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Use of Pesticides in County Up 13% From '91-'95, Study Finds

Agriculture: Region is fifth in the state for intensity because three key crops require more treatment. Farm officials say the results are not cause for concern.

September 18, 1997|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pesticide use on Ventura County crops rose about 13% in recent years despite the continuing loss of hundreds of acres of farmland to development each year, according to a report to be released today.

The use of toxic chemicals to kill crop pests locally increased from about 5.17 million pounds in 1991 to 5.84 million in 1995, a coalition of consumer and environmental groups reported in a study touted as the first on pesticide use trends in California.

With agriculture remaining Ventura County's No. 1 industry, the county ranked 10th in the state in the amount of pesticide applied.

The county also ranked fifth in the state for intensity of pesticide use per acre because three of its principal crops--strawberries, cabbage and lemons--require far more treatment than most other crops.

Local lawyers for farm workers and residents who live near fields said the increased spraying of the highly toxic pesticides represents a heightened health threat.

"What's significant and alarming in this report is that Ventura County ranks among the top 10 counties in the state both in the volume of pesticides applied and in the intensity of application," said Eileen McCarthy, attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance in Oxnard, one sponsor of the study.

Armando Nieto of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara said a "rising tide [of pesticides] is flooding our schools, our homes, our parks and is especially devastating to those most impacted by these chemicals--children and the workers in our fields."

The author of the study, James Liebman, a plant pathologist for the Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco, said studies in other states have shown that people who live near areas where pesticides are used heavily have elevated rates of cancer and birth defects.

But no California study has established such a link, he said, despite a lengthy federal study on a suspected cluster of cancer in children of farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley.

"The bottom line is that we don't have good data in California on the link between pesticides and cancer," he said.

Local farm officials said the new study's findings are not a cause for concern.

One reason why pesticide use is up is because many of the most potent pesticides applied historically are no longer allowed, so farmers are required to apply heavier doses of weaker chemicals to do the same job, said W. Earl McPhail, county agricultural commissioner.

That conclusion is contrary, at least statewide, to another finding in the new report. It concluded that use of the most toxic pesticides is increasing--129% for known carcinogens and 52% for pesticides that are acutely toxic nerve poisons.

Ventura County's pesticide increase--13% compared to 31% statewide--was also partly the result of several wet winters in the early 1990s, which forced farmers to use more pesticides to kill fungi and other pests, McPhail said. He predicted that statistics for 1996 and this year, both drier years, will show a reduction of pesticide use.

"Farmers won't use them unless they have to," McPhail said. "It costs money and that stuff isn't cheap."

Also, reporting of pesticide use is now better than ever and that may account for some of the increase, he said.

Rex Laird, executive director of the local Farm Bureau, said he was not surprised that Ventura County ranked 10th in the amount of pesticide used in 1995 because local products ranked 11th in value of all California counties in the same year.

Several local crops use extremely heavy doses of pesticides, especially strawberries, according to the report. Strawberries, in fact, were treated with more than twice as much pesticide than the second-rated crop: dates. Strawberry growers used 302 pounds per acre in 1995, compared to date farmers with 140 pounds an acre.

Ventura County is the state's second-largest strawberry producer--behind Monterey County--with cultivation of about 4,500 acres a year.

Lemons, this county's most valuable crop at $197 million in 1995, ranked sixth on the list of crops most intensively treated with pesticide.

Application of the extremely toxic nerve gas methyl bromide along with the tear gas chloropicrin on strawberry fields has prompted controversy locally for more than a year. Numerous residents near an east Ventura field complained of flu-like illness in August 1996.

After follow-up complaints this year, state pesticide regulators increased the buffer zone between crops and houses around that field from 30 feet to 250 feet. The farmer then canceled his strawberry planting for the year, saying he could no longer economically grow strawberries on the land.

This push and pull between farm interests and urban residents is part of an intense ongoing debate about how Ventura County can protect its vibrant farm industry while also protecting its residents.

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