In the past two years, more than 1 million pounds of pesticides were applied in Monterey County – and that’s not counting crop chemicals or household bug spray.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
- * top pesticides chart
- * local governments pesticide usage chart
- * non-ag pesticides usage pie chart
- * Caveats: when interpreting the numbers.
- * Downloads: Pesticide Use 2006-2007
Think you can avoid pesticide exposure by eating organic strawberries and hand-pulling the thistles in your garden? City-dwellers, think again: Quietly, constantly, synthetic pest-killers inundate urban spaces.
They’re on the lawn at Monterey’s El Estero Park, where kids play, and on Seaside’s railroad tracks, near transients’ bedrolls. They share space with parishioners praying in the Diocese of Monterey and with tourists visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea’s historic Flanders Mansion. They keep roaches out of Salinas’ Natividad Medical Center and dandelions out of Pebble Beach’s Spyglass Hill golf course.
The Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office recorded nearly 4 million non-agricultural pesticide applications in the county during 2006 and 2007, totaling about 1.2 million pounds of product. These aren’t crop chemicals, or even household poisons such as Raid, Roundup and Frontline. These are pesticides used on a regular basis by licensed applicators, such as landscapers, pest-control businesses, fumigators, golf-course managers, food processors and city parks departments.
The commissioner’s data reveal who applied what products, and how much. But they don’t detail specific locations; only that they’ve been applied within the bounds of Monterey County. The data show that many of the applicators are private companies working on contract, but not who their clients are.
While the information isn’t very specific, two years of county data do reveal trends in local non-ag pesticide use. The county’s tomato-processing industry, for example, used nearly 500,000 pounds of chlorine in 2006-2007. Farmers apply loads of chemicals to reservoirs and irrigation systems, even on land outside of crop production. Golf courses are drenched with pesticides targeting worms and weeds; buildings are gassed to kill termites; parks are sprayed to keep turf green.
You may not be aware of the pesticides all around you. But you’ve probably been exposed to some today.Pesticides as medicine
A county without pesticides, in the view of Assistant Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Bob Roach, would be a county plagued by crumbling buildings, weedy parks, microbe-borne diseases, insect-infested homes, gopher-pocked golf courses and vermin-riddled hospitals.
“These products serve a purpose in our life,” he says. “People are using them because they’re controlling pests that can be damaging in a number of ways.”
Clark Pest Control Branch Manager Travis Mickel, whose clients include local residents, businesses and governments, agrees. “A lot of people don’t realize how big a role pest control plays in our society,” he says. “We are doing everything we can to be a partner in guarding the environment and making a home or business a safe place to live and work.”
Cockroaches can exacerbate asthma, Mickel notes. Rats can cause restaurants to be shut down, and termites can chew through a family’s American Dream. His company estimates termites cause $1.5 billion in property damage nationally each year– more, he says, than by hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and floods combined.
Roach expands on pesticides’ role in maintaining public health. For example, the North Salinas Valley Mosquito Abatement District controls disease-carrying mosquitoes.
“Pests are pests. They’re a problem,” he says. “There are non-chemical ways to control them, and people use those methods, too. But it can often be done safely and effectively with the use of legally registered pesticide products.”Pesticides as poison
The funny thing about pesticides is that people looking at their risks and benefits often come to polar opposite conclusions. The very technologies that Mickel and Roach get excited about– the ability to kill a house full of termites with a cloud of sulfuryl fluoride gas, for example– scare the bejeebers out of Tina Cosentino.
As state field coordinator for Californians for Pesticide Reform, Cosentino gets a lot of calls about a fumigant called Vikane. The termite-buster is the third most popular non-ag pesticide in Monterey County, with more than 60,000 pounds applied in 2006-2007.
Broker Bert Aronson of Keller Williams Realty says termite inspections– and treatments, if necessary– are standard procedure for local property transfers.
Yet the gas pumped into Monterey County homes is linked with respiratory irritation and neurological damage among humans, particularly applicators, and can drift onto neighboring properties. That’s a high price to pay for termite control, in Cosentino’s view, particularly in light of safer treatment options such as steam and topical orange oil. “There are alternatives,” she says. “People should not be using Vikane. We’d love to get it pulled off the market.”
Glyphosate– the active ingredient in Roundup– is another common pesticide that gets under Cosentino’s skin. She receives a stream of calls from people who experience rashes, nausea and breathing problems after exposure to the chemical, which is Monterey County’s most popular non-crop herbicide. “We know it’s a problem and people are concerned about it,” she says, “and yet everybody uses it.”
She could go on. Bug-killing pyrethroids– routinely applied at retirement homes and child-care centers– can be toxic to aquatic animals. Rodent bait can kill not only squirrels and gophers, but also the animals that prey on them. Methyl bromide keeps bugs off strawberries, but it’s also linked to human reproductive disorders.
“People need to get informed about these chemicals,” Cosentino says, “and not assume they’re safe just because they’re on the market.”What we know
To some extent, a person’s views on pesticides depend on his or her faith in the system. Pesticide regulation is a multi-tiered process involving county, state and federal agencies. And while officials can’t guarantee that legal pesticide use is 100 percent safe for everyone, they say the regulatory system reduces risks to a level they deem acceptable.
Applicators submit monthly summaries of their pesticide use to the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, which enters the information into public databases: one for crop production and one for everything else, excluding over-the-counter products.
