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On a sunny warm May afternoon, Andrew Smith drives around the tree lined, well-tended neighborhoods of Sonoma, on the lookout for a lethal ritual. In a green vest, white Sonoma County Department of Agriculture truck and sunglasses, he’s looking for workers spraying pesticides to kill plants, insects and animals. He stops to make pesticide safety inspections. And when he meets maintenance gardeners using pesticides without a license, he tells them they have to stop until they have one.

Unlicensed pesticide use is a big and growing problem. And Smith, a senior agricultural biologist, acknowledges, his is not a particularly popular job.

Armed with colorful booklets, Smith introduces the license, and licensing process, in English or Spanish, as necessary. Sometimes he writes a notice of violation, which can carry a financial penalty. Sometimes, they listen. Sometimes, they turn their back and walk away.

Apart from the maintenance gardeners he approaches, few people even know he’s out there doing it.

But Smith, who grew up in Sonoma County, takes the responsibility seriously. Like his co-workers at the Department of Agriculture, and their counterparts in counties across the state, he’s on the front line to enforce the state rules that protect people and other life in the environment from being poisoned.

Pesticide regulation is a relatively new occupation. The native peoples living in Sonoma County, and the settlers who displaced them, once tolerated a host of pests on a daily basis: disease-carrying mosquitoes and insects that attacked crops; mice and rats who ate the food humans harvested; legions of wild plants, microbes and molds that sickened livestock, ruined food and made gardens and farms less productive.

It wasn’t until World War II that scientists began developing synthetic compounds that could be used to help fight them off and tip the balance heavily in favor of humans.

Today, even novice gardeners can arm themselves with an entire arsenal of chemicals designed to hold natural destroyers at bay.

More than 900 active ingredients, collectively known as pesticides, are now registered in the California Department of Pesticide Regulation database. Those active compounds are sold in thousands of products, and in growing amounts, every year. According to state records, 350 registered pesticides are now being commonly used on the foods we eat, around the home and on our pets.

Ruling on Roundup

The reason California keeps track of their use — and was the first state in the U.S. to even attempt to do so — is because pesticides are a very unique type of product. They’re specifically created to disrupt the biological processes of living things, usually with lethal results.

And that means, using them carries some risks.

The pesticide most commonly used by maintenance gardeners in Sonoma County, Smith says, are herbicides that contain the chemical glyphosate. Herbicides are used to kill weeds. Glyphosate is the main active ingredient in Monsanto Roundup and 700 other products. The compound is incredibly effective. It works by shutting down a mechanism that certain plants, bacteria and other microbes use to make the proteins they need to grow. Without them, they die.

In the past 30 years, glyphosate has been increasingly sprayed, dusted, scattered or coated for agriculture, public and residential uses, and is now the single largest pesticide used, by volume, in the world. It’s popular because it gives farmers and ranchers higher yields, clears weeds and invasive species and reduces manual labor. For some growers, it can be the difference between breaking even and going under.

But that’s not all. Particularly in the United States, Roundup and glyphosate products have also transformed parks, schoolgrounds, suburban yards and residential gardening habits. It’s now the most purchased home lawn and garden pesticide on the market.

This spring, a court ruled that the California Environmental Protection Agency can move ahead with its decision to list glyphosate as a cancer-causing agent, a carcinogen, under Proposition 65, after reviewing a body of scientific studies on glyphosate’s potential health risks. The World Health Organization, after its own independent review, took a similar step in 2015.

Both rulings are controversial. The EPA currently does not consider glyphosate a carcinogen, after reversing its initial 1985 ruling that it was. The bad rap is hotly contested by Monsanto and industry groups, who argue in court and with well-funded lobbying, that glyphosate, when used according to label instructions and warnings, with proper protections, at approved doses, and limited exposure, is safe to use.

To be sure, the state acknowledges that measuring and managing pesticide risks is a complex process. Table salt, in a big enough dose in a short enough time, can also be lethal. The goal, as much as possible, is to minimize the risks to acceptable levels.

For that purpose, the federal government requires warnings, and strict instructions on how — and how not — to use glyphosate and other pesticides, on all containers. Folks who don’t follow the instructions — whether for personal or professional use — are breaking federal law. Whether consumer products require new warning labels will be based on what they call “safe harbor” levels of ingestion, and they haven’t finalized what those levels will be.

The rules are stricter for individuals who run a business and apply pesticides while gardening or landscaping for hire. To do so legally in California, they must obtain a license from the California Department of Pesticide Regulations. The licensing process includes information, training and testing. Maintenance gardeners must also provide safety gear and training to their employees.

Unfortunately, many are unaware of, or ignore, the licensing requirement. Then the task of enforcing the state regulations falls to individual county agriculture departments, like Smith’s.

“We have to consider what happens,” Smith says, “when the gardener applying the pesticides hasn’t had training, or is unable to read the English labels about environmental hazards, improper application and timing. How are they going to keep themselves and homeowners safe?”

