California Moves to Ban ‘Toxic’ Pesticide, But Farmworkers May Still Be Exposed for 2 Years

Seasonal farm workers pick and package strawberries in Salinas. Photo credit: iStock.

Community organizers in the Salinas Valley have long begged for a ban on chlorpyrifos, as study after study has tied the widely-used pesticide to brain damage in children.

Farmworkers, teachers and parents living in this heavily agricultural region in Monterey County suspect that chlorpyrifos and other pesticides sprayed on nearby crops may be harming the health of local kids. Community members report high rates of autism, attention-deficit disorder and asthma among children in the region, where nearly a fourth of the households rely on agriculture-related jobs.

So when California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) announced this month that it’s taking legal action to ban chlorpyrifos across the state, those campaigning for pesticide reform in the region felt that their work was finally paying off. The state said it’s sent formal notices to manufacturers and pest-management companies to cancel registrations they hold for chlorpyrifos products.

“It gives us hope,” said Sarait Martinez, an organizer with Safe Ag Safe Schools, a coalition of over 50 organizations and individuals campaigning for pesticide reform in the Monterey Bay area. “It’s definitely something to celebrate. At the same time this cannot happen soon enough, because we need this. The longer chlorpyrifos is used, it continues to damage even our unborn children.”

Multiple studies have linked chlorpyrifos exposure to developmental problems in children and developing babies. A UC Berkeley study found that Salinas Valley children exposed to high amounts of chlorpyrifos in the womb scored lower than their peers on IQ tests. After reviewing all the evidence, state scientists last year concluded that chlorpyrifos is a “toxic air contaminant” and a potential hazard to human health.

California’s ban stands in stark contrast to the federal government’s actions on chlorpyrifos. The Trump administration has refused to outlaw the pesticide, despite recommendations to do so by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists.

Still, it could take as long as two years for California to complete the cancellation process, DPR spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe said. In the meantime, the agency is convening a working group to identify safer alternatives to chlorpyrifos. The groups consists of scientists, agricultural representatives, farmworker advocates, environmentalists and pesticide manufacturers, among others, DPR said. Members of the Safe Ag Safe Schools coalition will be part of the group, Martinez said.

But after years of fighting for reform, organizers remain uneasy, she said. Members want to make sure chlorpyrifos isn’t replaced by another, equally harmful chemical, Martinez explained.

“There’s a lot of mistrust of the system,” she said. “We celebrate (the ban), but it’s definitely not done. We continue to fight to make sure that this happens as quickly as it can.” 

In Ventura County, Adam Vega, a community organizer, said farmers have already curbed their chlorpyrifos use following controversy over spraying of the pesticide near schools. Still, many community members don’t like the chemical being used at all, he said. They’re also worried about ongoing use of other types of pesticides that are from the same organophosphate family as chlorpyrifos, he added.

Vega said he hopes the state’s search for alternatives to chlorpyrifos will ultimately lead to broader changes in California agricultural practices that support the environment, soil and public health. 

“If we do this right for chlorpyrifos so that there’s viable, safe alternatives, it’s really a model, and sets the stage for continuing this work in the future with other harmful chemicals,” he said. “That’s the silver lining.”

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