Viji Sundaram, New America Media
An environmental health watchdog group earlier this week sued the Dow Chemical Company, accusing it of failing to warn residents in farming communities throughout California when a potentially dangerous pesticide is applied to nearby fields.
“For decades, Dow and state regulators have put profits ahead of our health,” Michael Green, California Environmental Health’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “It is long past time for California to protect children and families from Dow’s dangerous chemical.”
Telone, the trade name for 1,3-Dischloropropene or 1,3-D, is the third-most heavily used pesticide in the state. It is applied to strawberry fields, almond orchards, vineyards, carrots, sweet potatoes and other crops, according to the lawsuit filed in the Alameda County Superior Court by the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health (CEH).
Fumigants are applied to combat a range of pests and diseases. They are among the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture. The fumigant is injected into the soil prior to planting seedlings.
Because it is very volatile, it goes into the vapor phase and drifts into neighboring fields, said Caroline Cox, a research director at CEH.
A 2014 report by the California Department of Public Health found that Latino schoolchildren were 91 percent more likely than their white counterparts to be exposed to high levels of hazardous pesticides. More than one million people, many of them Latino, live in communities where Telone use surpasses safety limits.
The CEH statement says that as recently as last week, parents and staff at Amnesti Elementary School in Watsonville, Calif., raised concerns when they found out that Telone and other fumigants were slated to be applied on a Monday morning just before school began, at a farm less than 1,000 feet from the school.
Because no notice was given to the school, CEH said, Dow was in violation of Prop. 65, a 30-year-old state law that requires businesses that expose Californians to “significant amounts” of a toxic chemical to give sufficient notice before they are exposed.
Called for a response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for Dow AgroSciences said in an email that the lawsuit was “without merit.”
“No Prop. 65 warning was required under the circumstances alleged,” the Dow email said.
And, it went on: “The science is clear that 1,3-D does not present a health risk at levels of potential exposure associated with normal product use in accordance with all legal requirements.
“Today, growers of more than 50 vegetables, tree and vine crops in California depend on 1,3-D for pre-plant soil fumigation. In many situations, growers have no viable alternatives for controlling devastating soil pests, particularly nematodes. Without fumigation,” the spokesperson wrote, “these pests can cause inefficient use of water and other crop inputs, stunt crop growth, reduce yield, or eliminate a crop altogether.”
John Froines, who for decades assessed the health risks of toxic chemicals, said that the use of Telone was banned in California in 1990 after the state Department of Pesticide Regulations determined it was carcinogenic.
The fumigant was found to cause cancer in the liver, adrenal glands, lungs and pancreas, said Froines, who co-authored a UCLA report earlier this year on how pesticide mixtures may increase health risks.
Froines is a professor emeritus of environmental health sciences at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
But in 1994, because of heavy lobbying by Dow, it was allowed back onto the market with some restrictions.
For years, farmers used methyl bromide – a pesticide linked to reproductive damage and destroying the ozone layer — on strawberry plants, said Caroline Cox of the CEH.
“As methyl bromide use has gone down,” she said, “Telone use has gone up.”