In the early morning of June 22, 2017, 18 farmworkers outside of Salinas were rushed to the hospital. One woman vomited, and others were struck by nausea and dizziness after pesticides from a nearby farm drifted into the field where they were working.
The next day, 17 of those workers were back at work. Only the woman who threw up was absent, Monterey County Weekly reported. The incident helped solidify Monterey County, which borders Santa Cruz County, as the state’s second-worst county for pesticide-related illness in 2017.
Now, new data released by the California Department of Pesticide Regulations reveals that pesticide use in California remains at a near-record high as of 2018. Like the insecticides that landed those farmworkers in the hospital, some of these pesticides are detrimental to human health and the environment.
“California might be the leader of pesticide regulation in the nation, but it’s the leader of a poorly regulated nation,” says Héctor Calderón, an organic farmer and community organizer with Safe Ag Safe Schools. “Our communities and people pay with their health—especially farmworker families.”
According to a Jan. 21 press release by the advocacy group Californians for Pesticide Reform, of which Safe Ag Safe Schools is a member, the burden of pesticide use falls most heavily on low-income people of color. Using data from 2018, the group found that California counties with a majority Latinx population use nine times more pesticides per person than counties with fewer than 24% Latinx residents.
The two most heavily-used pesticides in Santa Cruz in 2018 were soil fumigants, a type of pesticide used by berry growers to clear the soil of pathogens and pests. Fumigants are used once a year and are a lifeline for berry growers. They are so essential that even though the popular soil fumigant methyl bromide was banned in 1987 by the Montreal Protocol because it destroys the ozone layer, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to issue some permits under certain circumstances. Growers in Santa Cruz must also secure permits to use soil fumigants and other restricted pesticides.
“The use of restricted materials in our county is relatively low,” says David Sanford, the deputy agriculture commissioner for Santa Cruz County. For example, the department only received one request to use methyl bromide in 2020. Sanford, who used to work for Monterey County, says that growers take safety and sustainability very seriously in Santa Cruz.
“It’s a neat county to work in because we have very conscientious growers,” he says. “With the amount of regulation that’s in place and the work our office does, I feel that the public is incredibly safe when it comes to the use of agricultural pesticides.”
Others are not so sure. The top pesticide applied in Santa Cruz County is the soil fumigant chloropicrin (536,745 lb. applied in 2018), a respiratory irritant originally used as a chemical agent during World War I and characterized by the CDC as a type of tear gas. The second-most applied pesticide, also a fumigant, is a suspected carcinogen.
Farmworkers use protective gear when these restricted materials are applied, but advocates worry that these measures are insufficient. On Jan. 19, Safe Ag Safe Schools sent a letter to the agriculture commissioner’s office requesting that the department inform the public when farmers plan to apply hazardous materials to their fields.
“By world standards, our pesticide regulations are weak, and we’re seeing even more drift-prone carcinogenic poisons applied than ever before in recent years in Santa Cruz County,” the letter states. “We urge you to give us a better chance of taking care of ourselves by posting restricted pesticide notices of intent online and in real-time.”
Calderón, who drafted the letter, says that notices of intent would help farmworkers better protect themselves, especially if hazardous materials drift into neighboring fields. It might also help doctors and nurses diagnose pesticide-related illness more quickly, and allow parents and schools to protect children with respiratory illness from being exposed to irritants like chloropicrin.
So far, Calderón says he has received no response to his request. Sanford says he has received the letter and that the state is looking into the matter.
“The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) is currently looking into developing a statewide [notice of intent] notification system,” Sanford says in an email. “With a system implemented and supported by the state, our department would anticipate more resources to manage the program locally.”
Calderón and other advocates aren’t interested in waiting. Safe Ag Safe Schools is planning on taking the matter up with the county Board of Supervisors, though they haven’t yet settled on a date. Calderón, himself a child of immigrants and farmer of color, hopes that people in Santa Cruz will show up to the meeting to support the rights of workers and communities that supply them with food.
“I would like to see people take this issue more seriously,” he says. “Folks in Metro [Santa Cruz] should be more concerned about what’s going on in the south county.”