In Lompoc, Pressure Is Bringing Change

George Rauh, founding president of Volunteers for a Healthy Valley, is a substitute teacher who lives in Lompoc

Your story about Oxnard schools being poisoned by pesticide drift was a striking deja vu. Here in Lompoc, a Santa Barbara County city downwind of daily spraying, an unprecedented state health study has documented high rates of lung cancer, asthma and bronchitis.

And like Oxnard teachers, Lompoc residents suffer a spate of neurological symptoms--chronic fatigue, headaches, nausea, numbness, muscle and joint pain and more. Colds, flu and other infections hang on forever. We have learned the hard way that continuous pesticide exposure erodes the immune system as surely as dripping water does a rock.

Back in 1992, this realization prompted us to start Volunteers for a Healthy Valley (VHV), a group of citizen activists that would gather facts, raise community awareness, expose the falsehoods about pesticide safety and ultimately stop the poisoning of our air.

Farmers and some others were indignant. Agriculture is a sacred cow, they said. But we have never opposed farming, just poisoning. Bottom line: Thou shalt not poison thy neighbor.

As VHV persisted in the face of denial and regulatory stonewalling, our campaign led to a health study by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. After a scandalous two-year delay, the agency confirmed high rates of respiratory illness and lung cancer in Lompoc as compared to five different counties. Powerful vindication for VHV, the Lompoc study represented a scientific breakthrough--evidence that continuous, low-level pesticide exposure impacts public health.

The Department of Pesticide Regulation then created a first-of-its-kind task force, the Lompoc Inter-Agency Work Group, composed of scientists from state regulatory agencies, county officials and community representatives. We have just sent the department a recommendation for comprehensive air monitoring to begin this summer. The question now is whether it will fund and implement this plan as promised.

Organized citizen pressure works. Lompoc farmers are now much more careful about spraying near schools and homes. They have voluntarily stopped aerial spraying within one-quarter of a mile of town. Some have created small pesticide-free buffer zones.

But we have far to go. The fundamental problem remains: It is impossible to spray poisons out over a field without the chemicals drifting well beyond its borders. In the past 10 years, this continuous year-round poisoning has increased exponentially along the Central Coast wherever vegetables and strawberries are grown.

Without exaggeration, these fields have become agricultural chemical war zones. How can we place our children in harm's way next door to the spraying of these EPA-listed carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals?

Yet by perverse miscalculation, from Camarillo through Ventura, Lompoc, Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo, Salinas and north to Santa Cruz, intensive pesticide use has created a toxic trail of schools and communities abutting farms.

In response, during the last few years, new citizens groups have sprung up demanding protection. We have joined together in the Community Coalition to End Pesticide Drift. Our platform calls for:

* The creation of pesticide-free buffer zones.

* A ban on aerial spraying.

* Elimination of the worst pesticides known to cause cancer, neurological and reproductive harm.

* A program mandating targets for pesticide use reduction.

Our answer to the poisoning is organic farming, hugely profitable and the fastest growing farming sector. Organic is good for the farmer, good for the neighbor.

I urge residents of Oxnard, Ventura and Camarillo to get together with friends and neighbors and begin working toward the solutions that will protect families. Our fertile fields should once again be a blessing and not a curse.

Democracy works when we do. We are already making a difference. Contact our coalition to see how you can play a part. Call Pesticide Watch at (415) 292-1489 or Community and Children's Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning at (805) 654-4186.

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