After preparing her children for school early each morning, Juanita, a single mother of four, spends 10 hours picking strawberries in Watsonville for about $10 an hour.
“People don’t know the sacrifice it takes to bring that piece of fruit to your table,” she says, speaking through an interpreter at a friend’s house. “I’ve felt discriminated against and dismissed as a human being without feelings, as an animal in the mud, just because I don’t have papers.”
With an estimated 83 percent of the county’s farmworkers undocumented, Juanita says employees like herself don’t feel safe to speak up about poor working conditions and hazards like pesticide use.
“They spray pesticides in front and around us without any regard to the harms that come from it,” says Juanita, who asked not to use her real name. As the rain trickles behind the living room door of her friend’s home, she shares stories of coworkers vomiting and even fainting from the fumes.
But it isn’t just farmworkers facing the consequences of harmful pesticides—their children are also at risk. California’s Latino school children are 91 percent more likely than white children to attend school near the heaviest use of the most hazardous pesticides, and in Monterey County the number is 320 percent, according to a 2014 California Department of Public Health study.
“This situation is exactly like Flint, Michigan, only the agent is different and the population is all Latino. It’s environmental racism,” says Dr. Ann Lopez, an environmental scientist and executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families (CFF), based in Felton.
Concerns over pesticide applications expressed by groups like CFF led the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) to propose a new regulation last month looking to give nearby schools an extra layer of protection.
The proposal would prohibit pesticide applications within a quarter mile of public K-12 schools and child day-care facilities from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and would require growers to send advance notification when pesticides are applied.
Leaders at organizations like the CFF and Californians for Pesticide Reform doubt that the regulation is truly protective, and have instead been calling for a one-mile buffer zone, and an end to pesticide applications on weekdays.
A study from UC Berkeley took a close look at farmworker families in Salinas and found hundreds of children with health effects linked to pesticides. The study found chlorpyrifos contamination, a potent neurotoxin, in homes up to 1.8 miles from treated fields. And a 2014 UC Davis study found that pregnant women who lived within one mile of fields on which pesticides like chlorpyrifos were used had a 60 percent increased risk of having children with autism spectrum disorder. A 2011 Environmental Health Perspectives report found elevated pesticide concentrations in homes 0.75 miles from the application sites.
Another study from five years ago published by Environmental Health Perspectives looked at 1,565 nonoccupational pesticide drift cases, the technical term for when the chemicals spread from a farm. Eighty-five percent of the cases, according to the report, occurred within one mile of the source, while 51 percent occurred between a quarter mile and one mile. This suggests, activists argue, that the quarter-mile buffer would have only protected a mere 34 percent of these people.
Eight of the 10 most heavily used pesticides near schools persist in the environment for more than a week, according to a 2014 California Environmental Health Tracking Program report.
“This stuff sits in the field and just waits for the next air current to be blown into schools or residences. Children are constantly being exposed,” says Lopez. She adds that children are more susceptible to the negative effects of pesticides like chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin banned in 2001 by the Environmental Protection Agency for all residential use—but not agricultural use.
Last year, the DPR held a series of workshops around the state asking for input prior to drafting the regulation. Three were in the Monterey area, including in Salinas. The DPR has extended the deadline for public input to December of 2017, and it plans to host a workshop in Salinas this December. As of now, state pesticide regulators have rejected calls for a one-mile buffer zone.
“We considered the one-mile buffer zone and looked at what the activist groups had to show, and concluded that a quarter-mile is safe, and addressed their concerns,” says Charlotte Fadipe, assistant director of communications for the DPR.
Juan Hidalgo, Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner, agrees with the DPR that a quarter-mile buffer is sufficient. “This regulation actually does a lot, it goes beyond additional requirements we currently have,” he says. “It does a lot to prevent concerns from school teachers.”
Last month, he says, all local growers within a quarter-mile of schools verbally agreed to use fumigants on weekends only, after a meeting with teachers and parents. (Fumigants are a specific type of pesticide that are typically injected one foot into the soil and covered in a plastic tarp, however, the injected fumigant can still drift.) This year, there have only been five actions that have resulted in fines to growers for violations of pesticide use laws and regulations, says Hidalgo. “Growers here are quite proactive, most farms near schools try and do them outside of school hours or weekends,” he says.
Francisco Rodriguez, president of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, joins Lopez and other activists in calling for the one-mile buffer. Their main concern, he says, is with two fumigants, chloropicrin and telone, both known toxins. He adds that within the past month, the union has been more proactive about directly notifying parents when there is a scheduled application.
There is just one DPR-funded air monitoring machine in his district, leaving most schools unable to tell parents exactly what their children are being exposed to.
“We’re concerned with longer term exposure and what that does to the development of the child,” he says. Union leaders, he adds, have supported legislation this year providing incentives to growers around schools that move toward safer, organic farming—namely California Senate Bill 1247, or “Agricultural Innovation Zones: Voluntary Incentive Program.” Introduced by state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, the bill died before reaching a vote, and there are no plans to bring it back to the table. Still, activists like Lopez continue to call for a shift away from pesticides.
“The ideal is the transformation of agriculture,” says Lopez. “It’s completely unsustainable to allow the release of any of the toxic chemicals into the environment.”