Dow: The Fox Guarding the Henhouse

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You’ve probably heard the old line about what happens when the fox gets the job of guarding the henhouse. Apparently, that phrase goes back to at least the days of the Roman Empire, maybe longer. In real life, especially when it comes to toxic chemicals, it still happens all too often. The businesses that will profit from a chemical are still put in charge of the “safety” of that chemical. I’d like to tell you about a recent fox/henhouse story that is connected to foods you eat often, maybe even every day.

The henhouse here is a pesticide with an unpronounceable name that’s usually abbreviated 1,3-D. It’s a unique, fascinating and frightening henhouse. It’s a soil pesticide, applied to farmers’ soil before anything is planted in order to kill weed seeds, insects, plant diseases, worms, and more. It’s designed to kill everything living, essentially turning the soil into nearly lifeless dirt that’s the opposite of healthy soil.

Here in California farmers use a lot of it to grow strawberries, almonds, grapes, carrots, and much more. “A lot” in this case means really a lot – in a typical year, farmers here use about 10 million pounds of this toxic chemical. Once it’s applied into a farmer’s field it turns into a gas and can travel long distances. And, it causes cancer. Like I said, frightening.

And who’s the fox? The company known as Dow Agrosciences, part of the DowDuPont family of companies. Dow is one of the oldest and largest chemical companies in the world, and one of the most egregious corporate polluters. Dow has had its hand in some of history’s most toxic pesticides, including DDT, Agent Orange, chlorpyrifos, and of course, 1,3-D.

1,3-D has been around since 1954, and cancer concerns about it were first officially raised in 1986. In 1989 it was added to California’s list of known cancer-causing chemicals. The next year, California officials began looking for 1,3-D in the air at two schools and two fire stations in Merced County where it is used widely in sweet potato fields. Two weeks into the air monitoring study, the concentrations of 1,3-D at the two schools were so high that California suspended all uses of it statewide.

Our fox, Dow, spent the next five years working with state officials to bring 1,3-D back. When they succeeded, in 1995, they were quite clearly guarding the henhouse. According to the agreement worked out with California, Dow would essentially be responsible for regulating 1,3-D use. All of its applications would need to be based on recommendations made by a Dow-approved pest control advisor. Dow would keep track of all applications in the state and ensure that the amount applied in any given area did not exceed caps set by Dow and California. Dow would keep records of all 1,3-D use and provide the information to the state.1,3-D use restarted in 1995, and the amount applied has steadily increased since then. In 2011 California started air monitoring for it in six towns, a very small number given the diverse areas of the state where 1,3-Dis used. The towns did not include any in Merced County even though it continues to be frequently used there. The measurements in some of the towns exceeded California’s “safe” level, but no action was taken.

In 2016, bowing to pressure from Dow, California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) decided that 1,3-D was not as cancer-causing as the agency had previously thought. This was not because of new data or new science; the analysis simply came up with a new way of translating the same studies of laboratory animals into risks to people. The new safety standard was conveniently higher than the levels being measured around the state. Even worse, the state used this relaxed safety standard to allow the use of 50% more 1,3-D in any given area. Notably, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), a state agency with considerably more expertise in assessing cancer risks, disagrees with this approach to data analysis.

A lawsuit (Vasquez vs. CDPR) was filed on behalf of farmworker Juana Vasquez and several nonprofits because these changes were made without following the required process, including public comment. Alameda Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith agreed and ordered CDPR to start over. Dow of course intervened and has appealed the ruling. 

Fast forward now to January of this year. At Shafter High School (in Kern County), California found the highest concentrations of 1,3-D ever measured by the state. Did California take quick action like it had in 1990? No. Did state officials let parents or students at the school know they were being exposed to it? No. Was any information provided to people who lived near the school, or people who live between the school and the field where 1,3-D was applied? No. The results were finally announced to a group of state officials at an advisory meeting in July 2018.

For decades Dow and state regulatory agencies have failed to adequately protect California communities from this dangerous pesticide. We can’t afford to wait any longer. That’s why in 2015 Center for Environmental Health sued Dow to force the company to either provide warnings about 1,3-D to people who live in and around Shafter or to reduce the air pollution caused by this pesticide. Like any legal fight between a small nonprofit and a giant corporation, there have been legal roadblocks and setbacks. But the new air pollution numbers from Shafter give us renewed confidence that the fight is urgent and can be won. We need to grow our food in a way that is healthy and sustainable for us all, including the people who live in our farming towns. It is long past time for California to put the health of children, farmers, and families, above Dow profits. Our lawsuit aims to do just that.

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