It’s a question that reflects a reality of California’s diverse communities. According to university studies, a large proportion of the state’s maintenance gardeners today are Latino, primarily men from Mexico, working as entrepreneurs or laborers. Those who build enough clients and business over time may get their pesticide licenses, and follow the regulations.

But, Smith estimates, there are two to three times as many unlicensed gardeners in Sonoma County as there are licensed gardeners.

“We can often tell who isn’t licensed for pesticides just by driving by,” Smith explains.

A licensed gardener is required to post a pesticide placard on their truck, and a business name.

“I look for the herbicide spray backpack in the pickup, and guys working in T-shirts and shorts,” he says.

Long sleeves, pants and eye covering are required by law, to apply glyphosate.

Risky business

Gardening is an entry-level opportunity for many immigrants. After World War II, Japanese men with agricultural skills did gardening for hire in the high-end neighborhoods of California. In their wake, Latino men have taken up the same line of work. According to USC professor Pierrette Hondagnue-Sotelo, who has made a lifelong study of the subject, in the past three decades Mexican immigrant gardeners have helped transform the modern suburban landscape, and not just for the well-to-do. They’ve taken on what used to be family gardening work, tending many of the manicured yards we enjoy today.

To save time, charge clients less and service multiple clients a day, today’s gardeners rely on power tools like mowers and leaf blowers, and pesticides.

And that creates a real and frustrating problem for pesticide regulators.

Christy Lubin, director of Centro Laboral de Graton, which runs a busy day-labor placement program, recalls the client who wanted workers to apply Roundup for one to two weeks on a private ranch. That raised a real concern. She is not clear how many of Centro’s residential clients, many from Oakmont and Santa Rosa, consider the risks pesticides pose to the workers they hire, or whether they’re being applied improperly. Centro takes such issues seriously, and provides Spanish language occupational safety and vocational training to registered workers. But they’re not equipped to provide the level of pesticide training offered by the state.

Business owners who’ve gotten their licenses and are following the regulations say they’re proof the process can be done. But they often find they’re undercut in price by those who don’t.

Following the rules

Dan Waldron runs a 40-employee garden maintenance and pest control company in Sonoma, Waldron Landscape. The licensing takes time and the regulations require extra effort, Waldron says, but he believes they’re there for a good reason. Although any private individual can buy and use the same pesticide products Waldron does, his business has strict rules to follow. That’s because the business uses more pesticides, more frequently, and around other people’s homes.

As part of his licensing, Waldron must teach employees when and how to use each pesticide, make sure they understand the label instructions, wear the right personal protection, keep a first aid kit, and even lock up the chemicals properly.

He’s also required to send in monthly reports on what pesticides he uses, and how much. The California Department of Pesticide Regulations collects that information in an effort to try and get a handle on rates of public exposure.

Tony Linegar, Sonoma County’s Agricultural Commissioner, acknowledges the public is a key factor in the whole pesticide equation. He’d like to see consumers not only be more careful themselves, but start asking their gardener whether they have a state license to apply them. “If they don’t, they shouldn’t be using pesticides. It’s that simple.”

Licensing is important for a number of reasons, he says. Pesticide risks get re-evaluated, Linegar notes, like the state’s pending Prop 65 ruling on glyphosate. Assuming products are safe may lead consumers and gardeners to ignore new label warnings and instructions.

And, Linegar notes, products like Roundup contain a mix of compounds besides glyphosate. Some ingredients are added to magnify its effect, and may be toxic in their own right. But the tests used by government agencies usually focus on just a single ingredient, like glyphosate, at a time.

That means the complete product mix isn’t being safety tested. And official safety testing doesn’t capture the entire cocktail of pesticides someone may ingest over a week or month, or from all sources. Traces of glyphosate, for example, are now found in many foods.

For that reason, Sam Delson, a deputy director of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said his agency does not know at this time which products and exposures would exceed the safe-harbor level for glyphosate ingestion, or require warnings.

In any case, he notes, “Proposition 65 does not ban or restrict the use of listed chemicals, so gardeners or residents would be free to make their own decisions as to whether or not to restrict their use of glyphosate, or otherwise limit their exposure to the chemical.”

That might be difficult, if gardeners are busy spraying around the neighborhood, and not following label directions.

Andrew Smith says it’s a goal of his county Department of Agriculture to foster reduced risk pesticide use with the Department of Pesticide Regulation. The department promotes integrated pest management practices, an approach which considers pesticides the last tool to reach for in the toolbox. The county also wants to encourage the use of less toxic and more benign, nonchemical approaches in and around the home.

Smith says he and his county agriculture peers around the state are having a hard time getting the message out. They’re looking for ways to get residents who hire gardeners to start asking about licenses, and not let pesticides be used without one.

“It’s a license to kill,” Smith says, without a trace of irony, “and shouldn’t be treated lightly.”

The Sonoma County Department of Agriculture has information and handouts that residents can use, or leave for their gardeners about pesticides and licensing, as well as links on protecting children, waterways and the environment. For information, call 707-565-2371.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com.

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