On Aug. 24, four of five Santa Cruz County Supervisors, except Greg Caput, from Pajaro Valley’s District 4, rejected the County Civil Grand Jury’s recommendation that they support an online pilot program to provide the public with advance notice of hazardous pesticides being applied in their neighborhoods. They also denied the need for supervisors to support these efforts at the state level.
Meanwhile, pesticides were being sprayed on raspberry fields near Ann Soldo Elementary, Franich Park and Vista Montana, and adjacent to three neighborhoods in Watsonville comprising 900 homes with well over 1,000 senior residents.
Although our senior neighborhoods have a common courtesy agreement with the grower to receive advance notice of pesticide applications, HOA leaders at the senior communities were only initially informed that something would be sprayed between Aug. 23 and 29, not what chemicals. When asked, the grower’s representative later cited the broad spectrum insecticides being applied for up to a week: malathion and a pyrethroid insecticide called Mustang.
Malathion is a neurotoxin and carcinogen, an organophosphate chemical in the same class as chlorpyrifos, which was banned last week by the U.S. EPA. Concerned seniors are asking the grower to find safer alternatives to malathion for insect control.
Malathion is not a pesticide currently requiring a Notice of Intent (NOI)—specific approval by the agriculture commissioner’s office before spraying begins. It may have somewhat lower toxicity from acute exposure than chlorpyrifos, yet risks of repeated exposure, or in combination with other chemicals, are little studied.
Pesticides do drift, sometimes far beyond the 200 feet buffer zones established by recent city regulations. Numerous homes, both in the senior neighborhoods and throughout the county, were built before those rules went into effect, and have almost no buffer zones next to them. Research, some done as nearby as Salinas, has shown harmful effects of organophosphates on children, starting before birth when mothers lived a mile or more from the fields. There is little research on impacts to seniors and other vulnerable groups. Nor is there much known about effects of exposures over time, or to multiple pesticides.
We do know a potential for harm exists. For example, the 20-year UC Berkeley School of Public Health CHAMACOS study in the Salinas Valley is one of several that links organophosphate exposures of pregnant women and young children to learning disabilities, ADD, ADHD, asthma, and autism in young children.
Records from California Department of Pesticide Regulation are collected and displayed by Tracking California’s Pesticide Mapping Tool. In 2018, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, the square mile section in which the three senior homeowners associations are located had 9,500 pounds of carcinogenic pesticides applied, including 810 pounds of malathion. A total of 44,467 pounds of pesticides were applied in this same 640-acre section that year.
It is possible to farm without harm. One example is Lakeside Organic Gardens, which grows 45 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables on 3,000 acres in and around our valley.
We are disappointed in those four supervisors who dismissed the importance of notification, and grateful to Greg Caput for standing up for us. Advance notice of pesticide applications is essential, both for public health and for environmental justice. Farmworkers, children and seniors are our most vulnerable populations when it comes to pesticide exposures. All residents of agricultural communities have a right to know before hazardous chemicals are applied near their neighborhoods.
Kathleen Kilpatrick, Woody Rehanek and Robin Spring are Watsonville residents. Their views are their own, and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.