In California, 209 million pounds of pesticides were applied to fields in 2016. Under state law, county agricultural commissioners are required to consider safer alternatives to pesticides restricted by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. But that’s not happening, according to a study released this week by researchers from UCLA and the University of Southern California.
One of the pesticides the study focused on is chlorpyrifos, which is used in the production of California strawberries, almonds and walnuts. California restricts chlorpyrifos’ use because it's known to be linked to serious health risks in children. So, before a grower sprays it on their fields, they must get a permit from a county’s agricultural commissioner.
During that process, local agriculture officials are required to consider whether there are safer alternatives that could be used instead, according to Tim Malloy, a law professor at UCLA. A study he worked on with UCLA and USC researchers looked at whether that step was happening.
"And we could find no evidence the commissioners actually do that as part of the permitting process," Malloy said.
The Department of Pesticide Regulation is in charge of overseeing and collaborating with the county agriculture commissioners “to make sure that everything is being done properly,” Malloy explained. He says that the department itself has not been considering safer alternatives, nor have they been “actively requiring local commissioners to do so at the local level.”
The study has several recommendations spelling out what DPR can do to change that. It also includes guidance on how DPR could assess the potential impact and health risks of “cumulative exposure” to pesticides.
"We know that mixtures can occur in the air, so that folks who are working or living in those areas are exposed to the mixture, not to the individual pesticides,” Malloy said.
Charlotte Fadipe, a spokesperson with DPR, did not offer comment on the study's specific findings. In an email, she wrote that the agency "believes there is stringent governance of pesticides on the ground.”
Fadipe added that DPR continues to be engaged with agriculture commissioners to provide guidance on alternative options for restricted pesticides where there is “scientific justification.”
Sandy Ellis, executive director of the California Association of County Agricultural Commissioners, had yet to read the full report on the day of its release, but said “if there are opportunities to improve our pesticide use enforcement, we certainly will improve them.”
Meanwhile, an lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council seeking to block the Environmental Protection Agency from allowing the use of chlorpyrifos in agriculture heads back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for a hearing next week.