Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers


Sacramento Bee
7 May 2003

Herbicide drift called a danger
The rice chemical molinate may pose health risks in Valley cities, a report says.
by Mike Lee

A herbicide widely used on the Sacramento Valley rice crop drifts into communities and endangers residents, assert pesticide watchdog groups in a new study of California farm chemicals to be issued today.

The "Secondhand Pesticides" report -- the latest attempt by advocacy groups to trim pesticide use -- alleges that hundreds of thousands of Californians potentially face health risks from airborne farm chemicals because regulators poorly monitor and control drift.

"These 'secondhand pesticides,' like secondhand cigarette smoke, can cause serious adverse health effects and are forced on others against their will," said the report by Californians for Pesticide Reform. The report's authors are from the Pesticide Action Network North America, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the Pesticide Education Center.

The California Rice Commission immediately questioned the report's conclusions, and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation issued a detailed statement criticizing what it called alarmist claims.

Ray Chavira at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide office in San Francisco took a different approach.

He said the study provides a good list of issues and scientific resources as the EPA reregisters pesticides, including the popular rice herbicide molinate, which will be reviewed in 2004. "Many of their recommendations are good," Chavira said.

The study looked at state air monitoring data and at "acceptable" levels of pesticide exposure as defined by state and federal regulators.

Californians for Pesticide Reform, a coalition of more than 160 groups, would like stricter pesticide drift controls from the federal EPA and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, increased air monitoring and a phase-out of some fumigant pesticides that sterilize the soil.

California's $28 billion agriculture industry relies heavily on pesticides. An unrelated study released last week predicted California crop losses of nearly $900 million a year if herbicides were not used.

Today's report says there are potential health risks in Sacramento, where molinate -- a slightly to moderately toxic compound -- has been found in some drinking water systems. Residents also are inhaling small doses of the chemical after it blows off fields. More than 1 million pounds of molinate was used in California in 2000, mostly in the Sacramento Valley to control watergrass in rice.

CPR's molinate analysis was based on a 1992 study that showed the Colusa County towns of Williams and Maxwell had air concentrations of molinate that exceeded the "acceptable" child health standard over several days, the report said.

The California Rice Commission defended the 15-year safety record of molinate -- a chemical that doesn't have a good replacement -- and the multiyear testing process to register farm chemicals.

"We feel comfortable that once it goes through that process that is the most rigorous in the world, the materials (approved) by third-party government agencies can be used safely," said commission President Tim Johnson.

The report also addresses drift from widely used chemicals, including chlorpyrifos and diazinon. Among its assertions:

* Four of the six farm chemicals studied turned up far from fields at levels much higher than federal "acceptable" levels for short-term doses.

* Regulators don't account for more than 80 percent of pesticide drift because it happens after they stop monitoring.

* Ongoing "background" level exposure to airborne pesticides poses health risks.

Co-author Susan Kegley of the Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco is particularly concerned about chemicals that evaporate from the crop, then drift into populated areas -- a different problem from when pesticides are blown off fields as they are applied.

More than 90 percent of pesticides used in California are prone to drifting away from where they are applied, and 34 percent are toxic to humans, the report said.

"The question is, 'How much should people be allowed to pollute the general environment?' " Kegley said. "The answer should be 'Not at all,' but that isn't the way we run our society."

The Department of Pesticide Regulation issued a 3 1/2 page response Tuesday, occasionally agreeing with the report. For instance, the state has formally asked the federal EPA to improve federal pesticide drift regulations, something the activist groups also want.

At EPA, Chavira said spray regulations are being reviewed by agency higher-ups, and he doesn't know whether they will meet state expectations. He also said his agency is assessing non-spray drift, though no regulations have been developed to control potential dangers.

"It's a very, very complex issue in California and around the nation, which may be one of the reasons why it has taken us so long to deal with it," he said.

State officials, however, dispute major portions of the report, most significantly claims that the pesticides in question routinely create unacceptable health risks.

"Data collected and analyzed by DPR scientists do not support CPR's alarmist claims," said the agency, adding that drift has been the agency's top regulatory priority under the Davis administration.

The pesticide department also said it had built in large safety factors to account for uncertainties and to provide extra protection.

The agency defended its enforcement record, saying it's done more work than federal regulators and is beefing up penalties for serious pesticide offenses under recent legislation.





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