Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#643 - Studying A Town To Death, 24-Mar-1999

Lompoc, California is a small city of 42,000 people that lies
within a valley along California's central coast, about 100 miles
above Los Angeles. Lompoc is separated from the Pacific Ocean by
7 miles of rich, flat farmland. Here, farming is a year-round
activity, so pesticides waft up the valley into the city most of
the year, carried by the ocean breeze.

According to California's state Environmental Protection Agency
(Cal EPA), the people of Lompoc have been lodging formal
complaints about pesticide drift and health problems for at least
six years, since 1993. George Rauh, a teacher who moved to Lompoc
in 1989, says, "For the first two years, I thought it was great.
Then I got chronic bronchitis. I had never had anything like it,
and I knew something was wrong. I started asking around and I
found many, many people had problems -- bronchitis, asthma,
headaches, the flu when it wasn't flu season, even reproductive
problems, and a host of other ailments. It was obvious that there
was something really wrong." In 1992 Rauh and his neighbors
formed Volunteers for a Healthy Valley and began asking local and
state health officials to pay attention.

Now, if you have ever complained to your health department about
an environmental problem, you know that the response is rarely
swift or decisive. Of course this is not always true, but as a
general rule public health officials are reluctant to admit that
there is a problem, or even to look for a problem diligently.
There seem to be two main reasons for this: If health officials
admit there is a problem today, they are admitting that someone
failed to do their job in the past. Secondly, if a problem is
identified today, health officials are obligated to do something
about it, and this often puts them into conflict with one or more
polluters -- many of whom have considerable political clout.
Therefore, despite what a civics textbook may say, public health
officials often do not respond positively when the public asks
for help. Indeed, officials often begin to define the victims of
pollution as "the problem" and spend their time trying to
discredit the victims instead of looking into the underlying
public health questions.

Lompoc is no exception to this general rule. After getting no
satisfactory answers from state officials for more than a year,
Volunteers for a Healthy Valley conducted a letter-writing
campaign to Region 9 of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(U.S. EPA). U.S. EPA responded by asking Cal EPA's Department of
Pesticide Regulation (DPR) to conduct a study. Reluctantly, DPR
then asked Cal EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard
Assessment (OEHHA) to study health conditions in Lompoc.

Cal EPA's OEHHA began to study cancer incidence in Lompoc
1988-1995, birth defects in Lompoc 1987-1989, live births in
Lompoc 1988-1994, and hospital discharges in Lompoc 1991-1994.
The study did not collect any new data but examined only existing
data. Government officials were caught falsifying data (see REHW
#519) and the study took three years to complete.

Meantime, Cal EPA's Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR)
decided to study pesticide use in the Lompoc Valley. They
initially proposed to study two pesticides "but we laughed them
off the stage," says Rauh. Then DPR agreed to study all
pesticides used in the valley. Since 1991, California has
maintained detailed records of pesticide use -- the only state in
the nation to do so. Six months later, DPR reported that about 50
different pesticides are used regularly in the Lompoc Valley,
many of them carcinogens and many of them nerve poisons.[1]

In June, 1998, Cal EPA announced the results of its three-year
health study:[2]

** The people of Lompoc have 37% more lung cancer than people in
the surrounding three counties (San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara,
and Ventura). This finding was statistically significant at the
0.01 level -- an unusually strict statistical standard. (It means
that there was only 1 chance in 100 that the results of the study
occurred by chance.) Another part of the study found that the
incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was low
among Lompoc residents, "suggesting a lower prevalence of smoking
among adults." High lung cancer and a low smoking rate. Curious.

The study also found elevated rates of breast cancer, kidney
cancer, liver cancer, cancers of the female reproductive organs,
non-Hodgkins lymphomas, multiple myelomas, all cancers combined,
and all cancers combined excluding lung cancer. However, none of
these elevated rates passed the test of significance at the 0.01
level, so Cal EPA disregarded the pattern as meaningless
statistical flukes.

** The incidence of 7 kinds of birth defects was investigated;
nothing unusual turned up.

** Cal EPA studied what proportion of hospital discharges in
Lompoc was attributable to particular illnesses. (Hospital
discharge records are assumed to represent serious illnesses,
after subtracting out normal births.) The study divided hospital
discharges into 18 groups of illnesses. Of the 18 groups, two
were elevated in Lompoc -- a "respiratory" group and a
"reproductive" group. For the respiratory group, bronchitis and
asthma were consistently elevated the most. Compared to the
surrounding area, people leaving the hospital in Lompoc had 69%
more bronchitis and 58% more asthma. By a different measure, Cal
EPA found asthma and bronchitis 85% more common in Lompoc than in
the three surrounding counties. Bronchitis occurred in the young
and the old; asthma was elevated only among adults.

The "reproductive" group of illnesses included abnormal birth
outcomes and female reproductive cancers. Four other groups of
diseases were considered "suggestive" -- female breast cancer,
pleurisy-pneumonia, headaches and seizures, and all respiratory
malignancies.

Abnormal birth outcomes showed "a strong pattern for infant
respiratory conditions," Cal EPA reported. Compared to infants in
surrounding counties, Lompoc infants had a two-fold or greater
chance of being hospitalized for respiratory disorders.

