Did Dow Chemical's Pesticide Cause Air Pollution Over California?

Last week, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) filed a lawsuit against Dow Agrosciences LLC, also known as Dow Chemical, charging that the “chemical manufacturing giant” fails to warn communities across California about the dangers associated with wide use of the chemical Telone. A trade name for the chemical 1,3-Dicholoropropene, or 1,3-D, Telone is a known carcinogen and is the third most heavily used pesticide in the state. The case focuses on the air pollution caused by the pesticide, as it has been found to linger in the air for multiple days after application, disproportionately impacting the rural communities, often with large minority populations, that live in the immediate vicinity. The case was filed in the State of California Alameda County Superior Court, and Dow has yet to comment or release a statement addressing the allegations against the company.


Routinely applied to strawberry fields, almond orchards, vineyards, and an array of other crops, 1,3-D is a restricted use soil fumigant, used to kill nematodes, insects, and weeds that has strong links to cancer and other serious health issues. The use of the chemical in the production of strawberries came into prominence with the forced reduction of another fumigant, methyl bromide. Scientists became concerned about methyl bromide in the 1970’s, when it was linked to serious effects on the ozone and was blamed for between 5 and 10 percent of ozone depletion. With the signing of Montreal Protocol in 1987, a treaty signed by President Reagan, methyl bromide became the only pesticide to be banned in the U.S. by treaty, a ban meant to be in full effect by 2005. Though the U.S. continues to allow the use of methyl bromide through a “critical use exemption,” the ban gave rise to a new class of fumigants, which included 1,3-D, the chemical in Telone.

In time, 1,3-D was revealed to be no better than its predecessor, raising concerns about the public health and environmental risks associated with its use. A 2014 publication by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Dark Side of the Strawberry, revealed increased uses of 1,3-D results in unsafe levels of the chemical in the air and that decisions behind 1,3-D monitoring and application rates are fraught with industry manipulation and risk reduction work-arounds. Specifically, California regulators allowed growers to exceed the 1,3-D health limits, despite documented concerns from state scientists, and turned to Dow Agrosciences, the defendant in the current lawsuit, to figure out how to fix the problem.

The Center for Environmental Health’s lawsuit focuses on the air pollution caused by the use of Telone, and the disproportionate impact it has on minority communities. Telone was initially banned in California in 1990 after studies showed air pollution from the chemical lingered near farms. But the toxic fumigant was later allowed back on the market after a strong lobbying effort lead by Dow. In 2002, California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) loosened the restrictions on Telone over the objections of its own scientists who stated, “Department of Pesticide Regulation scientists do not agree [with the decision to re-allow Telone] and suggest that [the new rules] may actually increase cancer risk.” According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, more than one million people live in 100 California communities where Telone use surpasses the original safety limits.

“Telone is a serious health threat to families who deserve environmental justice now,” said Michael Green, CEO of CEH. “For decades, Dow and state regulators have put profits ahead of our health. It is long past time for California to protect children and families from Dow’s dangerous chemical.” The CEH lawsuit aims to limit the use of Telone in and require Dow to warn area residents of Shafter, California before applying the pesticide.

Telone was also recently the subject of a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) study that found mixtures of pesticides to be more harmful than individual pesticides. The report, titled Exposure and Interaction – The Potential Health Impacts of Using Multiple Pesticides: A Case Study of Three Commonly Used Fumigants, was published by the Sustainable Technology and Policy Program, based in the UCLA School of Law and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. The case study looked at three commonly used fumigants – chloropicrin, Telone, and metam salts, and found that:

  1. These pesticides may interact to increase the health risk for California farm workers and residents,
  2. Workers and residents are regularly exposed to two or more of these pesticides simultaneously, and
  3. DPR does not regulate the application of multiple pesticides to prevent or decrease risks to human health, despite having authority to do so.

In light of these findings, the lawsuit advances the quest to reduce or eliminate the use of Telone in California, and in turn to protect some of the most vulnerable populations from risks of exposure. CEH mentioned in its press release that, as recently as two weeks ago, parents and staff at an elementary school in Watsonville, CA learned that Telone and other fumigants were scheduled to be applied on a Monday morning just before school began, at a farm less than 1,000 feet from the school. A 2014 report by the California Department of Health found that Latino schoolchildren are 91% more likely than white students to be exposed to the highest levels of hazardous pesticides, a harrowing statistic this lawsuit hopes to end.

The lawsuit, reports like the Dark Side of Strawberries, and other documented hazards associated with fumigants and strawberry production emphasize the need to shift away from dependency on toxic chemicals and seek sustainable, organic solutions to crop production and feeding families. There are less toxic ways to grow strawberries and other crops that have relied on these toxic fumigants. Growing strawberries organically has been shown to create healthier soils, higher quality fruit, and improve pollination success.

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