Crop dusting safety concerns high in Kern County

Crop dusting safety concerns high in Kern County »Play Video
A Rio Bravo-Greeley Union School District bus carrying 30 kids is hit Thursday morning, March 29, 2012, with pesticide dropped by a crop duster.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Three times already this year, pesticide drift incidents have been reported in Kern County. Farmers say the chemicals are necessary, and they're doing a better job than ever of using them. But, others worry about safety.

Kern Farm Bureau president Steve Maniaci said he understands public misgivings, but he said growers are now more educated and disciplined about safety.

"But, that doesn't change the fact that when somebody sees a spray rig running, they have a concern," he added.

"From a farming community point of view, we're probably safer than we've ever been in our history," Maniaci said. "Incidents are way down, drift issues are way down."

Eyewitness News discovered local farmers and agriculture officials are taking more steps to promote safety with pesticides.

"Our inspectors go out to the fields, and they'll look for pesticide applications that are occurring," Glenn Frankhauser said. He's in charge of pesticide use enforcement in the Kern County Agriculture Department.

They also respond to pesticide drifts and similar incidents.

In March, suspected pesticides drifted over a school bus carrying about 30 children. The elementary-age kids were part of the Rio Bravo-Greeley Union School District. Firefighters who responded, said a crop duster slightly oversprayed and hit the bus near Stockdale Highway and Interstate 5.

One child was taken to the doctor by parents, Frankhauser said. He said the no other children had symptoms, they were checked as a precaution.

In June, a couple and their miniature horse were dusted with a farm chemical outside their home on South H Street.

Both incidents represent different types of pesticides.

For more dangerous pesticides, termed "regulated," growers have to get a permit before they make an application. "They have to notify us when they're going to do it," Frankhauser said. "We send inspectors out to look at the fields and make sure it's going to be safe."

He said growers have to notify his office 24 or 48 hours before application, depending on the material.

Other farm chemicals are not restricted, and the Agriculture Commissioner gets word of those applications after they happen. "We don't always know what's going on until after the fact," Frankhauser said.

But, even those less toxic materials could be a problem. "Any kind of pesticide could be dangerous, depending on how you came into contact with it," he said.

The chemical that drifted over the school bus is regulated, officials say it was Lorsban. The county ag department issued notices proposing a $2,000 fine for the crop dusting pilot, and $30,000 for his employer. But Frankhauser told Eyewitness News the company appealed that before a hearing officer.

"He threw out the violations," Frankhauser said. Ag officials couldn't prove the chemicals came from that particular incident.

Eyewitness News often gets questions from viewers about pesticide applications near schools. Viewers worry about health impacts for children, and what rules apply.

Frankhauser said Kern County put some extra rules in place a couple years ago.

"We implemented a quarter of a mile buffer zone for pesticide applications around schools for restricted materials," he said. That rule is in place during school hours and when kids are present.

And, the county is doing more. They are currently mapping school bus stops. Frankhauser said they can't put buffer zones around the bus stops, but the information will help crop dusters be aware of those locations, and take extra precautions.

On South H Street, the chemical that drifted over the couple and their horse is a clay-type material, it's not in the "restricted" category. Ag officials say the problem was a malfunction with a spray nozzle on the plane.

No one was hurt, Frankhauser said, but his office plans to take action. "We are going to issue penalties for them for improper equipment," he said.

The third local incident this year, was a situation in Lamont in June. People living on Fuller Drive complained of symptoms like headaches and nausea after noticing a bad smell. No one was reported going for medical treatment, but firefighters evaluated the residents.

A vineyard west of the neighborhood had been sprayed with pesticides that morning. The materials were being applied by a tractor.

Frankhauser said ag inspectors found no evidence of any drift, but the situation was an odor complaint. And, that's not uncommon.

"The state has determined odors do not mean that you've been exposed to a pesticide," the Farm Bureau's Steve Manici said. And, he notes, smells can drift a long way from where a chemical is being applied.

He also points to a fairly new program, as one way growers work hard to be good neighbors. They started the Spray Safe program in 2005. It's an annual session to educate growers and field workers, and to promote pesticide safety.

Frankhauser says since that time, the number of people exposed to pesticide drifts has gone down dramatically, notices of rule violations are also down, and the rate of compliance with pesticide rules is over 90 percent.

"That's a very good track record," Maniaci said. And, he notes the industry is making other positive changes.

"The pesticide use, on a per-acreage basis has been on a continual downward trend for decades, there's also been a downward trend of toxicity use on the average," Maniaci said. He said growers will use the product with the lowest-possible toxicity level.

And, the Agriculture Department has pilot project underway to cut the risk of pesticide exposure. In an area that's south of Highway 58 and east of Highway 99, farmers must notify the department 48 hours before the application of any restricted material.

"The computer system automatically emails every grower that's surrounding the property that the grower is proposing to make an application on," Frankhauser explained. He said that way, nearby farmers are warned and can move their field workers away from an application, for example.

Maniaci said growers work hard on pesticide safety. "There is some frustration, because the farming community goes the extra mile to understand what they're doing and to do it properly," he said. "And yet, they still get made out to be the villains at times."

Frankhauser says there is a good track record of their efforts. "Our number of episodes has gone down, the number of affected individuals has gone down," he said.

But, problems can happen. Frankhauser says, call 911 if it's an emergency. If there's no immediate risk -- but a possible violation -- his office should be notified. That number is 868-6300.