When third-grade teacher Melissa Dennis started working at Ohlone Elementary in Watsonville, she pictured her students playing in the adjacent strawberry fields, picking berries and running through rows of strawberries. But the more she talked to other teachers, the more she realized the reality might not be so idyllic.
“I started hearing about teachers in the past who had been organizing against pesticide use,” Dennis said. “I started thinking maybe I should be careful about drinking the water. But I never thought about the air.”
Ohlone Elementary was built right in the middle of farmlands. No one seems to knows why this location was chosen; the fact that surrounding farms use hundreds of gallons of pesticides and fumigants annually would make it seem less than ideal. Scientific findings on the dangers of pesticide exposure are complicated and sometimes confusing, but for residents, teachers, and farmworkers, the proof is in their experience and stories.
“When you read the label on the products, it says ‘these pesticides are toxic for small mammals, insects, frogs, birds,’” Dennis says. “They use thousands of pounds of this stuff all around us. What are human children but small mammals?”
Dennis eventually joined Safe Ag Safe Schools (SASS), a Salinas-based subgroup of Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR), with a few other Pajaro Valley Unified teachers who say they have witnessed multiple cases of brain tumors, neurological problems and severe respiratory illness in young children at their schools. Just yards away from many of these schools, tarps stretch across pesticide-treated fields and teachers keep the windows of their classrooms shut.
“I’ve noticed how many students are coming down with cancers, and how many teachers have cancer, and I was scared to get cancer from those pesticides,” Former Hall District Elementary and Ohlone teacher Karin Wanless says. “I feel like if I had stayed, I would have had to come to terms with acknowledging that I could get cancer doing the job I love.”
In 2016, more than 1.54 million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on crops in Santa Cruz County, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR), and nearly half were on strawberry fields. The main pesticides used in Santa Cruz County in 2016 were chloropicrin—or tear gas, at over 640,000 pounds—and 1-3 dichloropropene (also known as Telone) at over 288,000 pounds. Chloropicrin is a lung-damaging agent, and Telone is classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the CDPR, as long as the pesticides are applied correctly, in the right dosage, with all of the proper safety precautions, there is little chance of major health impacts.
Many of the people working near these pesticides are far from convinced.
“I was scared for my own health and scared for my life. I developed asthma after teaching near the fields,” Wanless says. “I lived and worked in fear.”
Way Back When
In spring of 1992, Ohlone teacher Teri Ketchie took 60 students on a field trip down to Elkhorn Slough. It was about a 45-minute walk, and they cut through the fields to get there. Once at the slough, they learned about the ecosystems of the wetlands, native grasses and habitats. On the way back, they looked across the field and saw a brownish cloud rising up from the fields. The farmers were fumigating, and the cloud was drifting toward them.
“It started coming, we could see it, and we hunkered down with the kids behind an embankment,” Ketchie, who has since retired, remembers. “We sat there and read until we could hear that the tractor had moved on. The kids were so calm, and we waited there about 25 minutes.”
Now there are fences closed off from the path, and students and teachers don’t walk through the fields because they know about the pesticides.
“That was one of the pivotal experiences for me, that day. I realized that farms aren’t friendly places, they aren’t safe places,” Ketchie says. “We were really naive. It was back when we just didn’t associate poison with food.”
Ketchie never found out what pesticide it was that she and her class were exposed to. But at the time, teachers and activists were rallying around banning methyl bromide, a colorless odorless fumigant widely used on crops, particularly strawberries, and now proven to cause not only severe neurological damage in humans, but also deplete the ozone layer.
Methyl bromide has been phased out of most agricultural use, though many believe that it’s replacements aren’t much safer.
“One of the replacements that companies created for methyl bromide was methyl iodide,” says Mark Weller, co-director of CPR. “Methyl iodide was actually a research chemical that scientists used to induce cancer in lab rats. Because of public outcry, the maker of methyl iodide pulled the product in 2012.”
The most recent replacements in Santa Cruz County are Telone and chloropicrin, and methyl bromide is not legally allowed to be used on agriculture except in a few cases, says Santa Cruz Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo. “There are some allowances that are extremely limited. There is still the potential for methyl bromide to be used for quarantine purposes.”
