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California and the West

Use of Toxic Pesticides on the Rise

Health: State agency reports significant increases in '90s. Activists hope for new curbs under Davis administration.

July 15, 1999|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The use of pesticides that cause cancer and harm the reproductive and nervous systems increased steadily in California during the 1990s, a new study shows.

The report by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation says the use of cancer-causing pesticides jumped 81% between 1991 and 1997, while the use of chemicals linked to birth defects, reduced fertility and sterility rose 34%.

Applications of neurotoxins--pesticides that disrupt enzymes that control the nervous system--climbed 17% during the same seven-year period, the study showed.

The report, released Tuesday, prompted activists to renew demands that state government more aggressively promote alternatives to pesticides that threaten human health.

California farmers, reliant on bug-killing chemicals to protect crops and increase yields, have been reluctant to shift away from proven methods. They faced little pressure--and few incentives--to do so during the Wilson administration.

But some activists, noting the surging market for organically grown produce, hope Gov. Gray Davis has a different perspective.

Paul Helliker, Davis' newly appointed director of pesticide regulation, was not available for comment Wednesday. But in a prepared statement, he said California needs to "reduce the use of the high-hazard pesticides" and "examine the use of reduced-risk alternatives."

Such words are "a stunning reversal in the way state government has talked about pesticide use in the past," said Jonathan Kaplan, policy analyst for the California Public Interest Research Group. "That's the good news. The gloomy news is that the use of cancer-causing pesticides has gone up every single year in this state."

The study examined major crops, pest problems and the most commonly used chemicals in California. It analyzed trends in use by pounds applied and acres treated.

The analysis found that 31 chemicals account for most of the increased use of pesticides between 1991 and 1997. Two chemicals--metam sodium, a soil fumigant, and petroleum oil, mostly used to kill bugs in dormant orchards--accounted for about half the increased use of cancer-causing pesticides during that period.

In 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available, the top five crops treated with pesticides were wine grapes (27.1 million pounds), table and raisin grapes (26.9 million pounds), almonds (14.5 million pounds), cotton (13.4 million pounds) and oranges (11.5 million pounds).

Kaplan and other critics say the numbers are proof that state government is not doing enough to help agriculture--California's leading industry--wean itself off hazardous chemicals.

But Veda Federighi, the department's spokeswoman, defended the state's record. Since 1996, she said, the department has awarded $4 million in grants to demonstration projects aimed at finding low-risk ways to kill bugs.

"There's a strong desire in rural communities, and urban ones, to find ways to fight pests without pesticides," Federighi said.

At the California Farm Bureau Federation, spokesman Bob Krauter acknowledged public concerns about chemicals, but said this state's regulations are the strictest in the nation.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Pesticide Use

The use of pesticides that cause cancer and harm the human repro-ductive and nervous systems rose steadily, in California during the 1990s. Critics say the state should work harder to promote alternatives to hazardous chemicals.

Pounds of cancer-causing pesticides that have been reported in California.

1997: 1,816,028

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