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A Win for Public Health: California Halts Spraying of Toxic Pesticides


For decades, the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) aggressive spraying of toxic pesticides – including on schools, parks, and lawns and near organic farms – drew fierce criticism from public health, conservation, citizen, and food-safety groups.

In 2007, CDFA instituted an aerial spray program in an attempt to eradicate the light brown apple moth, bombarding Northern California communities with synthetic pheromones of an undisclosed composition. Airplanes flying in grid patterns sprayed houses, schools, workplaces, and parks. Although intensive public outcry forced the agency to cancel the project, an unknown number of Californians were exposed to toxic pesticides to eradicate a moth that CFDA has since admitted cannot be linked to any demonstrable harm to public health or agriculture.

In response to the scandal, the California State Assembly passed A.B. 2763 in 2008 requiring CFDA to compile a comprehensive list of potential and future invasive species and outline a range of approaches for dealing with them. CDFA seized the opportunity to draft an expansive “Plant Pest Prevention and Management Program” (PEIR) that included a large number of possible pesticide programs that would be categorically excluded from any environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In this way, PEIR allowed CDFA to avoid completing future environmental reviews that help identify any significant impact a proposed action might have on the environment and public health of local communities. The PIER also eliminated the mandate to solicit public input on individual pest programs.

In total, the program gave CFDA broad license to spray some 79 pesticides, many of which are known to cause cancer and birth defects. The 79 chemicals approved in CFDA’s program included bee-toxic neonicotinoids (“neonics”); the chemical warfare gas chloropicrin, which is banned in Europe; methyl bromide, an ozone depleter with five times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide; and chloropyrifos which threatens 97 percent of endangered wildlife.

CDFA’s aggressive application of neonics was particularly troubling. The world’s most widely used class of insecticide, neonics are thought to be harmless to humans but attack bugs’ central nervous systems and hinder birds’ navigation abilities.

Implementation of CFDA’s dangerous plan in 2008 only intensified agency’s aggressive use of pesticides Between 2008 and 2014, CFDA estimates it sprayed some 400,000 pounds of toxic pesticides using so-called “emergency declarations” that exempted the agency from providing public notice or completing an environmental review.

In the following four years, another 1,000 pesticide treatments were carried out. The program allowed fumigation, ground and aerial spray, and other application methods on public lands, schools, parks, and in residential neighborhoods.

In response, the City of Berkeley and 11 public health, environmental, citizen, and food safety groups sued, alleging that in CDFA’s use of toxic pesticides, the state of California failed in its duty to protect human health, the environment, and the state’s organic agriculture.

The lawsuit revealed not only far-reaching flaws in the state’s analysis of the environmental harm caused by the department’s pesticide use but also the CDFA’s decades-long history of evading disclosure of the human health and environmental impacts of its activities by repeatedly granting itself so-called emergency exemptions from environmental laws.

In a major victory for public health, California Superior Court judge Timothy W. Frawley ordered CFDA to stop spraying toxic pesticides until the agency complies with state laws and carries out environmental review. Frawley issued the injunction following his ruling in January that the program violated numerous state laws, relying on “unsupported assumptions and speculation” to conclude that pesticides would not contaminate water bodies.

In the nearly unprecedented decision, the court labeled CDFA’s analysis of the cumulative impacts of adding pesticides to the state’s already hefty environmental burden of over 150 million pounds released annually “woefully deficient.” It cited “unsupported assumptions and speculations” contained in the PEIR as a basis for concluding that pesticides would not contaminate water bodies. Potentially significant pollinator impacts were also “improperly ignored.” The court further concluded that in PEIR CDFA had granted itself authority “to implement a broad range of practices without evaluating the site-specific conditions” as a basis for determining their impacts.

To be clear, the ruling does not completely paralyze CDFA. It still allows the agency to perform a full range of non-pesticide related activities, including pest identification, site inspections, and the imposition of quarantines, among others. The agency can still use pesticides associated with its other programs, although such uses are likely limited to just two that were identified in PEIR as having prior CEQA approval

The court’s decision does, however, fall on the heels of new California regulations that restrict the use of certain pesticides near schools and daycare centers. As of January 2018, farmers are prohibited from spraying certain pesticides during school days, between 6 am and 6 pm, and within a quarter of a mile from K-12 public schools and licensed daycare centers. The first of their kind, the new statewide regulations require farmers to annually report the pesticides they plan to use near schools to their county agricultural commissioner. After more than 50 people on school campuses became ill due to pesticide drift, these regulations are designed to better protect the health of children, teachers and school staff


[1] “Statewide Plant Pest Prevention and Management Program Environmental Impact Report.” California Department of Food and Agriculture. December 2014. Available at:

[2] North Coast River Alliance et al v. California Department of Food and Agriculture, Judgment and Injunction, Feb 22, 2018. Available at:

[3] “California Court Halts State Spray Programs over Failure to Conduct Environmental Impact Analyses.” Beyond Pesticides. March 2, 2018. Available at:

[4] “Big Win for Public Health: Calif. Judge Blocks Pesticide Spraying by State Ag Department.” Environmental Working Group. February 27, 2018. Available at:

[5] “Judge orders California agricultural officials to cease pesticide use.” Los Angeles Times. February 26, 2018. Available at:


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