Finally, Californians are safer from pesticides

Work crews from the California Department of Food and Agriculture spray insecticide on citrus plants in a San Gabriel backyard to kill the Asian Citrus Psyllid parasite in July 2015.
Work crews from the California Department of Food and Agriculture spray insecticide on citrus plants in a San Gabriel backyard to kill the Asian Citrus Psyllid parasite in July 2015. Los Angeles Times/TNS

It has been going on for decades, but it still shocks many Californians to learn that state agencies spray hazardous pesticides to residential yards, school grounds and organic farms.

If you protest, they get a warrant and do it against your will. These draconian practices include spraying to kill the Japanese beetle since the 1980s, even though the chemicals fail, the insects repeatedly return and there are many safer alternatives.

For years residents have questioned why the state has been allowed to sidestep its own rules requiring assessments of health and environmental harm before applying pesticides known to cause cancer and birth defects and to be highly toxic to bees, butterflies, fish and birds. They questioned how the state in 2014 handed itself blanket authority to spray 79 pesticides wherever and whenever it chooses with no requirement to rely on current science, and no say for affected communities.

Last month, a judge considered those same questions and issued an injunction to immediately stop the California Department of Food and Agriculture from using chemical pesticides. This injunction should finally prompt significant changes in the state’s disturbing “we spray, you have no say” policy.


It follows a sweeping decision in January that the department failed to give adequate notice of pesticide spraying and failed to account for the risk of contaminating water supplies and the cumulative danger of adding to the more than 150 million pounds of pesticides already being used in California each year.

Officials responded to that ruling by asserting that they do not use pesticides widely. But a review of state records shows that from 2008 to 2013, the department applied nearly 400,000 pounds of pesticides. Moreover, no one was keeping track; the only way to find out was to tabulate hundreds of individual reports.

We had no wish to sue the state. But after defeating the state’s plan to aerially spray an untested pesticide targeting the light brown apple moth over the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years, we met a stone wall in our repeated efforts to work with officials to make state pest management policies safer.

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Robert Lieber

Meanwhile, we continued to get reports from residents around the state describing the department’s heavy-handed application of toxic chemicals. One resident said his yard had been sprayed more than 20 times. Several reported spraying of a public park with no warning signs and of a high school sports field.

Residents shared unsettling reports made to state officials following pesticide treatments – a child falling ill, a frog colony wiped out overnight, pesticide drifting widely off target, over fences and across yards.

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Nan Wisher

The state spent $4.5 million on the flawed program that the court just overturned. Imagine what we could have achieved if state officials had listened to the public and spent that money instead on a sustainable approach that genuinely protects human and environmental health.

Now that the court has taken chemical pesticides off the table, we finally have the opportunity to find out what sustainable pest management should look like in California.

Robert Lieber is a registered nurse and former mayor of Albany and can be contacted at Nan Wishner is a founding board member of the California Environmental Health Initiative and can be contacted at