As California Bans Chlorpyrifos, Activists Turn Attention to Other Pesticides

Environmental activists campaigned for a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos outside the state capitol in Sacramento earlier this year. Photo credit: Joan Cusick.

Growing up in the heart of California’s citrus country, Angel Garcia gave little thought to the chemical smells that wafted into his home at night when nearby orange groves were being sprayed with pesticides.

Like many area residents, Garcia accepted the fumes as part of life in the small agricultural town of Exeter, in Tulare County. It was only after he returned home from college to do civic engagement work in the community that Garcia began to wonder if pesticide exposure could have caused the respiratory problems he’d suffered as a child, and whether pesticides might be a danger to his young son.

“This pesticide exposure happens so often that we’ve come to accept it as something normal, but it’s not,” Garcia said.  

Now, Garcia and other Tulare County residents are cheering news that they’ll soon have at least one less pesticide to worry about. On Oct. 9, the California Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Pesticide Regulation announced a deal with pesticide manufacturers to end sales of the pesticide chlorpyrifos statewide by early next year.

Chlorpyrifos is widely used to control pests on a variety of crops, including citrus and strawberries. Research has tied exposure to chlorpyrifos to brain damage and neurological delays in children. Acute exposure can also cause respiratory problems.

Under the deal, growers must stop using almost all chlorpyrifos products by the end of 2020. The new rules come as the Trump administration has reversed efforts to ban use of the controversial pesticide nationwide. Olga Naidenko, vice president of science investigations at the Environmental Working Group, said California’s action will benefit people living in the state, and also those who buy produce grown here that might otherwise carry chlorpyrifos residue.

“This action for public health in California is an example for the entire country,” Naidenko said. “Scientists have known for a long time that chlorpyrifos is a very dangerous pesticide.”

Sarait Martinez, organizer of a pesticide-reform coalition in the Salinas Valley called Safe Ag Safe Schools, is among the rural residents cheering the ban. She and other coalition members have fought for greater restrictions on chlorpyrifos use for years.

“All those different actions in Sacramento and at the local level are finally paying off,” she said. “These are the types of things that really remind us that when we organize … we can be victorious when it comes to going against big companies.”

Chlorpyrifos manufacturer Corteva Agriscience, formerlyDow AgroSciences, said in a statement that the pesticide is safe when used according to instructions, and that California’s actions to reign in use of the chemical had made life difficult for farmers.

“Through recent actions, the State of California has improvised and implemented several uniquely challenging regulatory requirements for chlorpyrifos,” the statement reads. “These new, novel requirements have made it virtually impossible for growers to use this important tool in their State.”

Environmental advocates also want the state to curb other agricultural pesticides. Last week, dozens of advocates attended a state Department of Pesticide Regulation workshop in Sacarmento that explored possible new restrictions on a widely used fumigant called 1,3-dichloropropene, 1,3-D, or Telone.

California lists Telone as a chemical known to cause cancer. Growers inject Telone into the soil to kill pests before planting crops such as sweet potatoes and strawberries. But there’s fear that these applications also release fumes into the air that could damage people’s health.

Martinez and Garcia expressed hope that the chlorpyrifos deal signals that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration will be more willing than his predecessors to consider stricter pesticide regulations overall. Martinez said the state needs to evaluate pesticides more thoroughly, pointing to a UCLA study earlier this year that found that state and county officials fail to consider the cumulative impact of exposure to multiple pesticides.

Many rural residents fear getting rid of chlorpyrifos will simply mean farmers replace it with equally toxic pesticides, Martinez said. Instead, California needs to move away from using these types of chemicals altogether, she said.

“The fight is not over,” Martinez said. “We’re going to continue to fight to change the way our agricultural system works. We want an agricultural system that’s healthy for the soil and also for our health.”

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