Trouble in the Air
Dozens feel ill after toxic gas drifts into neighborhood.
Thursday, October 13, 2005
Ramon Lorico hadn’t even begun to warm his seat when his eyes started to burn inexplicably. The Salinas truck driver had parked himself on his couch at about 9:30pm on Oct. 7 to watch TV after a long day.
Lorico didn’t know it at the time, but some 12 hours earlier, a cloud of toxic chemicals had drifted westward from a nearby strawberry field. Part of it leaked into his Creekbridge-neighborhood home through an open door and stayed trapped there.
“It wasn’t until the next day listening to the news,” Lorico says, “that I realized there might be a connection.”
The putrid haze that floated away from the strawberry field on Oct. 7, blowing into a residential area and making several dozen people sick, was chloropicrin, a World War I chemical warfare agent that’s now a main component of tear gas. Chloropicrin is also a state and federally approved pesticide commonly used to kill fungus, insects and bacteria in soils before crops like strawberries are planted.
While the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office is investigating this incident—which marks the county’s first documented group exposure to pesticides this year and could bring fines of up to $5,000 per person made ill—some people remain worried.
“We just don’t know how bad it is,” says Margaret Reeves, senior scientist for Pesticide Action Network North America. “We know it’s highly toxic and we know what the initial symptoms to exposure are, but it’s the long-term effects for humans about which we know very little. And that’s the case for hundreds of pesticides now in use.”
The state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation has a chloropicrin fact sheet stating “there is no evidence that chloropicrin can cause reproductive effects or birth defects.”
But a more comprehensive document on chloropicrin produced by the US Department of Agriculture clearly lays out that no studies exist on its potential reproductive or developmental toxicity. And a single study performed on rodents to look at chloropicrin’s potential carcinogenicity reported “no conclusive evidence,” according to the same document.
Glenn Brank, spokesman for the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation, says they are reevaluating chloropicrin to determine whether current safeguards for acute and chronic exposure to the chemical are sufficient.
“We never minimize the potential toxic effect of any pesticide,” Brank says. “Depending on the outcome of our reevaluation, we will take whatever measures are appropriate to better protect people.”
While unintentional drifts of chloropicrin-like pesticides into residential areas are rare, drifts of toxic gases that harm farmworkers aren’t. “If you ask a room full of farm workers how many of them have been involved in a pesticide drift, at least half will raise their hands,” says Georgina Mendoza, staff attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance’s Salinas office. A large percentage of those incidents don’t get reported, she says, because many workers are undocumented and fear reprisals if they come forward.
Late last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two bills designed to reduce potential harm to humans from agricultural pesticide use.
The first was Senate Bill 445, dubbed the Pesticide Safety Enforcement Law. Should the governor have signed the bill into law, SB 445 would have triggered stricter penalties for parties who violate pesticide rules. Common violations include farm bosses who fail to properly train workers to handle poisons before they are asked to administer them, or have them go into a sprayed field before the pesticide has subsided.
What SB 445 would have done, Mendoza says, is help bridge the chasm between how many pesticide violations are discovered versus how many violators are actually penalized by county agricultural commissions. In other words, SB 445 would have created a stronger deterrent.
“The farm working community could have benefited greatly from this,” Mendoza says.
The second bill vetoed by the governor, SB 600, would have required a statewide biomonitoring study to identify high concentrations of environmental toxins in people across the state.
“It would have allowed us to identify which communities we need to focus regulatory efforts on,” Reeves says.
Last year agriculture officials documented 112 non-compliance pesticide violations in Monterey County, says Bob Roach, the County’s assistant agricultural commissioner. Of these, only four civil penalties totaling $2,000 in fines were handed down to violators.
This fiscal year, that figure is up to seven civil actions totaling $19,800, with more cases pending.
Roach says the numbers might be misleading. A non-compliance violation, he explains, might be something mundane like a worker not wearing gloves, which doesn’t necessarily result in a fine for a first-time offense.
“We have an excellent enforcement program in Monterey County,” Roach says. “We haven’t had one [large group] incident this whole year and I was hoping to get through the season without one.”
Roach says a new policy—dubbed Enforcement Response Policy—now being adopted by the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation will “tighten up” pesticide enforcement in individual counties. “This new matrix will cause more enforcement actions, like fines, than before,” Roach says.
Even if it does, that still doesn’t address the other burning issue of pesticides’ potential harmful effects to workers and nearby residents.
That’s why Reeves and others at the pesticide action network were doubly discouraged by Schwarzenegger’s two recent vetoes.
“Clearly his vote supports the interests of the chemical industry,” Reeves says. “It’s a defeat, but the issues aren’t going to go away.”
Number of substance abuse treatment centers in
Monterey County. Source: US Department of Health and