The commissioner’s office dedicates more than 10 full-time positions to pesticide regulation, Roach says. Staff members issue permits, inspect fields, audit pest-control business records and investigate suspected pesticide-related injuries. Since July 2006, the Ag commissioner’s office has assessed almost $40,000 in fines for 93 pesticide-related violations– from $100 for faulty use reporting to $4,140 for failing to notify a nearby residence about a scheduled application.
The county forwards its pesticide reports to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which runs them through error-detection computer programs, and converts product quantities to pounds of active ingredient. Once the data look reasonably clean, DPR posts them to its public website. But it’s a slow process: The most recent online data are from 2006.
Inevitably, spreadsheets are prone to glitches. “There are always possibilities for errors or inconsistencies, due to the massive amounts of data involved,” says DPR spokesman Glenn Brank. “There are more than 1.5 million reports filed annually, and dozens of data points within each report. One wrong decimal point can make a tremendous difference. And it happens.”
Brank says California’s pesticide regulations are the strongest in the country. DPR collects more detailed pesticide use data than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he notes, and vets EPA-registered products by its own set of standards. “It’s not enough that [a pesticide] is deemed appropriate at a federal level,” he says. “We have to find that it’s appropriate to be used and sold under California conditions.”
While DPR regulates statewide pesticide sales and use, the state Structural Control Board focuses more narrowly on pest control in buildings.
State pesticide regulation is largely funded by an assessment on chemicals entering the state, called the mill fee, which supports enforcement, environmental monitoring, worker health and safety, and other programs. Pesticide manufacturers also are legally required to provide material safety data sheets describing each product’s physical and chemical properties.
The many-headed regulatory structure gives anti-pesticide groups hard science to work with. The Pesticide Action Network, for example, uses international, federal, state and industry data to flag the most hazardous pesticides and chemicals as “bad actors,” providing an easy way for concerned consumers to evaluate pesticides at a glance.What we don’t know
If existing pesticide data paint a picture, it’s a blurry one. There’s no significant oversight of over-the-counter applications, which comprise about half the pesticide use in California, according to Brank. State and federal laws count on consumers to follow product labels; Mickel of Clark Pest Control suggests many people don’t. “That’s why we encourage people to go with a professional pest-control company,” he says.
These and other shortcomings give Margaret Reeves, senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network North America, little confidence in the regulatory system. Standard toxicity tests evaluate pesticides’ short-term health impacts when ingested through the mouth, skin and lungs; skin and eye irritation; and skin sensitization. But they don’t assess chronic health effects, Reeves notes. Nor do they analyze inert ingredients, which comprise everything in a pesticide product but the active ingredient.
Potential impacts on the nervous system, reproductive organs and hormones often are ignored, Reeves says, as are health impacts in combination with other chemicals. “Individuals live in an environment where they are never exposed to just one product. They are exposed to a whole sea of contaminants,” she says. “We don’t know what that means in practice.”
Reeves alleges that the chemical industry has too much influence on regulators, researchers and politicians, and claims that good science often is censored for political reasons. “The risk assessment system is flawed,” she says. “It still puts the burden on the victims to demonstrate harm rather than on the manufacturers of the goods to demonstrate that they are not harmful before they are used.”Better information is key
Last year, thousands of Monterey County residents were frightened and outraged by the government’s aerial spraying of an untested pheromone product to control the invasive light brown apple moth. County data show that the product, Checkmate LBAM-F, was among the top non-ag chemicals used locally in 2007. But there has been little public discussion of the chemicals applied in even greater quantities– the termite fumigant, rodent bait, weed-killer and water-sanitizer saturating our environment.
Whether viewing pesticides with blind confidence or knee-jerk fear, it helps to know what we’re dealing with. To that end, more specific data on where the pesticides are applied would be useful. Public agencies shouldn’t be taken off the hook for outsourcing their pesticide applications; yet sloppy bookkeeping, in some cases, can make it nearly impossible to track chemicals sprayed by private companies with taxpayer dollars.
Then there’s the question of toxicity. Even regulators and pest-control companies acknowledge that some heavily used pesticides– methyl bromide, for example– are vastly more toxic than others, such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Yet there is no weighting system for potency or hazard level.
“These data are difficult to interpret because the amount doesn’t necessarily correlate directly to the risk,” Roach says.
Many public agencies are moving toward using less hazardous compounds. The North Salinas Valley Mosquito Abatement District, for example, eschews poisonous organophosphates in favor of insecticidal bacteria and mineral oil. And the city of Salinas’ Urban Watershed Management Program hosts workshops teaching local gardeners how to scale back their use of harsh pesticides.
Even as she hands over a half-foot-thick stack of documents on city chemical applications in 2006, Salinas Maintenance Services Director Denise Estrada notes that a 1999 file would have been much thicker. “We used a lot of chemicals in those days,” she says. “We have gone away from heavy pesticide use.”
Anti-pesticide groups advocate a holistic, preventive approach to warding off pests. Eliminate the factors that attract pests, they reason, and the problems will go away. Integrated Pest Management techniques encourage people to look for the root causes of infestations and modify their environments accordingly.
Spackle plugs insect-inviting holes. Vinegar cleans up roach-attracting food residue. Yard weeds lose fights against spades. Ladybugs grow plump on garden-dwelling aphids.
Even community parks and golf courses can remain lush and pesticide-free with a few tweaks to the routine. “It takes some creative thinking and some collaborative efforts to come up with those kinds of solutions,” Cosentino says.
Until then, we’ll continue to wage chemical warfare against the organisms we don’t want around. Pest and pesticide each will continue evolving to trump the other, while we try to figure out which is the bigger nuisance.
Weekly intern Emily Kellogg provided research for this project.