Public Comment

Protect Our Most Vulnerable from Aerial Spraying

By Robert Lieber and Lynn Elliott-Harding
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 07:07:00 PM

The light brown apple moth (LBAM) aerial pesticide spray that threatened the Bay Area last year shocked many local residents into awareness of the risks of exposure to mass pesticide applications and has inspired Assemblymember Sandré R. Swanson (D-Oakland) to introduce the Clean Air for Children, Seniors, and Working Families Act (AB 622).  

While the fight over the safety, necessity, and fiscal waste of the LBAM program continues, we write as health care professionals to urge your support of AB 622, which creates a large aerial pesticide spray safety zone around areas where those who are most sensitive to pesticide exposure congregate: schools, hospitals, day care centers, residential care homes, senior centers, residential areas, and farm labor camps. 

Aerial spraying is an outdated, inefficient practice that poses unacceptable exposure risks. Multiple scientific and government sources including the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment estimate that about 40 percent of an aerial pesticide application leaves the “target area” and that less than 1 percent actually reaches the “target pest.” 

Airborne pesticide exposure is responsible for acute poisonings and for chronic illnesses including asthma, cancer, neurological disorders, birth defects, miscarriages, and other reproductive effects. The Environmental Working Group’s 2004 “10 Americans” study found 287 industrial chemicals in umbilical cord blood, including numerous pesticides, for example DDT, which was banned more than 30 years ago. Our children cannot wait for us to take action on their behalf. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emphasizes that children are at a greater risk from pesticide exposure for many reasons, including that “[c]hildren's internal organs are still developing and maturing and their enzymatic, metabolic, and immune systems may provide less natural protection than those of an adult” and that toxic exposure during critical periods in children’s development can permanently alter the way their bodies function. Furthermore, when exposed to aerial spray, children receive a larger dose: pound for pound, they breathe more pesticide-contaminated air than an adult. 

The elderly and those already ill are especially susceptible to adverse effects from pesticide exposure because of the extra vulnerability of their respiratory systems, their lower immune function, and their inability to break down and eliminate toxic substances from their bodies. Even basic texts for pest control applicators note the extra risks to these sensitive populations and urge caution when pesticide applications cover areas occupied by children, the elderly, or the sick. 

And farm workers and their families who live adjacent to agricultural fields that are regularly sprayed are at very high risk for the cumulative effects of pesticide exposure. 

AB 622 aims to protect all of these most vulnerable populations by establishing a more than three-mile aerial spray safety zone around sensitive sites so that people in those areas can live, work, and go to school without fear of pesticide exposure. 

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) reports the numbers of people poisoned by aerial pesticide spray exposure annually. However, these numbers represent only reported incidents of acute poisoning; they do not account for the long-term effects of pesticide exposure, such as cancer and birth defects. And there is likely significant underreporting as DPR itself acknowledged in a 2007 Consensus Statement on the LBAM spray: “DPR’s surveillance system, like others, under detects pesticide illnesses for various reasons, including that pesticide illnesses may mimic other illnesses and that physicians and patients may not ascribe symptoms to pesticide exposure.” 

Scientists at the Pesticide Action Network estimate that the real number of Californians whose health is affected by aerial pesticide spraying is anywhere from 10 to 100 times greater than DPR reports, which means that tens of thousands of people are likely affected annually. 

What kinds of health effects are we talking about? 

A previously healthy 11-month-old baby developed life-threatening respiratory problems after the LBAM aerial spray over his home in Monterey County last year and spent his first birthday in the hospital. He remains on asthma medication today. 

A Fresno County mother was aerially sprayed by a crop duster while walking to the grocery store with her two-week-old baby, who developed asthma; the mother developed a high fever and rash. 

These are two of the thousands of children and families who will be protected by AB 622 from aerial pesticide exposures during their daily activities at home and at school. 

Already a strong coalition including the California Nurses Association, United Farm Workers, and Healthy Child, Healthy World has spoken out in support of AB 622. We face stiff opposition from wealthy industrial agriculture and chemical companies. Don’t let special interests hijack this attempt to protect our health. We must stop toxic spraying over our communities forever. 


Robert Lieber, RN, works in infant critical care and is a member of the Albany City Council. Lynn Elliott-Harding, RN, is a psychiatric nurse in private practice in Oakland and is the mother of a child with asthma.