California pesticide rules go back century

Regulation of pesticides in California certainly didn't just pop up with the advent of today's Department of Pesticide Regulation. In fact, it dates back nearly a century.

A copy of the history of pesticide regulation in the state provided by the agency reveals perspectives on the early days before the 1960s and hints of the programs we know today.

(This issue we'll list highlights up to the 1960s, and the following issue we'll summarize developments from then to the present.)

The earliest regulations were intended to protect pesticide users from fraud in an era of panaceas and quacks, when food, drugs, and all sorts of products were routinely adulterated with who knows what, if not aggressively peddled under false claims.

California's first pesticide law, passed in 1901 before insecticides had really caught on, was aimed at substandard quality. It pertained to a single compound called copper acetoarsenite or "Paris green," used both as a paint pigment and a potent poison. The director of the Agricultural Experiment Station was charged with ensuring its quality.

The Federal Insecticide Act of 1910 basically protected consumers from useless products or false labeling, and it was without registration requirements or adequate safety standards.

The following year, the California legislature - setting the scene for things to come - passed its own insecticide and fungicide law that did the Feds one-better.

Although also focused on curbing mislabeling and adulteration, the California law required that pesticides, before they could be sold, be registered with the University of California. By 1916, amendments provided for a registration fee and issuing of registration certificates.

Five years later, the Economic Poison Act transferred pesticide registrations from the university to the then California Department of Agriculture, itself created only two years before from the State Commission on Horticulture.

The law also took the department's authority beyond insecticides and fungicides. A department report in 1921 called the new law "a novelty in legislation of this type, there being no other law, state or national, regulating the manufacture and sale of rodent poisons and weed poisons."

It empowered the department to regulate manufacture, sale, and use of pesticides. Manufacturers were required to register products, supply information on formulations, and provide a product sample to assure quality standards. Products found detrimental to agriculture or public health could be canceled or denied registration.

Require demonstration An amendment in 1929 authorized the department to require practical demonstration of product efficacy, which was what the DPR history calls a "first limited ability to call in data" necessary to provide legal grounds to deny or cancel registration.

During the 1920s and even well before, residues of arsenic and other toxics got attention at the federal level. In 1919 the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry (which became the Food and Drug Administration) launched a campaign to educate farmers and discourage them from excessively spraying produce. That approach continued until 1925, despite reports of illnesses and seizures of fruit having high levels of arsenic.

By 1926, in response to complaints of illnesses, state regulators began analyzing produce for arsenic. Public outcry and threats of embargo in Britain prompted the Bureau of Chemistry soon afterward to set the first federal limits - today known as tolerances - for arsenic on apples and pears in interstate commerce and export.

California created its own program for controlling residues from arsenic-based sprays on fruits and vegetables. In contrast with today, the pesticide arsenal at that time listed about 30 compounds, many based on arsenic or copper.

The program was intended as much as a marketing promotion tool as a protection for consumers. Growers found it impossible to export fruit without the department's certification, and it continued until the 1940s.

During the 1930s analyses for residues in produce expanded beyond arsenic to lead, fluorine, and copper, and the 1940s brought DDT and many other pesticides into residue sampling.

After World War II, many new "miracle" pesticides from new, synthetic organic chemicals came to the farm to give control of all sorts of pests and weeds. Teamed with advances in new plant varieties, chemical fertilizers, irrigation and mechanization, these products ushered in the "Green Revolution," with its reduced labor costs, better pest control, and increased yields.

The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act of 1947 required USDA registration of pesticides distributed in interstate commerce. Like earlier legislation it was more concerned with product quality and efficacy than with safety.

With registration mainly a formality, the secretary of Agriculture had no power to refuse registration, even for a chemical considered highly dangerous. That limited regulatory authority was unchanged until the law was amended in 1954.

However, in California the director of agriculture had power to pull a registration of, or refuse to register, any chemical found to be ineffective, damaging to non-targeted organisms, or detrimental to public health. The director also had some authority over use practices.

With the rush of new products in the late 1940s, growers enjoyed better yields, but they also encountered problems with drift damage to off-target crops and livestock and with injuries and deaths of workers and others.

First injury laws The state legislature set up a committee in 1947 to probe these issues, and that led to legislation two years later providing for the state's first regulations setting restrictions on certain pesticides having the potential to injure people, crops or the environment. Permits were required to possess or use the products.

The same law first brought professional applicators under the joint authority of the state and the county agricultural commissioners. A later amendment transferred licensing of ag applicators and pilots to the Department of Agriculture.

State law was amended in 1949 to expand state labeling on adjuvants, including emulsifiers, spreaders, wetting agents and other products to enhance efficacy. Legislation in 1967 classified adjuvants as economic poisons and brought them under regulation by the Department of Agriculture. They remain subject to registration in California but are exempt from federal registration requirements.

During the 1950s, the appearance of new, highly toxic materials brought with them responses in fine-tuning of regulatory legislation in California. Details emerged for buffer zones, restrictions for nozzle sizes and wind velocities, and other measures to limit drift to residences or sensitive adjacent crops.

(Next issue we will continue this brief history of pesticide regulation from the impact of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 to the present day.)

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