose permit conditions, including no application above certain wind speeds and buffer zones around sensitive locations, such as schools.

In July, the state’s Scientific Review Panel recommended classifying chlorpyrifos as a toxic air contaminant. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is now in the process of considering this designation and expects to hold a hearing on the issue in November, said spokesman Craig Cassidy in an email. The agency will then decide whether further restrictions on the pesticide are warranted, he said. The department would then have two years to adopt these new measures or report back to the state legislature on why that deadline can’t be met.

Environmental and community activists, meanwhile, say the state is moving too slowly and not doing enough to protect children, pregnant women and farmworkers exposed to chlorpyrifos. They’re calling for an immediate, outright ban of the pesticide.

“Why we’re still waiting, why we’re still diddling around with this hearing process in California, makes no sense to any of us,” said Mark Weller, co-director of the statewide coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform. “This dragged-out process … is just confirming everything that we already knew, and that decades of scientists have already shown: that very small amounts, tiny amounts of chlopyrifos exposure, especially prenatal exposure, leads to extremely concerning outcomes.”

The evidence against chlorpyrifos is strong. Multiple independent and government-led studies have concluded the pesticide is toxic to humans, particularly children and developing babies. For example, a study by UC Berkeley found that children in the Salinas Valley exposed to high amounts of chlorpyrifos in the womb scored lower than their peers on IQ tests. A Columbia University study tied children’s prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos to a higher risk of developmental disorders and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nevertheless, chlorpyrifos is the most widely used pesticide on crops in the United States.

It’s possible a complete ban on chlorpyrifos could happen before California’s pesticide department comes out with new restrictions. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to outlaw use of the pesticide nationwide within 60 days. The ruling overturned former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s decision in 2017 to reject an Obama-era recommendation by the agency’s own scientists that chlorpyrifos be banned.

“(T)here was no justification for the E.P.A.’s decision in its 2017 order to maintain a tolerance for chlorpyrifos in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children,” the appeals court stated in its majority opinion.

Still, activists in California said they doubt the Trump administration will readily comply with the court ruling, given its cozy relationships with industry lobbying groups. The EPA has said it’s still reviewing the decision. The agency could decide to bring the case to the Supreme Court.

“I’m hopeful but not I’m not holding my breath,” said Adam Vega, a community organizer focused on pesticides in Ventura County. “We’ve been trying to keep the pressure on the local front.”

That pressure has included meeting with state pesticide officials as well as county agricultural commissioners. Vega said activists in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are urging their commissioners to impose tighter restrictions on chlorpyrifos use locally while they wait for the state and federal governments to take action. He said they’re also trying to encourage local growers to use less toxic methods of pest-control.

“People like to say you are what you eat, but really you are what your plants eat,” he said. “If your plants are eating chlorpyrifos…that gets channeled up to our bodies.”

Representatives for growers, meanwhile, have defended use of the pesticide, saying it’s an important tool for managing pests. In a statement following the federal court ruling, the California Farm Bureau said that California farmers “operate under the most stringent pesticide and environmental controls in the world,” and that banning chlorpyrifos would have “significant impacts to food and fiber production.”

Dow AgroSciences, which manufactures chlorpyrifos, maintains the chemical is not harmful if used as directed.

“Extensive studies show that current uses of chlorpyrifos meet the U.S. regulatory standard of a reasonable certainty of no harm for humans, including children,” the company said in a statement following the appeals court ruling.

But Minako Watabe, a Ventura County obstetrician who counts many women farmworkers among her patients, said she’s not convinced that directions and rules for chlorpyrifos use are being followed. She said women regularly tell her stories about pesticides being sprayed while they’re working, or being asked to work immediately after pesticides have been applied. She recounted one incident of a patient with chemical burns on her arms, apparently from pesticide exposure.

Given the studies on the dangers of chlorpyrifos for pregnant women, what Watabe hears from her patients worries her. She said she’s also concerned that not enough research has been done on the cumulative effects of exposure to multiple different types of pesticides.

“There’s a potentially very high risk to being exposed to all these chemicals during pregnancy and many of them we know, including chlorpyrifos, are passed through the placenta and to the fetal circulation,” she said. “A lot of women work through their pregnancy because of economic need.”

Back in her tiny community of Las Lomas, teacher Romo said she’s vowed to get more involved in fighting for increased pesticide regulations and educating others, including her fellow teachers, on the topic.

“We deserve to be in an environment where we’re not afraid to come to school because we might get sick,” she said. “We need to feel safe and be able to learn and not put our health at risk.”

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