Coastal Post Online

June 2001

The Man Behind the Fairfax Ordinance Mess

According To The State, Pesticides Are Just Fine

By Terri Avillar

There's a crazy thing about those government agencies that exist purportedly to protect our health. The craziness is that they operate as though public health and safety were the last consideration that their particular bureaucracy needs to fuss over.

Earlier this year, the town of Fairfax created an ordinance that required neighbors to notify neighbors whenever they were planning on spraying pesticides on an area of yard larger than nine square feet. On April 17, 2001, Paul Helliker, the director of California's Department of Pesticide Regulation, took issue with the town of Fairfax. He wrote a letter, in which he explained that Fairfax had sixty days to either rescind their ordinance or face penalties, including fines. Fairfax so far is steadfastly refusing to do this.

What could be behind the thinking of officials in that town? Perhaps they are aware of the research of Dr. Guillette, whose work with Yaqui Indian children in Mexico indicated the negative effects that pesticides can have on the development of children. She worked with two separate groups of youngsters back in 1993.

One group flourished. Their motor and verbal skills were on a par with other children their age. They were able to draw recognizable stick figures when asked to portray their moms or their dads. These kids lived in the foothills, in a region where the water and air were clean, and where pesticides had never been used.

The other group of children lived in the agricultural valley. They were heavily exposed to pesticides. Their verbal and motor skills were severely below average. Their attempts to draw human figures were unrecognizable, mere smudges of chalk on paper. Warren Porter Ph.D., who teaches environmental biology programs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, showed the smudge drawings to a relative trained to evaluate developmentally compromised children. "What is their prognosis?" he asked. Her reply: "Probably little can be done to help them overcome the damage their central nervous systems and brain development have incurred."

Here in the states, our own children seem to be in harm's way. One in six children inside Marin classrooms has attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, unexplained dermatitis, asthma, etc. Whereas the public school nurse would encounter one child in a group of thirty with such problems three decades ago, nowadays, in some schools, she or he would find that the children with problems are approaching half the classroom population. And those who keep statistics tell us that over 136 million pounds of pesticides are used annually in our country's lawns, gardens, and homes. This is three times the amount of pesticides used by farmers per agricultural acre.

Yet the TV shines on US children and their parents almost every evening. There is always some necessary chemical product that the family should have on hand. Bug spray for termites, insect control products for pets and for people, fabric softeners, wood preservatives, sprays like Febreeze (to make things smell "good"), deodorizers, and sprays to de-wrinkle the clothing. What a toxic soup! And like the cigarette commercials of fifty years ago, these products are touted as safe and normal as Mom and apple pie. (Except these days, Mom is getting chunks of her breasts cut out because of tumors there.)

Fairfax has considered this. On their behalf, I decided to investigate the inner workings of Paul Helliker's mind. A Marin IJ article written by Rebecca Rosen Lum, spelled out that Helliker did want the Fairfax ordinance stopped. But if Fairfax would agree to an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), headed by Stacy Carlsen, County Ag Commissioner, Helliker might make state funds for the program available. To me, this was clearly a case of the right hand putting together what the left hand is ripping apart.

So on May 8th I spoke on the phone with Mr. Helliker. First of all, I inquired if Paul would consider my take on the situation this spring. During a week when Marin Beyond Pesticides people received half a dozen calls relating to people in Marin County being sprayed illegally with pesticides, (during this time, there were days when the wind was in excess of fifty miles an hour, yet still Marin people sprayed their neighbors!), why was he concerned about a Fairfax ordinance? Couldn't he marshal his resources for more important matters, such as the fact that a classroom of disabled young adults at the College of Marin was sprayed repeatedly between April 27 and May 8? Why wasn't that his focus?

Second of all, how could he possibly insist that Fairfax abandon their ordinance of neighbor notifying neighbor, and then say that he would have Stacy Carlsen help set up IPM? After all, the fourth principle of IPM is that of notification of neighbors.

"Well, not in this case," says Helliker.

"What do you mean?" I queried.

"Well, notification is not necessary in this particular instance of using pesticides, because pesticides are all so well tested and regulated that there is no need for one neighbor to inform another." Apparently, Helliker has never heard of the "Safe Schools Act of 2000," which requires parents to be notified about pesticide use in schools.

