Counties Fail to Fully Protect People From Pesticide Exposure, Report Finds

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California’s county agricultural commissioners are failing to implement state laws designed to protect farmworkers and people living and working near agricultural areas from exposure to toxic pesticides, a new report by UCLA concludes.

When farmers apply for permits to use hazardous pesticides on their fields, county agricultural commissioners are supposed to consider whether safer options can be used instead, and deny the permit if these alternatives are feasible, according to the report. These options include organic farming methods and non-toxic pest control.

Commissioners are also required to consider the cumulative risks to people’s health and the environment when farmers apply multiple pesticides at the same time or one after the other, either in the same field or adjacent fields.

But after talking to people involved in pesticide regulation and poring over county policy and pesticide permitting decisions records, researchers found no evidence that California’s 56 county agricultural commissioners are enforcing these requirements. The researchers looked at case studies involving some of the most toxic pesticides used by farmers in the state, including chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to low IQ and developmental problems in children.

“These requirements serve really important public health and environmental concerns,” said Timothy Malloy, a UCLA law and environmental health professor, who led the study. “We’ve got them in the law for good reason and the agencies who are implementing those laws ought to be implementing these particular provisions.”

The study follows two previous UCLA investigations into how the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) registers and regulates pesticides. Malloy said his team realized many regulatory decisions happen at the county level, and wanted to look at this more closely. The professor said he was surprised by the large gap between what the law requires, and what actually happens on the ground.

Following release of the study Wednesday, organizations representing farmworkers, teachers and healthcare workers condemned the reported shortcomings at a press conference in Monterey County, and called on local county commissioners to fully follow pesticide permitting laws.

Ann López, head of the Center for Farmworker Families, said she hears regularly from farmworkers forced to work while pesticides are being sprayed nearby, even though it makes them sick, and has noticed high rates of learning disabilities among children whose moms were exposed to pesticides while pregnant.

“Why don’t farmworkers matter? Are they viewed as discardable human beings?,” she asked. “We must put pressure on these county agricultural commissioners who are not fulfilling the legally required mandates of the two objectives addressed in the UCLA research study. It’s the only way that we, the farmworkers. and the environment will be safe.”

Sandra Elles, executive director of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association, said she’d received the final report but had not had time to fully review it.

“We appreciate the work done by UCLA researchers and we will certainly take a close look at the final report and discuss if there are opportunities to further enhance public safety and protection of the environment and natural resources,” she said.

Elles said agricultural commissioners and the experts that advise them do look to use the least toxic pesticides possible. However, studying cumulative impacts is challenging because scientific methods for evaluating these exposures are not fully developed, she said. 

Malloy agreed that part of the problem for agricultural commissioners is that they don’t have a clear framework from the state for analyzing cumulative impacts, and for examining alternatives. He said improving implementation of the law will require DPR to develop these guidelines and work closely with counties on implementing them.

While the issue may seem technical, Malloy said the general public should pay attention to how pesticides are regulated because it affects everyone.

“Every time you drive by a field, you’re breathing in the air. Every time you’re eating something you are going to exposed to various chemicals,” he said. “Would you like to be confident that the impacts they’re going to have on you have been studied in a meaningful way? It has a real-world impact.”

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