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A comprehensive risk assessment of chlorpyrifos, a broad-spectrum pesticide used to eliminate pests from a variety of crops including many grown in northern Santa Barbara County, ended July 30 with the recommendation that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) list the compound as a toxic air contaminant.

The pesticide, which was used by seven of the 300 Santa Barbara County growers who applied pesticides in 2016, according to the most recent state data, is the flash-point for court battles and legal wrangling between those seeking to bar its use, and others who say the chemical is an important tool for growers to effectively manage pests. 

The recommendation to list chlorpyrifos as a toxic air contaminant was made by a group of nine independent scientists appointed to the state’s Scientific Review panel who ruled the pesticide, introduced in 1965 by Dow Chemical Company, should join 46 other chemicals deemed hazardous to human health.

The state DPR expects to conclude a 45-day public comment period on the recommendation, and a hearing no later than October, despite a 2-1 ruling Thursday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that ordered the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban chlorpyrifos use by agricultural producers in the United States within 60 days.

During the scientific review panel’s evaluation, three trade organizations representing agricultural producers — California Citrus Mutual, California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association and the Western Agricultural Processors Association — expressed concern about the future of chlorpyrifos. Calling it an “important crop protection tool for California producers,” the groups warned the panel that the new designation could open the door for future regulation, effectively eliminating it from use in the state.

“Our producers go to great lengths to meet current regulatory guidelines and to protect bystanders from exposure,” each group wrote in a joint letter to the panel. "The listing of chlorpyrifos as a toxic air contaminant will add restrictions on its use that would very likely eliminate it as a viable product in California.”

Dow maintains the chemical does not meet the criteria to be listed as a toxic air contaminant, arguing that the state's assessment was based on “flawed assumptions and not sound science.” 

Pesticide reform advocates, however, hold up the recommendation as a positive step toward protecting sensitive populations (namely children and pregnant women) most heavily affected by the pesticide, which has been linked by extensive research to neurodevelopmental and physical delays in children, as well as attention-deficit disorder.

"Like the U.K. and Hawaii, California needs a ban on brain-harming chlorpyrifos,” said Adam Vega, pesticides organizer with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE).

In late March, Vega and roughly a dozen farmworker advocates rallied in Santa Maria to request the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner expand existing “buffer zones” in which chlorpyrifos application is prohibited. 

Regulatory History

Once one of the most widely used pesticides in the U.S., chlorpyrifos was banned for residential use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency roughly 17 years ago. Since then, the compound has gone through a battery of tests and evaluations at the state and federal level to determine additional risks.

Citing health risks, Pesticide Action Network North America and Natural Resources Defense Council submitted an administrative petition to the EPA in 2007 seeking a nationwide ban on the substance. Eight years of delays, incomplete reports and lapsed deadlines hamstrung the process, prompting a petition to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

In 2015 the 9th Circuit court mandated a “full and final response” to the petition from the EPA by Oct. 31 of that year. In response, the EPA began the process to ban chlorpyrifos.

Two days before the proposed ban was to take effect in 2017, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed course and signed an order denying the petition. Calling the chemical “crucial to U.S. agriculture,” Pruitt alleged the process misapplied studies and data to establish conclusions that rationalized a predetermined proposal.

“We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment,” Pruitt said at the time. “By reversing the previous Administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making – rather than predetermined results.”

Critics dismissed the decision as political jockeying, with 11 environmental and social advocacy groups (including the Pesticide Action Network and Natural Resources Defense Council) filing a federal suit July 5, 2017 against Pruitt and the EPA. That suit resulted in Thursday's court order to ban the pesticide nationwide. EPA spokesperson Michael Abboud said the agency is reviewing the decision.

What's happening locally

Pesticide use records reported annually to the state DPR indicate that chlorpyrifos use levels in Santa Barbara County have tapered off since a 2014 state report found two schools in Guadalupe (Kermit McKenzie Junior High and Mary Buren Elementary) and three schools in Santa Maria (Pioneer Valley High, Oakley and Bonita elementary schools) as being among the top 100 schools in the state with the highest exposure to chlorpyrifos within a quarter-mile.

According to use records in 2016, the latest year for which data is available, seven North County growers used 310 pounds of the product. That number was down significantly from 10 years earlier in 2006, when 108 agricultural producers applied 42,500 pounds to crops in northern Santa Barbara County.

