California farmers must restrict their use of a tear gas-like pesticide applied to strawberries and other crops under new rules designed to protect farmworkers and people who live, work and go to school near agricultural fields.
The state Department of Pesticide Regulation on Wednesday announced the nation's strictest limits on chloropicrin, a chemical that many farmers inject into the soil of strawberries, raspberries, almonds and other valuable crops. Hundreds of people have suffered respiratory ailments, skin irritation and headaches from the pesticide when it has leaked into the air in recent years, according to agency officials, who say use of the chemical has been increasing.
While growers complained the restrictions could drive up costs and the price of produce, health advocates said they do not go far enough to protect the public from ill effects.
The new rules establish wider buffer zones of up to 100 feet around fields where the pesticide is applied. Growers will be restricted to fumigating 40 acres a day unless they use stronger tarps to prevent the chemical from drifting away. Growers are also required to give the state 48 hours' notice before fumigating and to notify surrounding homes and businesses in Spanish and English.
California produces about 88% of the nation's strawberries, mostly in temperate coastal regions, including Monterey, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties. The population in those areas has grown, pushing residents and agricultural fields closer together and increasing health risks from pesticides drifting into neighborhoods, schools and work sites, state officials said.
Chloropicrin is "an irritant with characteristics of a tear gas" that was manufactured as a chemical warfare agent during World War I, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Strawberry growers have applied chloropicrin for decades, but its use has increased in recent years as an alternative to methyl bromide, which is being phased out under an international treaty.
California growers applied more than 9 million pounds of chloropicrin in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.
From 2002 to 2011, 787 people suffered symptoms including watery eyes, irritated lungs, coughing and headaches as a result of exposure to chloropicrin gas, state records show. Advocacy groups say the number of incidents is probably higher because many illnesses are not reported.
State pesticide regulators began drafting more stringent rules for chloropicrin after completing a 2010 health review that recommended reducing the risk of human exposure to the pesticide by limiting its airborne concentration.
"The right to farm does not include the right to harm," said Brian Leahy, director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation. "Part of the cost of doing business is putting protective measures in place that ensure that no one is getting hurt."
Farmworker and environmental advocacy groups said that the new rules for chloropicrin are a step in the right direction, but that they fall short of scientists' recommendations.
"The buffers are not large enough to protect residents, workers and schoolchildren," said Anne Katten, who monitors pesticide and worker safety for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. "The long-term solution is to phase out the use of chloropicrin and other high-toxicity soil fumigants and move to alternative measures to control soil pests that are safer and more sustainable."
Industry groups said the rules could raise produce prices.
"California farmers already follow stricter regulations than farmers in any other state, and these added regulations equal added costs," including up to $20 million a year to purchase new tarps, said Carolyn O'Donnell, spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission, a state government agency that represents the $2.3-billion industry.
The rules will affect mostly strawberry fields, which are fumigated each year before planting and account for about 70% of all chloropicrin use, according to the state. The pesticide is also used to protect raspberries, almonds, peppers, tomatoes and melons against a variety of pests and diseases.
In a 2012 incident, 15 Ventura County residents and two firefighters reported eye irritation after chloropicrin that was applied on a strawberry field drifted into the air. More than 300 people in Monterey County experienced burning and tearing eyes, nose irritation, coughing and headaches in 2005 when the wind carried chloropicrin from a field into a residential area.
A report last year by the California Department of Public Health found that chloropicrin is the agricultural pesticide of health concern that is applied most heavily within one-quarter of a mile of public schools.