There has been a lot of talk lately about the plight of Oxnard’s Rio Mesa High School and its unfortunate and potentially dangerous position, bound by agricultural fields on all sides, exposed to toxic pesticides, including 1,3-dichloropropene, a soil fumigant known to be a possible carcinogen. According to a November 2014 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a longtime multimedia award-winning nonprofit organization, “Strawberry growers [in proximity to the school] surpassed the original 1,3-dichloropropene health limits in 10 out of 12 years.” In March, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors followed up with Henry Gonzales, the county’s agricultural commissioner as well as the California Department of Pesticide Regulation Director Brian Leahy who said that basically, there was no issue.

What wasn’t revealed until this week was that prior to that March meeting, Gonzales had prepared a 44-point Power Point slide show, covering the issue, including the health risks of 1,3-dichloropropene, known as Telone C-17 by its manufacturer Dow Agrosciences. When Gonzales sent the presentation to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation for feedback, he got back was a scaled-down version with health information missing and replaced with information on land-use decisions. It’s unclear exactly why this is just coming to light now, but a department spokesman said the reason it was removed was to make the presentation simple and to the point.

While this situation appears to be convoluted, one thing seems clear — something is awry. Or perhaps many things are, starting from the top down. First off, according to that November 2014 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Paul Helliker, then-director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, gutted regulation of the use of the poisonous 1,3-D in 2002, based on a plan created by Dow Agrosciences, allowing for double the use of the fumigant. Helliker had originally designed a temporary loophole permitting some growers to use more of the chemical, but then invited the manufacturer to regulate the use. And it did. It provided regulations letting growers use twice as much. And Helliker signed off on it. This fact is distressing at best, given the potential danger this change in use may have created.

Secondly, now, the revelation that the Department of Pesticide Regulation altered Gonzales’ presentation by deleting health risk data prior to the March meeting and that it’s only coming to light seems suspicious. The fact that there is no information available that shows that Gonzales mentioned the deletion of the health information is a bit disheartening. But we digress. This whole matter is a big mess but based on the Center for Investigative Reporting’s findings, we think that it’s time to stop ignoring the question of health risks. 

As the county supervisors continue to seek more information about the repercussions of exposure for the children of Rio Mesa High School, we think the supervisors should apply more pressure to get the necessary information that those 2,000-plus children are not in danger. Risking the health of teenagers for strawberries seems an illogical rationale.

Links to the CIR reports: