California state and county agencies aren’t doing enough to protect the public from pesticide exposure, a new study found.

The research, released Wednesday by UCLA, alleges a systemic lack of oversight by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and county agricultural commissioners when it comes to pesticide application permits.

Opponents call the research “poppycock” and question the agenda of the authors.

State law requires county agricultural commissioners to ensure that those using pesticides first consider using alternatives. The alternative may include measures that don’t include pesticides at all or another pesticide that may be less harmful to people and the environment.

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“Without the alternatives we’re putting all our reliance on the idea that buffer zones and mitigations will work,” said study author and UCLA law professor Timothy Molloy. “There’s evidence out there that they don’t always work and that puts people at risk.”

The study found that applicants are left to suggest alternative methods themselves, often defaulting back to pesticide use.

Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales, who formerly held that position in Ventura County, says he believes the office provides adequate oversight for what can sometimes be a repetitive consideration.

“For us, here, it is very important that we look at alternatives,” Gonzales said. “It’s the same pesticide on the same crop, in the same conditions, over and over and over again. You don’t really need to do that analysis every single time unless something is different or unique.”

Yet, the practice results in an increase in cumulative exposure of pesticides, Malloy said.

Cumulative exposure refers to exposures related to simultaneous, or sequential, application of two or more materials at the same field, or adjacent fields.

At the same time, evaluations of cumulative impact are lagging at the state and local levels, Malloy added.

Gonzales agreed that an understanding of cumulative impact is an important piece of the puzzle and said “available methodologies for evaluating cumulative impact are limited.” He hopes to see the science progress further to give the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and commissioners a better idea of the cumulative effect pesticides have on land and people over years and decades of use.

“The Department of Pesticide Regulation needs to come up with practical approaches for measuring cumulative exposures,” said Malloy. “Perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good. We shouldn’t be waiting for science to develop – they shouldn’t be waiting to engage with what we know now.”

The county’s crop report was recently released by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, highlighting which crops did well in 2017 and which have seen significantly decreased in value.Wochit

MORE: California pesticide regulators recommend new chlorpyrifos restrictions

California Department of Pesticide Regulation spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe responded to a request for an interview with an emailed statement.

“In California we believe there is stringent governance of pesticides on the ground,” Fadipe wrote. “The scientific literature and guidance for assessing cumulative effects is still relatively new and has not been fully vetted, however DPR ensures that our scientists are kept abreast of the most current science on that issue.”

California citrus, wine grape, almond and strawberry crops are most often treated with pesticides, and the amount of pesticides used has been higher in recent years. Reported pesticide use for California in 2016 totaled 209 million pounds applied and 101 million cumulative acres treated, according to data released by the Department of Pesticide Regulation in 2018.

The annual number of pounds of pesticides applied to California fields in both 2015 and 2016 was higher than any year since 1998.

The UCLA study authors focused on chlorpyrifos, a toxic air contaminant that has demonstrated health risks and has been heavily criticized by regulators, lawmakers and courts, although usage statewide has dropped in recent years.

Former President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency had proposed a ban on the pesticide, though the Trump administration halted the effort and has now been held in courts. In the fall of 2018, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation issued temporary guidelines for chlorpyrifos that include banning it from crop dusting, discontinuing its use on most crops and increasing perimeters around where it’s applied.


Some California growers are skeptical of the study’s findings, however.

USDA and California Citrus Mutual adviser Joel Nelsen says he is no stranger to John Froines’ work.

Froines is one of four authors named in the UCLA study. Nelsen says the UCLA researcher has a history of “cherry picking data” to serve an “anti-pesticide agenda.”

“To say that growers aren’t using the best alternative (pesticide) practices in their fields – that’s poppycock,” Nelsen said. “Growers have to effectively rotate their crop-protection tools every season. Otherwise, pests begin to develop a tolerance.”

Nelsen points out that chlorpyrifos is approved by both the EPA and California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

“Froines is equating use to risk,” he said. “If you take a whole bottle of aspirin, you could die, but if you take two – perfectly safe. It’s the same with our crop protection tools.”

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has beefed up its chlorpyrifos restrictions in recent years. As of 2018, the pesticide is approved in California to target only a few specific pests on a handful of crops, including oranges, alfalfa and almonds.

Nelsen says chlorpyrifos is part of a stable of crop-protection tools that citrus growers use to keep harmful bugs at bay. The critter that keeps Nelsen up at night is the Asian citrus psyllid, which has decimated Florida’s citrus industry since it first appeared in 2004.

Nelsen says chlorpyrifos and other crop treatments are so far California’s only line of defense against the near-microscopic pest.

Without them, Nelsen says California’s $8 billion citrus industry could go sour fast.