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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Local Pesticide Use High, Group Says

Agriculture: Study by environmental organization rates county farmers sixth statewide in application of most toxic substances, and says usage has been rising.

May 03, 2000|KATIE COOPER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County farmers rank sixth among California growers using the most toxic of pesticides, and the county has the 10th-highest rate of overall pesticide use statewide, an environmental watchdog group reported Tuesday.

The study by Californians for Pesticide Reform ranks the state's 58 counties according to the amount of pesticides used on farmland and in nonagricultural applications.

From 1991 to 1998, local growers increased their use of suspected carcinogenic and toxic pesticides by nearly one-third, from 1.9 million pounds a year to a high of 2.9 million in 1998, the report found.

The suspected carcinogens are linked to a variety of cancers, including childhood leukemia, breast cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, while toxic pesticides are associated with a number of health problems, including infertility and birth defects, according to the study by the coalition of public interest organizations.

Over the same period, overall pesticide use jumped to 6.6 million pounds in 1998 from 4.9 million pounds in 1991.

In the report to be released today, Californians for Pesticide Reform chastised the agricultural industry and government regulators for using more pesticides at a time of increasing awareness of the risks they pose to the environment and the public's health.

"Pesticide use trends show that California is hooked on toxic pesticides," said Susan Kegley, lead author of the report. "Use of the most toxic pesticides, including carcinogens, remains alarmingly high, indicating the state is on the wrong track."

The report also criticized nonagricultural uses of pesticides on roadways, landscaping and to control termites, ants and roaches in and around commercial and residential structures. Pesticides used for landscape maintenance are predominantly carcinogenic while those typically used for roadside spraying are herbicides known to contaminate ground water, the study reported.

The most commonly used pesticide in the county is petroleum oil, which a spokeswoman with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation said is typically used to kill spider and aphid eggs on citrus fruit. Lemons are the county's No. 1 cash crop in the local $845-million agriculture industry, the eighth-largest in the state.

Susan Johnson, pesticide deputy for the county's agricultural commissioner, was quick to fault the report's accuracy, saying the data unfairly imply local farmers overuse pesticides. Instead, she said, the popularity of the soil fumigant methyl bromide in the strawberry industry accounts for the county's ranking.

The county is the state's second-largest producer of strawberries, and the number of acres devoted to the crop grew during the 1990s. In 1991, 4,435 acres were harvested for strawberries. In 1999, 6,692 acres were devoted to new berry plantings, said Kerry DuFrain, deputy agricultural commissioner.

"If the county is growing strawberries as its second-most valuable crop, then its going to have a high rate of methyl bromide," Johnson said.

Under terms of an international treaty, methyl bromide is being phased out. The fumigant, associated with sterility, birth defects and impaired childhood development, must be reduced by 25% this year, 50% in 2001, 70% in 2003 and be banned altogether in 2005. It is a colorless, odorless gas that is injected into the soil to cleanse it of insects, mites, rodents and weeds.

While an alternative pest-control method has not been developed, Johnson said she expects the county's pesticide use will drop as the fumigant is phased out.

But Eileen McCarthy, a farm workers advocate, was not so sure.

"What's going to be phased in when it's phased out?" said McCarthy, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance. "If it's another fumigant, that's not so good."

Indeed, the study found that when some growers reduced their use of methyl bromide, they turned to other fumigants also regarded as toxic.

McCarthy said she was concerned about the county's ranking, particularly the fact that it ranked higher than San Joaquin County in Northern California in its use of the most toxic pesticides.

"I'm obviously concerned about the farm workers' high risk of exposure, but the wider community should be concerned too," McCarthy said. "These pesticides are used because they're effective. But at what cost and to whom?"

She said not enough resources are invested in developing less-toxic methods of farming.

The study echoed that assessment, calling for increased sales taxes on the most dangerous pesticides to encourage alternative pest-control methods.

But that cost would be passed on to consumers, Johnson said.

"And that would hurt the poor, those the least able to absorb increases in the cost of food," she said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Ventura County Pesticide Use

*--*

Chemical name Pounds used Petroleum oil 2,325,203 Methyl bromide 1,657,372 Chloropicrin 455,373 Mineral oil 297,990 Disodium octaborate 138,096 Glyphosate 134,830 Metam-sodium 118,837 Sugar 99,850 Chlorothalonil 92,457 Sulfuryl fluoride 79,161

*--*

*--*

Crop or commodity Pounds used Lemons 2,853,147 Strawberries 1,909,627 Indoor pest control 329,888 Celery 209,724 Avocados 199,514 Bell peppers 192,832 Outdoor flower nursery 188,456 Oranges 116,765 Ornamental turf 69,349 Roadside spraying 66,577

*--*

Source: California Department of Pesticide Regulation

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