Then he went on. "If you want this type of notification then you need to set up legislation, perhaps by contacting Mazzoni's office." (Guess he doesn't realize that Mazzoni is no longer the state assemblyperson for Marin.)

"Wait a second," says I. "We don't need legislation, we already have your department. And surely your department of pesticide regulations is concerned with all the matters of its own charter, which I imagine to include public health. So under the charter or mission statement, where it instructs your department to look out for public health, I would say that that gives the public the right to know."

Here Helliker went right back to his argument that there was no right to know, because there was no need to know, because all of these pesticide products were so well formulated, so carefully tested, and so properly regulated that no one would ever need to know when someone else would use these products.

I offered him the example where one neighbor has her toddler out in the backyard, close to the back fence (made picket fence-style, with gaps between the slats of wood). "If this was your child, Paul, wouldn't you want to know that a pesticide was about to be used by the neighbor in the adjoining yard? Especially since the child could be within a foot or two of the spray?"

"No." insisted Helliker, "The person doing the spraying would be the one more likely than that child to be injured if the spray was not used properly." Of course, since I've answered the informal hotline of Marin Beyond Pesticides, I know all too well that many people are oblivious about the proper and safest techniques of using any type of spray.

In many cases, this is because the manufacturers do not always let us know about necessary precautions. If you take the time to send away for a Material Safety Sheet, you'll get a full set of instructions. But often neither a full listing of ingredients or a detailed statement about how to proceed with a product is on the label of the item. Besides, the TV commercials for products suggest a world in which anything can be sprayed all the time without any apparent harm to the toddler, kitty, puppy or butterfly. "Corporate Watch" would say that this type of corporate strategy is deliberate. Corporations have little to gain by underlining the dangers that their products can hold for consumers. Corporate Watch spells out five Big Business tactics: "Deny (harm); Delay (solution); Divide (opposition); Dupe (the public); and Dump (the product in the consumer's lap). As you continue to read about Helliker's talk with me, you will realize that he is quite well versed in all five of the "D's."

After he re-iterated his position that pesticide testing and regulation is so thorough that there is no need for notification, , I again tried to bring up the concept of the toddler just two feet away from a neighbor spraying roses. Helliker continued to express his disbelief that anyone would have any concern for the child in question. He wanted to know what sort of chemicals I thought were in rose sprays. I said that perhaps I had chosen a bad example, because I no longer knew what is in current rose spray formulas. I did add that a few years ago, Diazinon was in some rose spray products, and that because people will use something until it is all gone, there probably are people in Marin still using Diazinon rose sprays.

"But what about Raid?" I asked. "What if you were in the room with me, and I decided to take out a can of Raid and spray some bugs with you standing there. Wouldn't you want to know before hand so that you could leave the room if you wanted to?"

Helliker reiterated his position on bug sprays being formulated properly, etc.

In exasperation, I said, "Okay, so if I'm ever in Sacramento, I guess I could invite myself over to your office, and bring a can of Raid, and spray your office, and you wouldn't want to be alerted to my doing this before hand?"

Helliker answered that he would not mind.

"So in that case, can I invite myself to Sacramento next week, and spray your office thoroughly with Raid while you're in there?"

Hellicker offered that there would be no problem with that. At this point, I was incredulous. I had to explain to Paul that I didn't think I could continue the conversation. And I hung up.

While this conversation took place, I repeated each comment that Helliker made out loud so that my friend Mark could serve as a material witness to the conversation. As I hung up, Mark stated, "This has been like listening to Monty Python on the radio!"

Helliker refuses to admit that much of this conversation occurred. He does say that we discussed my using Raid in his office, but in his version, he does not accept my inviting myself over and spraying him, though he does (in his version) say that if I used Raid in his presence and followed the label directions, he would incur no health problems.

Of course, myself and many to whom I have repeated this tale, find our faith in the government sorely tested, when we consider that this is the fox put in charge of the very important hen house of public health and safety. We are grateful for the wise stewardship of Fairfax officials, and for the local merchants and musicians who will set up benefits this summer to contribute to the town's forthcoming legal expenses. May music save us from this bureaucratic nightmare!

Thanks to the website used as a resource HYPERLINK<> <> faithfully tended by Steve Tvedten.



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