A New Study Suggests Even the Toughest Pesticide Regulations Aren’t Nearly Tough Enough

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“California officials have long touted their pesticide regulations as the toughest in the nation. But a new report from the University of California, Los Angeles, reveals a major flaw in the state’s approach to evaluating safety, one that has broad implications for the way pesticides are regulated nationally: Regulators assess pesticide safety one product at a time, but growers often apply pesticides as mixtures. That’s a serious problem, the authors argue, because pesticide interactions can ratchet up toxic effects, greatly enhancing the risk of cancer and other serious health conditions.

“The federal EPA and California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) have not adequately dealt with interactive effects,” says John Froines, a report coauthor and a chemist with decades of experience assessing health risks of toxic chemicals as a scientist and regulator. “People are exposed to a large number of chemicals. You can’t simply look chemical by chemical to adequately address the toxicity of these compounds.”

Fumigants, used to combat a range of pests and diseases, are among the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture. They are a staple of high-value crops like tomatoes and strawberries. Studies in humans and animals have linked them to acute respiratory and skin damage and serious chronic health problems, including cancer and neurological and reproductive disorders.

To get around the state’s failure to collect data on cumulative exposures to these fumigants, Froines and his colleagues drew on what’s known about the chemical and biological properties of three of the most heavily used fumigants in California: chloropicrin, Telone (the trade name for 1,3-dichloropropene), and metam sodium.

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