(Beyond Pesticides, August 7, 2013) California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has detected the highly toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos in nearly 30% of air tests that are being conducted in three high risk communities surrounded by intensive agriculture. This result is part of DPR’s 2012 results from its air-monitoring network (AMN) sampling near the towns of Ripon, Salinas and Shafter, in Kern County. The state has been running tests for air particles from methyl bromide and 32 other pesticides and breakdown products and measuring the results against screening levels established by DPR. No state or federal agency has set health standards for pesticides in air. While the state believes the levels found present an acceptable risk, critics maintain that the state’s sampling is not representative of peak agricultural exposures and question whether any level of a toxicant in air is reasonable under the law, given the viability of alternative agricultural practices that do not rely on these chemicals.
DPR said no residues were detected in 94.5 percent of the samples it collected, and the levels in the rest were well below thresholds for protecting people from pesticide-related illnesses. The communities in the study were selected from a list of 226 communities in the state based on pesticide use on surrounding farmland and demographics, including the percentage of children, the elderly and farm workers in the local population. In response to the results, DPF’s Director, Brian Leahy said, “This is reassuring news for residents.” He continued, “Our monitoring in 2012 shows that none of the pesticides exceeded their screening levels, indicating a low health risk to the people in these communities. These findings indicate that the state and county restrictions are keeping air concentrations below the health protective targets set by DPR.”
However, Pesticide Action Network (PAN), based in California, raises doubts about DPR’s results. PAN also monitors airborne pesticide residues with its “drift catcher” device and finds levels that put children at risk. PAN believes that DPR sampling was not representative of real agricultural exposures – during and after pesticide application. “DPR sampled in a systematic but not targeted manner, with samples being taken once per week for 12 months,” PAN staff scientist Emily Marquez said. “The most important time to monitor is during the times of peak use.”
A 2010 PAN report revealed that fumigant pesticides, like chloropicrin, contaminated half of the 57 air samples collected, with average levels of exposure over the 19-day period at 23 to 151 times higher than acceptable cancer risks. Earlier this year, DPR proposed restrictions on the use of chloropicrin, commonly applied to strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, raspberries, and blackberries. The proposed rule would not only increase buffer zones around application sites, but also restrict application acreage, impose notification requirements, enhance emergency preparedness requirements, and prolong the time that chloropicrin-applied fields must remain covered.
Fumigants are highly volatile and prone to drift, with severe implications for human health. Some of the health effects linked to exposure can include headaches, vomiting, severe lung irritation, and neurological effects. Some fumigants are linked to cancer, reduced fertility, birth defects and higher rates of miscarriage.
The pesticides detected the most often were chlorpyrifos and MITC, found at all three locations 28 percent of the time. Pesticides can drift and volatilize, and move over long distances fairly rapidly through wind and rain. Documented exposure patterns result from drift cause particular concerns for children and other sensitive population groups. Adverse health effects, such as nausea, dizziness, respiratory problems, headaches, rashes, and mental disorientation, may appear even when a pesticide is applied according to label directions. DPR’s AMN samples ambient air for multiple pesticides on a regular schedule to expand DPR’s knowledge of the potential health risks of long-term exposure to pesticides and more accurate estimates of health risks based on long-term exposure rather than extrapolation from short-term monitoring data to help them determine if additional protective measures are needed.
Farmers, farmworkers, their families and those living in close proximity to agricultural fields face disproportionate pesticide risks. An average of 57.6 out of every 100,000 agricultural workers experience acute pesticide poisoning, illness or injury each year, the same order of magnitude as the annual incidence rate of breast cancer in the United States. The federal government estimates that there are 10,000-20,000 acute pesticide poisonings among workers in the agricultural industry annually, a figure that likely understates the actual number of acute poisonings. Just last month, farmworkers from across the nation called for stronger protections for farmworkers from hazardous pesticides.
The best way for consumers to prevent use of hazardous fumigants and other pesticides is to buy organically produced food. Support organic farming and protect farmers, farmworkers, and their families and neighbors from toxic chemicals. Organic agriculture does not allow the use toxic chemicals that have been shown to drift and cause a myriad of chronic health effects, such as cancer, endocrine disruption and a series of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. To learn more about organic agriculture please visit Beyond Pesticides organic agriculture page. For more information on organic versus conventional agricultural practices, see Beyond Pesticides’ guide, Organic Food: Eating with a Conscience, urging consumers to consider impacts on the environment, farmworker and farm families’ health —in addition to personal health impacts posed by pesticide residues— when making food choices.
For background on pesticide drift issues, see Getting the Drift on Chemical Trespass and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health study.
DPR is accepting comments on this draft report until September 20, 2013. Please submit comments in writing to: Edgar Vidrio, Department of Pesticide Regulation, Environmental Monitoring Branch, PO Box 4015, Sacramento, CA, 95812-4015, or email: Edgar.Vidrio@cdpr.ca.gov.
Image Source: ucanr.edu