Big Win for Public Health: Calif. Judge Blocks Pesticide Spraying by State Ag Department

EWG Challenged State Agency’s Massive Use of Weed Killers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In a major victory for public health, a judge has ordered the California Department of Food and Agriculture to stop spraying toxic pesticides – including on schools, parks and lawns and near organic farms – until the agency complies with state environmental laws.

Superior Court Judge Timothy W. Frawley ruled against the agency, known as the CDFA, in a lawsuit brought by the Environmental Working Group, 10 other public interest organizations and the City of Berkeley.[1]

The judge’s injunction in EWG Plaintiffs v. CDFA applies to pesticides sprayed by the CDFA to control outbreaks of invasive plant pests. The Plant Pest Prevention and Management Program gave the CDFA broad license to spray 79 pesticides, including some known to cause cancer and birth defects, anywhere in the state. Spraying was allowed indefinitely, without analysis of the health and environmental impacts of the chemicals at the specific application sites, and/or public notice or scrutiny of treatment decisions. The amount of pesticides the CDFA sprayed since 2014 was not immediately available, but attorneys for the plaintiffs estimated that the CDFA sprayed about 400,000 pounds of pesticides from 2008 to 2013.

Frawley issued the injunction following his ruling in January that the program violated numerous state laws, relying on “unsupported assumptions and speculation” to conclude that pesticides would not contaminate water bodies. The ruling cited the state’s “woefully deficient” analysis of the cumulative danger of increasing the more than 150 million pounds of pesticides already used in California each year.

The lawsuit revealed not only far-reaching flaws in the state’s analysis of the environmental harm caused by the department’s pesticide use, but also the CDFA’s decades-long history of evading disclosure of the human health and environmental impacts of its activities by repeatedly granting itself so-called emergency exemptions from environmental laws.

“For too long the state’s own widespread pesticide spraying has been driven by agribusiness demands, without adequate consideration of the impacts on human health and the environment,” said EWG President Ken Cook, a resident of Marin County. “The decision in EWG Plaintiffs v. CDFA compels the state agriculture agency to reformulate its pesticide policies to restore the balance, as California law requires.”

The CDFA has a long history of working to downplay the risks pesticides pose to human health. In 2010, the agency gave a $180,000 grant to a chemical agriculture front group, the Alliance for Food and Farming, to attack EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in ProduceTM.

“The judge has told the state that harmful pesticides simply can’t be sprayed indiscriminately or without robust consideration of their impacts on people, animals and water,” said Bill Allayaud, EWG’s California director of government affairs. “The ruling also affirms that Californians have the right to know about pesticides being sprayed around them, and have the ability to challenge spraying that endangers public health and natural resources.”

Below are reactions from other organizations that joined the lawsuit:

  • “After more than 30 years of disregard for state environmental laws, the agency’s chemical weapons have finally been taken off the table,” said Nan Wishner of the California Environmental Health Initiative. “We hope the department will take this opportunity to shift course and apply sound science, partner with the public, and develop a more sustainable, transparent approach.”
  • “The court rejected the agency’s blank check to spray people’s yards, exposing children and pets to a range of pesticides that can cause serious long-term problems, including cancer, asthma, and IQ loss,” said Debbie Friedman, founder of MOMS Advocating Sustainability. “If only the $4.5 million in taxpayer dollars used to develop this outdated program had been spent to develop a modern, sustainable approach that does not rely on toxic chemicals, just imagine what progress we could have made toward a healthier environment for everyone.”
  • “Now California must ensure these pesticides aren’t harming our water supplies and imperiled species like salmon,” said Jonathan Evans, environmental health legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This ruling affirms that people should have a voice in pesticide use in their neighborhoods.”

The state’s attorney told the court the CDFA carried out more than 1,000 pesticide treatments under the program since 2014. Program pesticides include these dangerous chemicals:

  • Chlorpyrifos, which is known to cause brain damage in children and to threaten 97 percent of endangered wildlife.
  • Neonicotinoid pesticides that are highly toxic to pollinators like bees, and aquatic invertebrates like crustaceans and mollusks.
  • The toxic fumigant methyl bromide, which depletes the protective ozone layer.
  • The chemical warfare agent chloropicrin, which causes genetic damage.


[1] EWG, City of Berkeley, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network North America, Beyond Pesticides, California Environmental Health Initiative, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Safe Alternatives for Our Forest Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Environmental Health, Californians for Pesticide Reform and Moms Advocating Sustainability. Attorneys for the plaintiffs were Arthur Friedman of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter, and Hampton, and Jason Flanders of ATA Law Group.

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