Women Lead the Fight for Pesticide Reform in California’s Central Valley

-Josefina Miranda showed up to work in a field still wet from pesticides. She was four months pregnant. By the time she finished work, her clothes were soaked through with chemicals. She miscarried the next day.

A 2002 application of soil fumigant metam-sodium sickened over 260 residents in Arvin, California. Initial reports by country officials indicated that only one person was affected, but door-to-door community surveys found that residents had suffered a variety of symptoms including eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. Metam-sodium is an acutely toxic chemical linked to cancer and reproductive disorders.

These are just two of the many incidents of pesticide exposure endured by workers and residents in the Central Valley.

When most of us think about pesticides, it’s often in the context of buying organic food to avoid ingesting chemicals or exposing our children.

If we’re a little further along in our awareness of the dangers of pesticides, we might go so far as to think about how pesticides harm the ecosystem, and pollute air and water.

But because agricultural workers live in areas invisible to most of us, we may not be aware that the people who harvest our food live and work immersed in a toxic stew of chemicals like methyl iodide (a pesticide linked to cancer and miscarriages), chlorpyrifos (an insecticide linked to endocrine disruption, asthmas, and nervous system disorders), and atrazine (an herbicide associated with hormone disruptions that is banned in Europe).

California, being the produce basket of the country, accounts for 20-25% of all pesticide use in the country. About one-third of total pesticide use in the state is known to be toxic to humans. Children are particularly vulnerable because their smaller, developing bodies can’t take the toxic load. Add to that the fact that many are exposed in the womb and you can see why shorter, unhealthier lives are not unusual in farmworker communities.

This injustice is directly linked to race, class, and poverty. According to a 2003 paper, Farmworker Women and Pesticides in California’s Central Valley, published by The Pesticide Action Network, farm workers in California who harvest our food number over 700,000 and are mainly people of color. Not only do they work in pesticide-soaked fields but they also live adjacent to these fields and are exposed to contaminated dust, air, and water 24-7. Their children go to schools that are located near farms where chemicals are used regularly. Farm workers rarely have health insurance and access to medical care is limited due to language and transportation barriers.

Updated with additional information as of 11-14-2011: From the same paper, due to lack of cheap health insurance or medical assistance to aid California Farm workers to get access to health care, 20% of those surveyed have never been to a doctor. Farmworkers are not able to leave their work to visit clinics, which are only available from 9am-5pm. Leaving their work equals no payment.

Though California worker safety laws require training on handling pesticides, the farm workers interviewed for the paper reported rarely receiving any training or safety gear. Most workers don’t report exposure incidents to their employers or officials out of fear they will lose their jobs. Compensation for medical bills is practically unheard of. The four California counties with the highest pesticide use are also the four poorest counties in California. Fresno, Kern, Kings, and Tulare counties have an average per capita income of $19,733 as compared to $29,856 for the state. This is not surprising as the people with the least economic power have historically been the people most exposed to contaminated workplaces and neighborhoods.

But the people most affected by pesticides are fighting for environmental justice in farm worker communities, and women are leading the charge. Through community organizing, female leaders and residents of these communities are fighting for cleaner air and water, medical care and reimbursement for victims, and regulatory phase out of some of the most dangerous chemicals.

A slide show, 25 Stories from the Central Valley, by UC Santa Cruz graduate student Tracy Perkins, is part of a larger public art project that documents the daily lives of the people who live in the Central Valley, and shows first-hand what they are up against. It features women like Irma Medellin and Teresa DeAnda, who are working to make the Central Valley safer for residents and workers.

Irma Medellin has also been instrumental in working for stronger regulations regarding buffer zones around areas where pesticides are applied.

In addition to her own non-profit organization, El Quinto Sol, dedicated to ensuring the community has a voice in matters of health and environmental justice, Medellin was an organizer with the BioDrift Project- a joint effort by El Quinto Sol, Californians for Pesticide Reform, Commonweal, and Pesticide Action Network.

The project trains local residents to use a device called a Drift Catcher to monitor the pesticides in the air around their homes and workplaces and use the data to push for stronger regulation.

Over three years, residents of the Central Valley town of Lindsay collected data on airborne pesticides. Combined with urine tests of residents, the project determined that at least one of the pesticides drifting over their neighborhood was also in their bodies. More than 91% of those tested had above-average levels of breakdown products of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in their urine. The proof resulted in the creation of buffer zones around schools and residential areas.

Teresa DeAnda has lived across from heavily sprayed fields of grapes and then almonds in Earlimart, CA all of her life. “I’ve always been here. Taking it my whole life,” she said. Finally, she wasn’t going to take it anymore. Her work was instrumental in the passage of SB 391, the Pesticide Drift Exposure Response Act that was passed in 2004.

A pesticide cloud over Earlimart in 1999 inspired Teresa to began attending county meetings to learn more about pesticides and their health risks. But it was a series of pesticide accidents in 2002 in Arvin, and again October 3, 2003 in Weedpatch, and the following night in Lamont, that made Teresa an activist.

In the last two incidents, opposite sides of the same field were sprayed on consecutive nights with chloropicrin, a teargas-like chemical used during World War I. Residents living nearby had immediate reactions ranging from vomiting, to difficulty breathing. In the first incident, 24 residents were affected. Firefighters responding to 911 calls gave a cursory sniff of gas stoves and water heaters, saying they detected nothing. Residents were ignored when they told firefighters that the problem was pesticides from an adjacent field.

The next night, October 4, an apartment complex on the other side of the field in Lamont, housing over 100 residents, was enveloped in the same chemical. Terrified parents called 911 asking for help for sick children. They were told to stay in their homes and apartments and calm down. No help was sent. Finally a small caravan of residents left the complex, only to encounter a roadblock preventing them from leaving. One man, desperate with worry for his three sick daughters, simply drove around the roadblock to a nearby parking lot. Others followed and gathered in the parking lot to wait for medical help.

When emergency crews arrived, the people were quarantined on tarps on the ground for several hours with no food and little water. They were given one chance to go to the hospital, but those that weren’t in acute breathing distress declined, as most had no money or medical insurance. No other medical care was offered that night, though later, due to public pressure, local clinics offered help whether or not residents could pay.

Through her community work over the years, Teresa had developed a relationship with Senator Dean Florez. After she heard about the last two incidents, she called him to set up a hearing. She then organized the victims of the incidents to attend and testify.

Describing the day of the hearing as “the best day of my life,” she recounted how victims described their experiences in honest detail, many breaking down in tears.

The hearing led directly to the passage of the Pesticide Drift Exposure Response Act, SB 391, barely a year later, and the bill was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Act ensures that people who are exposed to pesticide drift receive immediate and proper treatment. It stipulates that people will be reimbursed for medical bills incurred from the exposure. It also requires the California Environmental Protection Agency to establish minimum standard protocols for pesticide application and to incorporate a pesticide drift component in their area plans.

“There has to be an awakening for everybody who buys fresh fruits and vegetables. When they are enjoying those grapes, or that apple, they have to think, “˜at whose expense was this grown? Who was made sick by the pesticides used to grow this crop?’,” said Teresa.

Learn more about pesticides and the specific pesticides found on your everyday produce. Check out Pesticide Action Network’s searchable database and mobile ap, What’s on my food? to find out what’s on your food.

HT: Erik Vance, Tracy Perkins

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: de Harris via Flickr

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.