Chemicals on Trial
But there are many more pesticides that have proven dangerous health effects. Just last month, a San Francisco jury awarded $289 million to a former school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson. Johnson claimed that he developed terminal cancer from using glyphosate-based weed killers, including Monsanto’s RoundUp. The jury found that Monsanto had failed to warn Johnson and other consumers of the cancer risks posed by its weedkillers.
In September 2017, the U.S. EPA concluded a decades-long assessment of glyphosate risks and found that the chemical was not likely carcinogenic to humans. But the World Health Organization’s cancer department in 2015 classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Monsanto is facing at least 5,000 similar lawsuits, and has since appealed the decision in Johnson’s case. Glyphosate is used Santa Cruz, and according to Hidalgo, in 2017 local agriculture used more than 3,517 pounds of it.
A farm next to T.S. MacQuiddy Elementary, Los Amigos Harvesting, was fined the largest amount in county history last year. Hidalgo fined them $56,000 for unpermitted pesticide application, among other offenses, that resulted in drift. Around 20 farmworkers were sickened—eight needed professional medical treatment.
The U.S. EPA estimates that “10,000-20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur each year among the approximately 2 million U.S. agricultural workers.” In 2015, CDPR reported nearly 400 complaints of people being affected by agricultural pesticides in California, 13 of whom were in Santa Cruz County.
“I want to know how this is all still happening,” Teri Ketchi says. “We fought over this years ago, how is it still going on?”
CDPR doesn’t conduct its own studies. Rather, a pesticide manufacturer, like Monsanto or Dow Chemical, is the one responsible for funding and conducting safety studies. Their conclusions will be presented to the CDPR and U.S. EPA. To some, this would appear problematic, perhaps creating a conflict of interest, where the companies in charge of testing a new pesticide for safety are the same ones who stand to profit from it.
CDPR spokesperson Charlotte Fadipe doesn’t see it that way.
“If they are not the ones to fund the work, who should do it? The taxpayers?” she asks. “If Dow or Monsanto wants their product used in California, then we say ‘go show us that it’s safe, show us the data.’ Sometimes we return it and make them do it again if they don’t meet the requirements or our scientists have concerns. It gets very expensive, and who should pay for that research? The companies should bear the brunt of the expense, and then we make sure that their research work fulfills our criteria.”
Fadipe says that the department has sent many studies back to the manufacturers when they don’t meet its standards, and that California in particular has stricter requirements for pesticide safety compared to other states and even the U.S. EPA.
Weller says that isn’t an excuse, and the studies need independence in order to be done correctly. “That’s what the taxpayers are for, to make sure that we aren’t overrun but private corporate interest,” Weller says.
CDPR factors in many other studies, other than just the manufacturers’ report, including scientific university studies and literature. The majority of pesticide studies use animals, mainly rodents that get exposed to a single pesticide in order to determine its effects and the threshold at which it starts to be harmful. But these tests don’t account for the multitude of pesticides that residents and local schools are exposed to. It’s difficult to know what the combined effect is of exposure to several pesticides at the same time.
A 2016 UCLA study found that the combination of common strawberry fumigants chloropicrin, Telone and metam sodium, pose a greater threat to human health and cancer risks when used together than when used individually. Although the study was theoretical, the report states that the pesticides may interact to increase the overall damage to cells. The Sustainable Technology and Policy Program at UCLA recommended that the CDPR take further action to protect people from the exposure of multiple pesticides.
CDPR says that it reviewed the UCLA study, and based upon their own research, determined that in order for pesticides combinations to be potentially more harmful than individual pesticides, they would have to pose the same type of hazard. For example, a known specific carcinogen would have to match up with another specific carcinogen, otherwise the effects of the mixture remain individual.
“It was interesting on a theoretical basis but putting it into practice it was difficult,” says CDPR scientist Dr. Shelley DuTeaux. “The science is an interesting idea, and is fairly new, but not at a level that the EPA or DPR could start to use it.”
However, when combined, even if the exposure remains the same, the pesticide mixture’s potential health risks multiply based upon the individual chemicals used. In adherence with a new regulation, neighboring farms distribute pesticide lists to Pajaro Valley Unified Schools that includes the pesticides they could potentially use within a quarter mile of the school. The lists do not doesn’t specify when exactly they will be applied.