In sum, Cal EPA now knew that 50 pesticides were being used in a
geographic setting that channeled drifting poisons into a
residential community on a continuing basis. By this time, people
had been complaining for 5 years of bronchitis, difficulty
breathing, headaches, and flu-like symptoms, among other medical
complaints. Using rigorous statistical criteria, Cal EPA's
three-year health study had documented 37% more lung cancer, 69%
more bronchitis and 58% more asthma in Lompoc, compared to
surrounding communities, plus a two-fold increase in respiratory
problems requiring hospitalization of infants.

Given this information, ordinary citizens in Lompoc saw a pretty
clear pattern. They came to believe that they are being poisoned
by year-round exposure to a thin soup of mixed pesticides. But
Cal EPA scientists concluded only that "without information on
potential exposures, we can only speculate as to why respiratory
illnesses appear to be elevated in Lompoc."

So another study is begun. The plan is to monitor the air in
Lompoc for all 50 pesticides for a year. This will provide the
exposure data that the scientists say they need to reach a
conclusion. However, such a study requires $142,000 in funds and
Cal EPA drags its feet and the state legislature drags its feet.
So instead of a year-long study of 50 pesticides, Cal EPA can
only conduct a one-month study of 12 pesticides late in the
growing season of 1998.

The results of this study are released in February, 1999.
According to the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), which
conducted the study, 179 air samples were taken during a 28-day
period. Of these 179 samples, 140 (78%) showed no detectable
levels of pesticides, DPR said. Furthermore, the study looked for
two metals, manganese and aluminum, because these are found in
three common pesticides, maneb, mancozeb, and fosetyl-aluminum.
Manganese and aluminum were not elevated in the air in Lompoc
"suggesting no appreciable exposure" to these 3 pesticides, DPR
said.[3] This is now known as the "Phase I" study.

According to the WALL STREET JOURNAL, Lompoc farmers "seized upon
the Phase I numbers as proof that pesticides pose no health
threat to valley residents."[4] In sum, it looked as if
Volunteers for a Healthy Valley had been proven wrong.

However, when DPR's data were subjected to close scrutiny by a
former chemistry professor from the University of California at
Berkeley, the picture changed. Dr. Susan Kegley, now staff
scientist for the Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco,
found that "DPR made numerous mistakes -- and led the public to
believe that fewer than one quarter of air samples taken in
Lompoc contained pesticides. An independent and scientific
analysis shows that pesticides were detected in 97% of the air
samples..."[5] Kegley also pointed out that DPR had waited six
weeks before analyzing samples of pesticides that would degrade
within a week's time. In sum, "DPR drew erroneous conclusions
from data that were not collected in a scientifically valid way,"
Kegley wrote.

Kegley was particularly scornful of DPR's study of manganese and
aluminum. She wrote, "Because aluminum and manganese are very
abundant in soils, looking for the 'extra' aluminum and manganese
as an indicator of exposure to these pesticides is like adding a
bucket of water to the ocean and looking for the 'extra' water.
This method is not a valid one for analysis of metal-containing
pesticides, and it is impossible to conclude that the data show
there is 'no appreciable exposure.'" No one has refuted Kegley's
criticism of Cal EPA's study.

In sum, Cal EPA -- the health officials responsible for
determining what is killing people in Lompoc (few people survive
lung cancer) and making others sick -- were shown to be
incompetent, or liars, or both.

As far as the people of Lompoc are concerned, they now have
sufficient data: excess illnesses and deaths have been rigorously
documented; the use of 50 pesticides has been documented; and 97%
of air samples taken in their town contain one or more
pesticides.

What is the response of California health officials? Are they
ready to advocate pollution prevention and the precautionary
principle? Are they ready to help Lompoc farmers phase out
expensive, toxic pesticides and shift to organic farming methods
that produce higher yields and higher financial returns[6] than
chemical methods? No. Cal EPA now wants to conduct a new, longer
study of air quality in Lompoc before reaching any conclusions.

Why are health officials studying this town to death and refusing
to act? Perhaps it is because 4 million people in California live
adjacent to fields that are sprayed year round with dangerous
pesticides.[7] If health officials confront the truth in Lompoc,
they will be opening a Pandora's box of trouble for chemical
agriculture and for the chemical corporations that invented it.
If they really open that box, no telling where it might end.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] See http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/dprdocs/lompoc/lpur_sum.pdf.

[2] Joy A. Wisniewski and others, ILLNESS INDICATORS IN LOMPOC,
CALIFORNIA; AN EVALUATION OF AVAILABLE DATA (Sacramento, Cal.:
California Environmental Protection Agency, June, 1998). See
http://www.oehha.ca.gov/archive/getlomp.htm.

[3] See www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/dprdocs/lompoc/lompoc.htm.

[4] Marc Lifsher, "Funding Delay Threatens Air Monitoring," WALL
STREET JOURNAL February 17, 1999, pg. CA1.

[5] Susan Kegley, CRITIQUE OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PESTICIDE
REGULATION'S PHASE ONE LOMPOC AIR MONITORING (San Francisco,
California: Pesticide Action Network, March 1999).

[6] National Research Council, ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE
(Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989).

[7] Daryl Kelley and Deborah Schoch, "Health: Ventura County
faces more threat from airborne pesticides than all but two
counties in state, environmental group says" LOS ANGELES TIMES
August 20, 1998, pg. A-3.

Descriptor terms: pesticides; lompoc; ca; lung cancer;
bronchitis; asthma; california environmental protection agency;
cal epa; health studies; george rauh; volunteers for a healthy
valley;