Part I: Personal Accounts
Eight pounds of tumors were removed from Ana Barrera’s womb after just four years working in the Central Valley. Her cousin developed breast cancer after coming to live with her. And never, she says, has she “seen as many children suffering as in Salinas.” Exposure to carcinogenic pesticides in the Central Valley has been documented in hundreds of schools — affecting tens of thousands of students and educators.
The Department of Pesticide Regulation’s most recent proposal for pesticide use restricts spraying fumigants within a quarter mile of schools and daycares from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. However, this proposed policy, which will come into effect this September, is not enough. To effectively protect from exposure to pesticides, reform groups such as Safe Ag Safe Schools are advocating for a one mile buffer zone around schools at all times.
Barrera moved to the area in 2007, the year she began teaching at Everett Alvarez High School in Salinas. Driving and “seeing helicopters zoom by fields spraying pesticides as drift [came] down the freeway… was alarming,” she said. “I quickly rolled my windows up.”
On El Boronda Road before El Dorado less than two minutes by car from Everett Alvarez lies a wide expanse of fields. Adjacent to Gavilan Middle School is a strawberry field with a sign labeled “Danger, Pesticide, Do Not Enter — Peligro, Pesticida, No Entrar.” Salinas native Mariela Pizarro confirmed, “we have… strawberry fields on every other block.”
The primary fumigant used on strawberry fields is the carcinogenic compound chloropicrin, which also happens to be the most common pesticide found near schools.
For students at Everett Alvarez High School, the adverse effects of pesticides are a tragic reality. Barrera described the struggles of some of her former students, who are her motivation to keep fighting. Two, she said, began dialysis for organ failures just a couple years after graduating. Another has undergone a relapse in their chemotherapy treatment for leukemia. One passed away from cancer. Another struggled with tumors in her ovaries.
As for her current students, she says many are under medical care for headaches, intestinal problems, tumors, and cancer. “The absences are many, and… there is a shortage of special education teachers to keep up with the case loads of students with learning disabilities throughout the school district,” she explained.
At a rally outside the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this past summer, Barrera demanded, “Enough! Our children are dying from cancer…This organization is discriminating and violating our civil rights. They are taking the life out of this community!” She urged the crowd to keep fighting.
Ana Barrera speaking to CalEPA (with translations):
Ana Barrera Cal EPA .mp4
Charisse Yenko is an Emergency Room (ER) nurse in Salinas. For a year, she studied organic farming at Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association Organics, a farm and non-profit that trains farmers to become organic farmers. The farm conducts tours of their facilities, attended at times by children from local public schools. While ALBA’s land remains solely organic, it is surrounded by conventional fields.
One day in particular remained vivid in Yenko’s memory years later. She recalled doing a tour with young children when they began to point at a small chopper above them. It was doing rounds spraying fertilizer and pesticides, but to the kids it appeared magical. As the fascination subsided, she noticed a young girl had stopped breathing. Adults nearby thought she was just anxious, or allergic to something, remembers Yenko. She explained, “I’m an ER nurse. So I knew it was serious.”
The child’s asthma attack was so severe that Yenko went with her to a hospital. It turns out, the girl was hypersensitive to the chemicals used to treat the fields nearby — a condition common among young children. Pesticides had almost cost her her life. “That really got me thinking,” said Yenko.
The more time Yenko spent in the hospital and on the farm, the more she learned. She got to know and work with farmers who shared their stories: some of them had children with birth defects, some of them had miscarried, some of them had severe health issues. And at the local hospital over the next couple years, Yenko began to notice an increase in the number of pediatric patients. She sees kids who pass through the ER that are hyperactive or have learning disorders because their moms, farmworkers, unwittingly facilitated their prenatal exposure to pesticides.
Others besides Barrera noticed the abnormally high rates of sick or special education children in Salinas. Said Yenko, “I talk to other nurses from Stanford, and they said they thought Salinas was a big city because of the volume and the severity of cases of children coming to… their hospital.”
Lucia Calderón, a community organizer for Safe Ag Safe Schools, described how community members and teachers she has spoken with in the Salinas area say they’ve “never seen as many special education children anywhere else.”
“It’s a very… sensitive situation,” Yenko explains. “Parents are almost in a panic mode with regards to immigration. Kids are afraid to go to school because they think their parents are going to be deported. Farmers… are exposed to chemicals and their kids are exposed. So there are a lot of layers of injustice.”