“So basically, it goes like ‘here is the poison that we are going to apply sometime. We won’t tell you when—just sometime,’” Weller says. “The pesticides on these lists, this is just what’s promised. If the growers use a pesticide not on that list, they need to give one person at the school 48 hours notice.”
The list sent to Amesti Elementary in April, for example, includes 460 pesticides that growers are expected to apply within a quarter mile between July 2018 and June 2019. The list includes Telone, chloropicrin, chlorpyrifos, glyphosate and malathion, all either known carcinogens, or known to cause hormonal and respiratory problems at certain levels of exposure. Though health effects have been studied, little is known about the combination of these pesticides. A similar list of 185 pesticides was sent to Ohlone this year, also listing Telone, chloropicrin and glyphosate.
“We know that the fumigants are mostly used between August and November, usually,” Weller says. “Some others are used more year round. Still, this secretive use is concerning, and it gives us no time to prepare.”
One chief concern with pesticide exposure is the long-term effects of pesticides on mothers and children. There are many women who become pregnant while working in the fields, or who live nearby. Their proximity to some of the pesticides used could potentially harm their unborn children—a charge that seems to be backed by the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) study from UC Berkeley.
The study is particularly unique because it’s a “longitudinal birth cohort study”; unlike many other studies on pesticides, it has tracked pesticide impacts on children from the womb. It began around 2000 and enrolled 601 pregnant women living in the agricultural Salinas Valley, and has tracked the children to measure their exposures to pesticides and determine if this exposure has impacted their health.
According to CHAMACOS, children who have been exposed to organophosphate pesticides—including Telone, chlorpyrifos, chloropicrin, and glyphosate—in utero, meaning their mothers were also exposed to those pesticides, had lower average IQs, poorer cognitive functioning and shorter attention spans than children who were not. Likewise, the women had shorter pregnancies.
There are over 600 families from the Salinas Valley, mostly farmworker families, currently voluntarily participating in CHAMACOS, and researchers plan to follow participants through 18 years of age for at least another three years.
“One of the ways that we know about the health effects of pesticides is because in a laboratory a toxicologist would feed pesticides to a rat and see what that does to the rat. That’s how we first get our hints about the effects,” says CHAMACOS researcher Kim Harley. “But people aren’t rats, so you can only get so much information from that before you have to start looking at real human populations.”
The current federal administration has proposed a “Strengthening the Transparency of Regulatory Science” action, which would exclude the consideration of studies that do not provide freely available data and information of those studies. Since the CHAMACOS study is bound by privacy protections and confidentiality of their patients, it risks exclusion from the U.S. EPA’s study review if this proposal goes into effect.
Although CDPR says they do review the study and take it into account, they adhere to animal and computer studies because of their repeatability.
“We like to see things that we can repeat over and over again and get the same results,” Fadipe says. “That way we know for sure that it’s correct. We mostly use the animal base studies or computer modelling.”
“But we are moving to start using modelling and in vitro data so that we can get away from using tons of animals,” says DuTeaux.
Degrees of Cancer
Ohlone teacher George Feldman remembers a six-year-old female student he had three years ago who developed a brain tumor. She had a very limited field of vision, and a never-ending list of prescriptions. She was taken to Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, and although she lived, her vision will never be the same.
“It’s remarkable the number of people whose babies are having brain surgery and spending the next several years in special ed or receiving special services,” Feldman says.
Feldman says at the same time his student was diagnosed with a brain tumor, there were seven other students ages five to 11 undergoing treatment for some variety of cancer at Ohlone.
“I have cared for many women who have come to us because of fetal anomalies from both Salinas and Watsonville,” says a longtime maternity nurse at a Northern California Teaching Hospital, who asked to remain anonymous. “I would say in general we see a lot of fetal anomalies from the Latino population coming out of Salinas. If you asked a nurse offhand, ‘do you feel like there are a lot of anomalies from that population?’ I can assure you that they would say yes. It’s something that we see in high proportion from the patients in that area.”
But Dr. Paul Fisher, Chief of Division of Child Neurology, Beirne Family Professor of Pediatric Neuro-Oncology at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford says he has not observed any such anomalies.
“At Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, we have not seen or associated any neurological disorders with pesticides in our patients,” says Fisher. “Regarding brain tumors, we have not observed any pattern, bump, cluster or run in patients from Santa Cruz, Watsonville or Salinas.”
