Agriculture around schools must be non-toxic

Agriculture around schools must be non-toxic

Mary Haffner’s guest columnist article, “Agriculture around schools must be non-toxic,” was published in the Ventura County Star on June 28, 2015, in Section B, “Local,” page 8B. The column is related here:

I commend Ventura County Supervisors John Zaragoza and Steve Bennett for requesting an inquiry into the practices of pesticide use surrounding Rio Mesa High School.

From a review of documents generated both by Dow AgroSciences and the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), and subsequent actions taken by DPR regarding 1,3-D, there is clear evidence of a pattern and practice of prioritizing the needs of industry over public health, of letting pesticide manufacturers control management plans, and of allowing the pesticide industry to influence the decisions of the DPR.

The agency that is charged with protecting public health consistently endorses the recommendations, the studies and the risk assessment-based “science” generated by chemical companies.

This is significant because it is a conflict of interest that results in long-term and short-term health costs to our communities. This conflict of interest undermines trust and confidence in our state agency and our agricultural commissioner.

1,3-D is a big moneymaker for Dow. Approximately 94 million pounds of it was applied in California between 1995 and 2010.

1,3-D is a very toxic, highly restricted chemical known to cause cancer. Because it is considered a “bad actor” pesticide and evidence confirms its potential for drift, permits for its use were suspended in 1990.

With the phase-out of other fumigants, however, Dow proposed to reintroduce 1,3-D in 1994, with a cap of 90,250 pounds per township, per year, stating that level provided an “acceptable” risk for communities. DPR agreed.

In 2002, DPR decided to take Dow’s next recommendation to increase the amount per township by two times the amount previously considered “safe,” justifying this expansion of use with risk assessments and a “banking” process that allowed vast amounts over and above the amounts previously deemed safe.

But it didn’t stop there. If growers asked for more than twice the amount, they were granted exemptions. Specifically, 180,000 pounds per year were applied in 2009-2011, and 270,000 pounds in 2012. At no time were students, staff and families notified of this additional risk and exposure.

In testimony before the Board of Supervisors, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales dismissed concerns of the Rio Mesa community, stating, “People are concerned about something that happened a long time ago.” Yes, we are concerned, and rightly so. The “science” DPR asks communities to trust is flawed and deceptive, at best.

The truth is that we cannot know what is safe because risk assessments are too assumption-laden. And it is those with an economic stake in the outcomes of these assessments — chemical companies — that specify and frame these assumptions.

Whose costs and whose benefits are considered in this “scientific” process? Judging what is an “acceptable” level of risk for communities should not be left to chemical companies, but it is.

Resources now spent on faulty and highly uncertain risk assessments should be used to support the implementation of non-toxic agricultural practices around schools. Conflicts of interest do not make for good public policy, especially when it comes to the health of our most vulnerable.