“Parents are almost in a panic mode with regards to immigration. Kids are afraid to go to school because they think their parents are going to be deported. Farmers… are exposed to chemicals and their kids are exposed. So there are a lot of layers of injustice.”
Part II: The Science of Pesticides
After investigating thousands of public schools in districts known to have high levels of pesticide use, the California Department of Public Health released a report in 2014 chronicling the results of the study. Their findings were alarming, to say the least. 2,635 to 28,979 pounds of pesticides were sprayed within a quarter mile of 45 schools attended by over 35,000 students. At least 319 pounds of pesticides were applied within a quarter mile of 226 schools, attended by 118,000 students. Finally, it was estimated that 538,912 pounds of pesticides of ‘public health concern’ were sprayed within a quarter mile of schools in 15 agricultural counties. These pesticides include:
Chloropicrin, a carcinogen that can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled, and ingested. It was a German chemical weapon used against the Allied Forces in World War I.
1,3-Dichloropropene, which has has been classified by the EPA as a “probable human carcinogen.”
Methyl Bromide, another potential carcinogen, causes neurological, respiratory, and kidney defects. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act defines it as a “hazardous substance,” and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act classifies it as a pesticide that must be reported.
When combined, Chloropicrin, 1,3-Dichloropropene, and metam salts (see above graphic) can cause drastic ‘cumulative risks’ beyond the health risks we are already aware of. A University of California, Los Angeles case study titled “Exposure and Interaction: The Potential Health Impacts of Using Multiple Pesticides” documented the following possible consequences of exposure to all three of these chemicals together (as they are often mixed while applying pesticides):
Reduced Ability to Detoxify
Excessive exposure to pesticides leads the body to focus more of its efforts and resources on detoxification of those pesticides. This in turn can prompt an elongated period of time in which other toxins are present in our bodies before they are removed. Prolonged exposure to toxic compounds can therefore allow poisons more time to damage cells.
Chloropicrin, 1,3-Dichloropropene, and metam salts are all genotoxic. This means that they “damage genetic information within a cell, causing mutations, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) strand breaks, or chromosomal aberrations.”
Debilitation of DNA Repair and Expression Enzymes
In addition to being genotoxic, all three pesticides are electrophiles — they are on the hunt for negatively charged electrons. The pesticide compounds can assail sulfhydryl and amine groups in proteins and can in some cases deactivate enzymes altogether. DNA and gene expression enzymes may be targeted, leading to the inability of these enzymes to repair impaired DNA.
Mutations caused by these pesticides, and in some cases the inability of the body to correct them, can increase risk of cancer.
Further, in her article “Pesticides and lowered IQ: Data disturbing”, Dr. Ann Lopez listed other neurological effects of exposure to pesticides. She summarized a University of California, Berkeley Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study that “linked [organophosphate pesticide] exposure of pregnant Salinas Valley mothers to poorer cognitive functioning and increased risk of attention problems in their children, as well as reduced lung function.” In addition, Lopez explains findings from the study “Prenatal Residential Proximity to Agricultural Pesticide Use and IQ in 7-Year-Old Children”: “every 522 pounds of organophosphate pesticides applied within 1 kilometer of pregnant mothers’ homes correlates with a two point IQ decrease in their children by age seven.”
But how common is this amount of exposure? Using a mapping tool, Lopez identified 235 square miles of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties with more than 522 pounds of use. Writes Lopez, “many of these 235 square miles are in or near residential neighborhoods and schools.”
The state investigation identified six more pesticides that were “restricted materials” and “require special permits and are eligible for additional regulation at the local level.” Another eight were identified as having “chemical persistences of more than a week.” In other words, even if the fumigants aren’t sprayed while children are at school, students are still at risk.
Part III: Who is being affected?
So who are the kids being exposed to toxic pesticides? The state report identified that Hispanic kids were “46% more likely than White children to attend schools with any pesticides of concern applied nearby and 91% more likely than White children to attend schools in the highest quartile of use.”
According to the Fresno Bee, Fresno is the county with the most schools within a quarter-mile of pesticides in the state. As of right now, the Fresno County Office of Education lists four pesticides likely used at is schools that are known to cause convulsions and respiratory irritation. As stated in a County Department of Public Heath report, the proportion of Fresno residents with asthma is almost 30 percent greater than the same proportion statewide. The proportion of residents with lung diseases other than asthma is 70 percent greater than the state proportion.
