“Ventura County, Calif.,” began a feature story in The Washington Post in August 2015, “is the absolute most desirable place to live in America.”
The article was grounded in county-level rankings from an official government index that combined “six measures of climate, topography, and water area that reflect environmental qualities most people prefer.”
But the Post’s laudatory story didn’t consider another important measure: pesticide exposures. Today, from Oxnard to Ojai, people in Ventura County live, work and go to school next to farm fields sprayed with some of the most toxic pesticides used in agriculture.
Every year, more than 5 million pounds of agricultural pesticides are sprayed in Ventura, just north of Los Angeles, according to an Environmental Working Group analysis of pesticide use data for the county from 2015 to 2020. More than a million pounds of pesticides linked to cancer are used in the county each year, on average.
The county’s farm fields grow a produce-aisle assortment of labor- and pesticide-intensive crops – strawberries, celery, lemons, raspberries and more. And tens of thousands of farmworkers live and work in the county to support Ventura’s annual $2 billion agriculture economy. Much of the county’s population of 846,000 faces the potential health risks associated with pesticides drifting from the fields, whether they work in agriculture-related fields or not.
Policies currently in place to protect public health rely primarily on voluntary compliance from applicators on the amount and type of pesticides used, method and timing of application, and weather conditions, such as wind speed and direction, at the time of pesticide spraying.
And efforts to force better compliance by hiking the fines that state regulators could charge agricultural operations for violating pesticide rules died in the California legislature in 2018. Industry lobbying helped to tank a bill that would have given state officials the power to charge $25,000 for serious rule violations, up from the $5,000 that county agricultural commissioners can currently levy, according to KQED. Defeat of the legislation means one less potential deterrent to overspraying fields.
No state or federal limits have been set restricting the amount of agricultural pesticides allowed in air, so any amount of any single pesticide or pesticide mixture in air, over any period of time, is legal. Although the California Department of Pesticide Regulation performs seasonal air monitoring for pesticides in certain high use areas, the frequency of monitoring and number of monitoring locations do not fully capture the heavy agricultural use in Ventura or the state.
The EWG analysis shows that almost 70 percent of homes in Ventura County are within 2.5 miles of agricultural pesticide use. More than one in four homes are a half-mile or less from fields sprayed with pesticides that have been linked to serious health harms, including cancer, neurotoxicity and harm to development and reproduction.
Thirty-three elementary schools in the county are within a quarter-mile of farming operations where pesticides are sprayed. A 2014 report showed that Ventura had the most schools and most students in the state within a quarter-mile of fields where the greatest amounts of pesticides were applied.