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State Panel Studies Ban on Pesticides

November 16, 1989|JOANNA MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With everything from house paint to body deodorants under siege for their air-polluting emissions, regulators are turning to agriculture, one of the last bastions of control-free operations in the state.

As a result, local and state growers may lose the use of some pesticides, which emit ozone-causing hydrocarbons. At the very least, manufacturers will likely have to reformulate their California-sold products to use bases other than petroleum products, and their costs will rise.

With Ventura County under federal order to clean up its air, and with pesticides accounting for up to 28% of reactive organic compounds that contribute to ozone pollution, something had to be done, said Richard Baldwin, the county's air pollution control officer.

"If I can't touch 28% of emissions, I've got an impossible task to attain the federal ozone standard," Baldwin said. "I probably can't do it." Baldwin heads a new statewide panel charged with devising methods to decrease pollution in agriculture and other businesses that depend on pesticides.

Baldwin's panel, composed of representatives from federal and state agriculture and environmental agencies, the

chemical and farm industries and air pollution control districts, will recommend new rules to the state Air Resources Board or the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

Ventura County, along with the Los Angeles area, meets neither federal nor state clean air standards for ozone pollution. Ozone, the gas that makes up 95% of smog, is formed when reactive organic compounds mix with nitrogen oxides in sunlight.

As in paint and spray deodorants, the petroleum solvents in some pesticides emit ozone-forming hydrocarbons. Solvents are ingredients in which the pest-killing chemicals dissolve, so they can be applied.

Baldwin previously had been unwilling to act alone to impose regulations on county growers because that would have made their prices uncompetitive statewide. But since the state Air Resources Board recently brought pesticides under its jurisdiction, growers in all counties would be hit with the same restrictions.

And that could be catastrophic, said Merlin Fagan, environmental affairs director for the California Farm Bureau Federation, an association of 90,000 growers statewide.

Fagan estimated that more than 80% of pesticides used in California are petroleum-based.

If pesticides had to be reformulated or were simply unavailable, the $16-billion agricultural industry could be strapped with production costs well above its competitors in other states, Fagan said.

"We're not afraid do our share for air pollution, but if we're going to shift the cost curve to make us not competitive, it might become more cost-effective for growers and ranchers to subdivide and develop," he said.

Despite grower opposition, Baldwin sees now as the time to act. Growers question the accuracy of the 28% figure. They say more accurate reporting of petroleum-based pesticide use is needed before new regulations are issued. And they protest the loss of any weapons in their fight against pests. Still, they realize the economic importance of reducing crop-damaging ozone pollution, said Rex Laird, director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, an alliance of growers, and a member of Baldwin's panel.

"There is no question in anybody's mind that pollution harms agriculture," he said. "We have a vested interest in this."

Studies by the Air Pollution Research Center at the UC Riverside show that ozone pollution reduces yields and stunts growth in plants and trees. Just as it attacks the tissue of human lungs, ozone attacks the cell membranes of plants and trees and thwarts the spreading of tree roots.

The effects are obvious.

"On Labor Day or Memorial Day when the cars are bumper to bumper, any lettuce planted near the 101 gets burned because of the smog, and the effects lessen the farther away from the roadside you get," said Phil Phillips, a farm adviser with the University of California extension office in Ventura.

The benefits of reducing the emissions that cause air pollution are clear, but the solution may be more elusive. Among the challenges Baldwin's panel faces is devising rules that will eliminate or reduce the use of oil-based solvents in pesticides without creating new problems. For instance, one solution being considered is to require manufacturers to reformulate pesticides, using water as their base instead of the popular solvent, xylene.

That presents at least three serious problems, said Pradip Mookerjee, a chemist with Chevron Chemical Co., a major pesticide manufacturer based in Richmond, Va.

First, only about one-third of the pesticides most widely used will dissolve in water, and to reformulate is very expensive, he said. But if the pesticides are soluble in water, they will break down when their particles leach into the ground water, as well.

"If the product is water-soluble, there is a high probability that it will leach through the soil and contaminate water," he said.

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