Confusion reigns as pesticide usage jumps

Was it a glitch in the state’s database or has San Mateo County been doused with an unhealthy dose of one of the most toxic weed killers?

State and county officials have launched separate investigations into reports of a dramatic rise in nonresidential pesticide use in 2006.

The state’s most recent data indicates an alarming increase in the spraying of a particularly harmful pesticide called Oryzalin, a chemical commonly used to stunt weeds from curling around roadways, railroads and power lines. The carcinogenic substance has been linked to breast cancer, birth defects and ground contamination.

According to the data, about 105,000 pounds of Oryzalin was spattered around the county in 2006, more than a quarter of all nonresidential pesticide reported that year. That compared with only 1,900 pounds reported the previous year.

The instant spike has state and county officials not only searching for a spray-happy culprit, but also for a potential error in their databases.

“We’re not sure what’s going on,” said Maria Mastrangelo, state deputy agricultural commissioner.

The Oryzalin issue came to light when researchers from Sustainable San Mateo County, a community group, gathered the state’s pesticide numbers for its annual report. The state requires all companies to submit its nonresidential pesticide use to the counties, which in turn reports those numbers on a monthly basis to the state.

“We questioned the county about the [Oryzalin] usage, but they hadn’t figured it out prior to our printing,” said Joe Rois, project coordinator for Sustainable San Mateo. “We couldn’t find out where the spraying was done. It was frustrating for us.”

County officials told The Examiner the spraying was likely done by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Caltrain or Caltrans, agencies that landscape the roads, tracks and power lines. But officials for both PG&E and Caltrain say their agencies use other, less toxic alternatives.

A Caltrans spokeswoman said Oryzalin was one of the main herbicides the agency used in 2005 and 2006. The agency has now begun using a less invasive alternative, she said.

David Duncan, branch chief for pest management and licensing for the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation, said the state would investigate the numbers.

“[This] is something that came up in changes of use that appears to be out of the ordinary,” Duncan said.

Mastrangelo said it wouldn’t be the first time the DPR had reported erroneous numbers. She said some of the state’s 2005 numbers had to be revised.

maldax@examiner.com

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