Many teachers still fear that their own health is at risk. “My wife and I both work at this school, and I question how it is going to affect my long-term health,” Feldman says. “Last year when they came by offering extra insurance for cancer, I’m unusually underinsured because the odds are I am going to lose on it, but for this I knew we would use it. We both got cancer insurance, and we are pretty much likely to turn a profit on it.”
This year, a new regulation went into affect preventing farmers from spraying within a quarter-mile of schools during school hours. Pesticide application can now only be done after school hours, before 6 a.m., after 6 p.m. or on weekends. Santa Cruz Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo considers this new regulation an overall success.
“Now we are not getting many complaints about spraying during school hours, whereas in the past we used to get more complaints about applications near schools,” Hidalgo says.
Because the urban and agricultural interface in South County is comparatively close together, and the schools and communities are right next to fields, the Agriculture Commissioner’s Office has taken extra precautions beyond the state regulations. For chlorpyrifos, Telone and chloropicrin, the commissioner’s office has additional requirements, such as additional signage and notifications.
“There are some exceptions to that,” says Hidalgo, “which has to do with the type of application equipment. Or if you are using equipment that is low pressure and close to the ground—like a boom that is close to the ground for strawberries—because that has less of a potential for drift. But you still have to stay 25 feet away from a school.”
RoundUp, for example, can still be used legally within 25 feet of a school, if it is being applied by a non motorized backpack sprayer. Unless the pesticide is a fumigant, it can be applied within the quarter-mile buffer on weekends, evenings and early mornings. For Telone and chloropicrin, application must be on Saturday mornings, or 36 hours before the next school day. Likewise, because of the specialized equipment needed, Santa Cruz County growers hire specialized pest control businesses.
Compared to Monterey County, SASS members say that Hidalgo is much more receptive to their concerns. He is willing to meet with them as well as answer questions and implement further restrictions beyond what is required.
“Juan may be the best of all of the agriculture commissioners as far as responsiveness to the community, relatively,” Mark Weller says. “He’s been the only agriculture commissioner to put extra restrictions on chlorpyrifos use in the county. As far as I know, no one else has done that.”
But SASS isn’t entirely happy with the actual restrictions in place in the county. They have been continuing to push for giving 72 hours notice of a chlorpyrifos application, as well as a one-mile buffer zone instead of just the current quarter-mile.
“The quarter mile is a brand new restriction and seems to be working at this point. It’s making it so that everyone has to follow the same requirements all the time. It’s making it more even across the board,” Hidalgo says. “Our growers have always been diligent to try and time their applications to minimize the impacts on the schools. They understand that if they are next to a school, they need to stay a safe distance away and complete it before school starts.”
When fumigants are used, they are covered with plastic tarps to prevent pesticide leaching into the air. According to the commissioner’s office, the tarping prevents health risks. However, on windy days, tarps often come loose.
“Pesticides drift far more than a quarter mile,” Weller says. “This stuff drifts far, at dangerous levels. The minimal protections that the state and county require right now provide unfortunately not a lot of protection.”
There is some good news for Ohlone specifically—the neighboring farm announced it would be converting the nearest crops to organic.
“The farmer invited the children out to plant strawberries when they went organic,” Dennis says. “It was almost like a dream come true. It was just like what I’d imagined.”
Just outside of MacQuiddy teacher Casimira Salazar’s classroom, a chain link fence separates the crops from the children’s playground. Sometimes for P.E. the children run laps to and from the fence. Salazar, who is also a member of SASS, says she never opens the field-facing window—even when a skunk sprayed under her room, it stayed closed.
“The teachers that have retired sometimes come back and say, ‘What? You are still fighting this? I thought we took care of it in the ’90s,’” Salazar says. “But you know, the kids never get away from the pesticides. After they leave elementary school they go to a middle and high school in Pajaro. They are always exposed to it.”
Sometimes there are notices about nearby pesticide spraying, though Salazar says the notices aren’t always visible and there are some parents who can’t read.
“The farmers say, ‘it’s not our fault, why do they put the schools in the growing areas?’” Salazar says. “They get upset, because it’s part of the industry here. But we feel that if this was happening in the North County, where the children are Anglo, this would not be happening. It’s a social injustice. We are the canary in the coal mine, just like Cesar Chavez said.”