June 1, 1996
P.O. Box 50055
Watsonville, CA 95077
To the editor,
I am writing to deliver some factual evidence to the debate on
Watsonville school children being educated about the hazards of pesticides.
Not only do the children of Watsonville have the right to learn the truth
about the health impacts of pesticide use in their communities, it is only
through such education that they can begin to protect themselves from harm
should they take jobs in the agricultural sector or live near farmland.
The truth is, the Watsonville area, according to data submitted to the
California Department of Pesticide Regulation by farmers themselves, has
some of the most intensive use of pesticides in the entire state and indeed
A new study published jointly by the University of California and
the state found that strawberries, a major Watsonville area crop, are by
far the most intense users of pesticides in California at 234 pounds of
pesticides per acre of berries. That equals almost 150,000 pounds per
square mile, to put it in more tangible terms. While the vast majority of
this total pesticide use is made up of the soil fumigants methyl bromide
and chloropicrin, over thirty different synthetic pesticides were used by
the strawberry farmers of Santa Cruz County last year. This same study
found that the use of pesticides has increased in recent years and that
state wide, pesticide use amounts to six pounds per capita. In Santa Cruz
County pesticide use totaled 1.5 million pounds in 1993, the last year for
which complete data are available. Pesticide use in Monterey County
totaled 8.2 million pounds that same year.
County records show that in 1995 growers used almost 633,000 pounds
of methyl bromide on 1,865 acres of Santa Cruz county farmland. Strawberry
fields accounted for at least 80 percent of this use (506,000 pounds). In
1992, the strawberry crop was the target of 61percent of all the pesticides
applied county wide ( including 98 percent of the Captan used (a Prop 65
listed carcinogen) and 79 percent of the Benomyl used (a Prop 65 listed
reproductive toxin). It is not an exaggeration to say that your area is
one of very heavy pesticide use, even for California.
However, even more important than the heavy use of pesticides is
the high potential for human illness from offsite drift of these
pesticides. Breathing methyl bromide for example is serious health threat.
Methyl bromide is a highly toxic gas and it never stays where it is put.
According to the latest studies, anywhere from 30-60 percent gets into the
air depending on the application method and weather, despite the plastic
tarping placed on top. Methyl bromide goes right through plastic. It
doesn't take a plastic glue failure, a strong wind or kids ripping off the
plastic for there to be methyl bromide in the air around strawberry fields.
Applications of methyl bromide to California strawberry fields average
around 200 pounds per acre. That means 60 to 120 pounds vaporizes into the
surrounding breathing space from each acre of strawberries.
The Department of Pesticide Regulation and the farmers know this.
But instead of monitoring how much methyl bromide is in the air, they use
computer models to guess where the methyl bromide will go after it leaves
the field and use this information to establish a "buffer zone" around
fields where methyl bromide is used. It is dangerous to enter this buffer
zone after a methyl bromide application. The DPR's methods of computer
modeling have been questioned by experts in the field of risk assessment.
As reported last February in the Los Angeles Times, the DPR is using an old
version of the computer model and using weak meteorological data averaged
statewide, instead of local weather data that gives a better picture of
where the methyl bromide will drift.
The scientist who developed these computer models while working for
the state (now a private consultant on air pollution) compared the DPR
buffer zones to more realistic buffer zones using an updated computer model
and local, up-to-date weather data. He found that in Salinas for example,
DPR buffer zones should be 4 to 10 times larger than currently mandated for
various field sizes and pesticide application rates. A DPR buffer zone of
40 feet should be 510 feet, A DPR buffer zone of 140 yards should be more
than a quarter mile. This raises serious questions about the safety of
people living, working and going to school close to methyl bromide treated
In testimony before the California Assembly in February, Dr.
William Pease, a toxicologist at UC Berkeley and the Environmental Defense
Fund, illuminated the health effects of methyl bromide as a nerve toxin, a
reproductive and developmental toxin, and went on to show that the state
has not established methyl bromide air pollution standards to protect
humans from chronic exposure to methyl bromide. Nobody is monitoring how
much is in the air and the methyl bromide levels that are legally allowed
in the air are derived from studies on rats and rabbits, even though
primates, including humans, have been shown to be more sensitive. The one
study that attempted to measure the chronic effects of low level exposure
ended with six dead beagles after just a few days. It was determined by
the researchers that "the cumulative effect for methyl bromide induced
neurotoxicity made it difficult to estimate an exposure level which the
dogs could tolerate for a 28-day or 1 year exposure study."
Methyl bromide is being used near people. Subdivisions and schools
are increasingly close to agricultural areas in California. An
Environmental Working Group (EWG) report completed in February found that
Santa Cruz county had three elementary schools and day care centers within
1.5 miles of over 25,000 pounds of methyl bromide use. Neighboring
Monterey County had 24 schools within the same range and 4 schools within 2
miles of more than 80,000 pounds of annual methyl bromide use. One of
these, the Ohlone elementary school, is literally surrounded by strawberry
farms, a pastoral but potentially dangerous setting.
In addition to methyl bromide, strawberry fields get their share of
toxic fungicide and insecticide treatments as well. A recent record of
pesticide applications during from March and April to a strawberry field in
Castroville reads like a hit list of noxious pesticides. This one field
was treated with multiple fungicides, insecticides and herbicides during
the two month period: three times with Captan, twice with benomyl
(Benlate), twice with iprodione (Rovral), once with metalaxyl (Ridomil),
five times with Malathion, once with glyphosate (Roundup), twice with
abamectin (agri-mek) and six times with sulfur along with several other
compounds. Benomyl, captan and iprodione are all classified by the EPA as
carcinogens. Malathion is a potent nervous system toxin.
It is hardly surprising that some of the pesticides that go onto
strawberries in the fields remain on the fruit when it gets to the
supermarket. An Environmental Working Group report, "The Shopper's Guide to
Pesticides in Produce", in which we analyzed FDA pesticide residue data, ,
found that when compared to 41 other fresh fruits and vegetables,
strawberries ranked worst for pesticide contamination. This report is
available on the World Wide Web at www.ewg.org.
The facts speak for themselves and should not be obscured by those
condemning the Watsonville teacher for using the classroom to convey
"political" beliefs. There is nothing political about the right-to know.
And one more thing, it is worth noting that Teresa Thorne, who penned a
recent sharply worded letter to the Pajaronian assailing the teacher and
public schools generally as havens for misinformation, failed to mention
that she is an employee of the California Strawberry Commission.
It is not surprising that the strawberry industry was the first to
condemn the discussion of pesticides in Watsonville schools. Knowledge is
a powerful thing.
Environmental Working Group
Kert Davies ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP
1718 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 600
Washington, D.C. 20009
EWG web page: http://www.ewg.org
202-667-6982 fax 202-232-2592
Any opinions expressed are mine and not my employer's.