A federal decision to extend the use of one of the most potentially dangerous pesticides on the market has touched off protests from farm worker advocates in Ventura County, who view the move as an unnecessary threat to the health and safety of agricultural workers.
Pest control operators and county officials say there is little risk in continuing to spray Phosdrin, a powerful pesticide and nerve toxin blamed for more acute poisonings of agricultural workers nationwide than any other insecticide currently in use.
But advocates are outraged by the federal government's decision last month to allow the chemical to be applied for one more growing season, after initially agreeing to discontinue its use by the end of this month.
"This is such a dangerous pesticide, there is such a high risk, that it shouldn't be used for one more minute, let alone one more season," said Eileen McCarthy, a legal aid attorney with the Oxnard office of California Rural Legal Assistance.
Under pressure from federal regulators, the U. S. manufacturer of the pesticide voluntarily agreed to stop distributing the product in the United States because of serious health risks to agricultural workers.
All use was to end by March. But last month, federal regulators agreed to allow the use of the chemical until November to allow the depletion of existing supplies.
Phosdrin was one of five chemicals targeted for elimination by United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez during a 1988 hunger strike, and the extension concerns union leaders.
"We still have a very strong commitment against the use of dangerous pesticides, especially Phosdrin because it is one of the most dangerous," said Mario Brito, who heads the UFW's Ventura County office.
"The real issue we have to address, that the consumers have to address, is what do we need these pesticides for?" Brito said. "Most are used for cosmetic reasons and they are used at great risk to farm workers."
Pest control operators are quick to point out that it's not as though they were itching to shower farm fields with Phosdrin.
But when it's close to harvest--and bugs are sucking the lifeblood out of lettuce, celery or any of the other two dozen crops on which the chemical is applied in Ventura County--they say nothing works as well or as fast.
"It's an excellent product and there really is no good substitute for it," said pest control adviser Jim Hohimer, a 26-year employee of Western Farm Service Inc. in Oxnard.
"From my point of view, it's not unsafe," he said. "It can be used from here until doomsday and still be safe."
In Ventura County, 152 growers hold permits for Phosdrin, which is the U. S. trade name for a chemical called mevinphos, according to the Ventura County agricultural commissioner's office.
The pesticide is so toxic--less than a spoonful spilled on the skin could kill you, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency--that it can only be applied by trained and licensed pest control operators.
Usage of the chemical has dropped in the county in recent years, from 7,000 pounds in 1991 to 4,700 pounds in 1993.
In 1993, the county's broccoli crop received the most Phosdrin, 1,873 pounds, followed by 1,597 pounds for leaf lettuce and 1,116 pounds for celery.
Growers and pest control operators like it because it is a potent bug killer, a pesticide that can be applied days before harvest and most often employed for aphid control. It dissipates quickly, leaving little residue on crops by harvest time.
Western Farm Service and Oxnard-based Ag Rx have applied the majority of the Phosdrin in the county in recent years, according to the agricultural commissioner's office.
Representatives of both companies say they started using less of the chemical as it came under fire and regulations were tightened. And as usage was set to end completely, the companies went through their existing stocks without replenishing supplies.
"We pretty much made it a company policy that nobody was going to use it any longer," said David Holden, pest control adviser for Ag Rx.
"As a pesticide, it was an excellent product," Holden added. "But there are good reasons it's being pulled off the market. It does have to be handled very carefully and I think the industry is finding, even though you have to be trained to handle it, it's not always handled the way people are trained to handle it."
Holden said Ag Rx only has five pounds of Phosdrin in stock and doesn't plan to get more.
Western Farm Service bought more of the chemical once the extension was granted, and has between 50 and 75 pounds on hand, enough to spray 200 to 400 acres, Hohimer said.
"This stuff is not available to the home gardener at all. You can't put it in a backpack spray rig and go out and apply it," said Hohimer, noting that the product label sets strict guidelines for usage. "The only time Phosdrin has ever gotten a black eye is when the label has been violated."