The 2014 study, conducted by the California Department of Public Health,  prompted a statewide reevaluation of pesticide use near schools. DPR has since listed chlorpyrifos as a restricted material, and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) recently added it to the Prop. 65 index of natural and synthetic chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

Santa Barbara County Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Rudy Martel said growers must now comply with DPR’s restricted materials application process, which only allows certified commercial or private applicators to apply the chemical under a permit issued by the Agricultural Commissioner's office.

Chlorpyrifos permits issued by the county must also comply with the recommended restrictions published by DPR. Prior to application, growers must identify setback distances, a minimum distance from the edge of the sensitive site and perimeter of the application.

These distances vary by application type — growers can apply chlorpyrifos using a ground boom (a downward-facing applicator often mounted on a tractor) or via sprinkle chemigation (application through center pivot irrigation systems) within 150 feet of an occupied sensitive site. Ground boom application is prohibited at any distance from a sensitive site if the application rate exceeds four pounds of chlorpyrifos per acre. 

Application from aircraft, airblast sprayers (a pump that delivers spray into an air stream created by a fan) or sprinkle chemigation are prohibited within a quarter-mile of public schools and child care facilities between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Applications near other sensitive sites are allowed within 150 feet or 250 feet, depending on the method and application rate.

Use in Santa Barbara County

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Nine growers applied chlorpyrifos in 2016 countywide, seven of them in North County, according to state pesticide use reports. None of the growers who used the chemical in Santa Barbara County in 2016 were in violation of state regulations.

Permit numbers cross-referenced with the county show that three of those growers — Teodolfo Lopez and Santiago Cayetano in Santa Maria, and Welty’s Hilltop Flowers in Carpinteria — have either discontinued use of the chemical or opted to not renew their permit, leaving six with active permits countywide. They are: Savino Farms, Inc. in Santa Maria; Santa Paula-based flower grower Joseph and Sons, Inc.; Boavista Farms in Santa Maria; Westerlay Orchids in Carpinteria; Delwson Farm in Santa Maria; and A&M Flower Growers, Inc. of Santa Paula.

According to Julia Kosowitz, an agricultural biologist with the County of Santa Barbara, the broad spectrum chemical is most commonly used by local growers as an insecticide to control a wide variety of pests (including worms) afflicting local crops. Typically applied to a wide variety of crops and ornamentals, in 2016 local producers growing strawberries, broccoli, lemons, beans and flowers (both field- and greenhouse-grown) applied the chemical to their crops.

The decision to apply a pesticide as potent as chlorpyrifos is not one growers make lightly, Martel said. Trained pest control advisers typically recommend other options, he said.

“It could be a number of different things, not necessarily a pesticide, that [pest control advisers] recommend,“ he explained. “Before they even come up with a conclusion that chlorpyrifos is the material to use … [advisers] look at all the alternatives before going toward a restricted material. They want the best methods for that particular field.”

Like other industry groups, Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo President Claire Wineman stressed the importance of bystander safety when making decisions regarding pesticide regulation. Speaking in support of “transparent, scientifically driven” review processes for all chemicals, Wineman said that chlorpyrifos “might not be the right tool for everyone in every situation, but it may work well given specific considerations.”

For those who do use chlorpyrifos, the chemical is an important addition to their pest management “toolbox.” Future restrictions, Wineman added, should be thoroughly vetted.

“It's difficult to get new [materials] approved because of a lengthy review process,” she explained. “There are a lot of challenges and it's important to have as many tools as possible for safe and competitive cultivation of crops.”

A balancing act

Pending the outcome of Thursday's court ruling, DPR Assistant Director for Communication Charlotte Fadipe said additional state restrictions and regulations are possible if chlorpyrifos is designated as a toxic air contaminant. Those would likely stem from discussions with the state Air Resources Board and scientists at local air pollution control districts.

Vega and his group hope to reconvene with Commissioner Fisher to discuss additional local restrictions similar to those in effect across Imperial County regardless of Thursday's court order, which is subject to appeal.

At a state level, Fadipe says supplementary restrictions stemming from the state risk assessment could be announced by the end of the year, or possibly toward the start of 2019, if deemed necessary and scientifically based.

As potential new rules are ironed out, schools and growers will continue to operate with the recommended restrictions imposed by the state DPR.

“We trust that officials on all levels are doing their jobs and that local farmers are complying with current law,” said Kenny Klein, spokesperson for the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District.

Maggie White, spokesperson for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, stressed the importance of maintaining good working relations with county growers. Calling the relationship between growers and schools symbiotic, White noted that Santa Maria's thriving agricultural community often employs many of the district's parents.

“Living, working and being in the Santa Maria Valley, you need to have a partnership with the agriculture industry,” she said. “We want to be good partners and good neighbors, and expect the same from them.”

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.