(Beyond Pesticides, May 17, 2007) Initial results of a pilot program conducted in a Central Valley farming community in California finds that residents have significant levels of the organophosphate chlorpyrifos in their bodies during the spraying season. The levels topped what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers acceptable for pregnant and nursing women.
Over 91% of the people tested had above average levels of breakdown products of the insecticide chlorpyrifos in their urine, and all but one had chlorpyrifos concentrations above EPA’s recommended threshold of 1.5 parts per billion.
The study is an outcome of the collaboration between Pesticide Action Network, Californians for Pesticide Reform, the nonprofit environmental research firm Commonweal, and the community group El Quinto Sol de America. The groups tested the urine of 12 adults in various locations throughout the town of Lindsay during peak spraying season last summer.
The results are paired with air monitoring data, also done by the group, that show for three years running chlorpyrifos has not only been detected in the air in town and near schools, but also exceeded EPA’s acceptable level for short-term exposure.
The results for the first time shed light on a problem residents suspected but could not prove: that a pesticide banned for household use was drifting off nearby fields and into their homes, with unknown long-term health consequences.
“The most important thing is we don’t know,” said Ana Gonzalez, who lives in one of the six houses where air was sampled. “The fear, the danger of having the pesticides right near us – we could fight against something we could see: A robber, a poison right here at home. But this we can’t see.”
The study, released yesterday, highlights gaps in state and federal pesticide regulation. EPA banned chlorpyrifos for household use seven years ago amid concerns that its potent neurotoxicity presented too much of a risk for young children.
Despite being banned for residential uses, commercial growers can still legally apply chlorpyrifos to plants abutting homes within one-quarter mile from a field or orchard in California. Advocates want to put a stop to this practice and seek a quarter-mile spray zone as a buffer.
The study also shows the considerable potential biomonitoring – the testing of humans directly for evidence of pollution or other compounds – offers in guiding public health decisions. California is in the midst of establishing the first-ever statewide program to test its residents’ blood, hair and urine for various chemicals. The program will provide a benchmark of sorts for the state.
Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network and the Lindsay program’s coordinator, said, “The fact that we can demonstrate that it’s out there and that it’s in their bodies and that it’s associated with all these known health effects gives power to the community’s demands. It makes them look real reasonable.”
According to Glenn Brank, the spokesman for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, the group’s air monitoring data is in line with other levels the department has seen in other communities. “We do not see an imminent health threat from the chlorpyrifos based on the levels we’ve found in the air,” he said Tuesday.
The agency has launched its own pilot study in the Fresno County community of Parlier, which suffers from some of the valley’s worst air quality. Those results should be ready later this fall, Mr. Brank said. “We do see ongoing exposures at very low levels,” he added, but “as of now, we don’t see anything from the air standpoint that represents a concern.”
Farmers spread about 2 million pounds of chlorpyrifos, often sold as Dursban, over 1.7 million acres in California in 2005, mostly on cotton, oranges and walnuts. The human body expels the chemical relatively quickly, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 75 percent of all Americans have some in their blood, suggesting exposure is continuously occurring and widespread. Side effects of breathing the chemical are similar to nerve gas, a chemical cousin: dizziness, nausea, inability to concentrate, numbness or tingling in the limbs.
In a region where one out of five children have asthma, where the sky is so smoggy that nearby hills have disappeared from the horizon, chlorpyrifos is just a tiny part of the problem. The chemical accounts for 2 percent of nearly 18 million pounds of pesticides applied in Tulare County annually.
Community members are calling for stronger protections from chlorpyrifos and other high-hazard pesticides, including establishing protection zones between residential areas and fields that are sprayed, and notification laws for applicators so that residents can be warned before spraying occurs.
For more information, see Californians for Pesticide Reform.
Source: Contra Costa Times