California visited by `pesticide plague'

IN 1988 KATHY Elkins moved to Lompoc, on the central Californian coast, with her husband and infant daughter. Living in a pleasant small town amidst verdant rolling hills, she thought she had found herself a little slice of paradise. Until, that is, she got sick.

Within six months she was finding it hard to breathe. She felt constantly tired and nauseous. Over time, her hair started falling out and so did her daughter's. They both got bronchitis, then pneumonia - and all this with no previous record of ill health.

Then, in 1994, Mrs Elkins was diagnosed with a pulmonary tumour and had the bottom half of her right lung removed. By that time she had noticed other people in the town getting sick too. Many shared her symptoms - fatigue, sickness, hair loss, chest infections and respiratory problems - while others complained of migraines, severe eczema and skin rashes, dizziness and an apparent inability to conceive.

They were in no doubt about the cause of their misery. They blamed it squarely on the pesticides being sprayed on the vegetable fields that stretch out between the town and the ocean a few miles away. "I could smell the pesticides wafting in," Mrs Elkins said. "Right around 11 in the morning the wind would get up and the dust from the fields would begin to swirl around. We were in and out of doctors' offices every week. We came to call it the Valley of Death."

Mrs Elkins eventually moved out because she could stand the medical disasters no longer. "I tell people now that if they want to die, then Lompoc is the place for them."

It is also the place for a growing controversy pitting local activists against slow-moving state regulators and highly defensive farmers, who resent the suggestion that their spraying techniques are causing a major health problem and are dead set on disproving the connection.

For years people referred fondly to the "Lompoc crud" in their chests, but nobody properly pieced the evidence together until George Rauh, a local teacher with time on his hands and recurrent bronchitis in his lungs, organised a campaign to unearth the cause of the town's mystery ailments.

Mr Rauh started out as a bit of a local laughing stock, but has now successfully commissioned two state reports into the problem, one measuring abnormal incidence of disease in Lompoc residents, published last summer, and the other on the presence of toxic pesticides in the air around the town, which came out just a few weeks ago.

The results of these surveys continue to be controversial, partly because of the high statistical standards set by the state monitors and partly because no conclusive evidence has linked the pesticide traces in the air to the undeniably high rate of cancers, thyroid diseases and respiratory ailments.

"Okay there's a health problem, but who's to say the pesticides are to blame?" asked Steve Jordan, co-owner of the largest farming concern in Lompoc. "We've done everything we can to lessen the impact of spraying, preferring `soft' pesticides to the organophosphates, but to these fanatics we're still cigar-chomping, children-killing evil agriculturalists."

"We're well aware of the statistical difficulties in proving our case, but the evidence on the ground is overwhelming," Mr Rauh countered. "And there are still a number of scientific questions to be answered, such as the cumulative effect of exposure to several pesticides at once. For now, these chemicals have been tested on rats one by one. But how can a rat complain if he has a migraine headache? The truth is, we are the rats in this experiment."

According to official statistics cited by Mr Rauh, pesticide use in Lompoc went up from 70,000lbs a year in 1991, when his campaign started, to 120,000lbs in 1998 - a symptom of the ever more intensive farming of lettuce, cauliflower, asparagus and other high-yield, high-profit vegetables. The farmers were helped over that period by a sympathetic Republican-led leadership in Sacramento, California's political capital, where the farming lobby has always held considerable sway.

The political wind has changed somewhat since January, with a newly installed Democratic state governor and signs that sensitive environmental posts will no longer go automatically to agriculture industry figures. Tellingly, the outgoing head of the Department of Pesticides Regulation has just taken a job with the country's leading pesticides lobbyist, but the wheels of bureaucracy are likely to move slowly. There is talk of further studies which could delay legislative action for several years. Meanwhile, farmers like Rob Guerra are seeking to demonise Mr Rauh's campaign as an attempt "to make us quit farming and go back to the Stone Age".

Much is potentially at stake, since farming is a multi-billion dollar industry and highly toxic pesticides are used throughout the United States to help maximise yields. Just because Lompoc is caught in a wind trap does not mean it is the only town with dangerous toxins in its air. "The only thing that makes us exceptional is that we have spoken out," Mr Rauh said. "We are a kind of test case for the future."

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