However, the disparity is likely larger. The report explains, “individuals surveyed have had access to and utilized a health care system to receive their diagnoses. This does not account for large pockets of communities without access or with low utilization of health care systems.”
Undocumented farmhands and children, therefore — the residents most susceptible to these health implications — are likely left out from this data. According to respondent from a Humboldt State study, “even if people know they got exposed and feel ill, the symptoms look like the flu… they realize that they have to go to the doctors, but they don’t go. Even if they do, we see that doctors don’t know how to identify exposure.”
Jessica Reynoso, a Stanford student from Woodlake, a rural town in the Central Valley, affirmed that undocumented Californians were the most affected by pesticides. Said Reynoso, they “don’t feel like they have a voice. They’re living in fear.” The cheapest homes — most often populated by the Latinx community — are near fields, she explained. The lowest paying jobs are in the fields. Often times, the affected communities are not empowered — they aren’t always aware of their rights. Reynoso identified that “people who are most affected by [pesticides] are afraid to speak out or don’t know they have the power to. Or that people care.”
Stanford University student Lily-Ann Foulkes, who worked with Reynoso and Pizzaro on a petition for a one-mile buffer zone, explained, “If something like this was happening in San Francisco or New York City, people would be so outraged. There would be so many articles about it. There’d be so much awareness.”
Part IV: Reform Movements
Safe Ag Safe Schools (SASS) is an organization that has played a huge role in advocating for pesticide reform. Located in the Watsonville and Salinas area, the group is comprised of teachers, health care professionals, parents, union organizers and members, healthcare advocates, and farm worker advocates. SASS was created in 2014 to combat the health harms of pesticides to children.
Lucia Calderón is SASS’s community organizer for the Monterey Bay Region. She leads outreach efforts that aim to build a strong base of community members to support the organization’s efforts. In addition, she organizes community meetings in Watsonville and Salinas each month.
At these meetings, community members meet to discuss progress made in terms of reform as well as plan action steps for the future. Said Calderón, “the most effective strategy for us has been engaging directly with the department of pesticide regulation.”
Less than two years after the SASS began to seriously pressure the department, a statewide policy was established for pesticide use near schools. However, the proposed policy was not enough. 400 people gathered at a public hearing in Salinas to express this sentiment. A buffer zone of a quarter mile from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays just won’t cut it.
Why a full mile?
According to a national report on drift related-pesticide poisonings, 85 percent of people affected by fumigants in eleven states (including California) would have been protected by a one mile buffer zone. Further, the report identified that 76 percent of recorded cases took place more than a quarter mile from the application site.
Why ‘full time’?
In addition to many pesticides having chemical persistences of more than a week, the Los Angeles Times clarified, “schools in those areas often are used for other activities after 6 p.m. and on weekends, which are not covered under the rules.”
Right now, said Calderón, “we are continually reaching out to schools, to teacher groups, and to parents. We’re even in the process of setting up a presentation with some high school students at EAHS.” She explained that while many residents recognize their region is very agricultural, many have not learned or really thought about the fact that pesticides of public health concern are being applied nearby and may be the cause of their ailments.
She elaborated that public hearings, news conferences, rallies, media, letters to editors, op-eds to local newspapers, and the sharing of information are the most effective methods of bringing about reform.
As for how students can help, Calderón suggests we spread the word and start to question our agricultural system. Talk about pesticides. Talk about health. Take actions on a societal level to promote a more “sustainable and just agricultural system.” Finally, she added, “keep these issues in mind when you go to college. You’ll have access to… more information and lines of communication.”
Said Foulkes, “You have to be 18 to vote… but you don’t have to be 18 to write a letter to the EPA or to write a letter to your congressman or to… stand up at assembly at your school and get your entire high school to write letters. Little things like that actually have a lot more impact than I thought would when I was 16.”
Reynoso added, “It’s one thing to know that yes, this issue exists, but another to know ‘this is what I can do to actually make change.’”
A new United Nations report estimates there are 200,000 annual deaths from acute poisoning due to pesticides. Its authors wrote, “It is time to create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”
Sites to visit: