Poison in the Wind

by Michelle Burkhart

Pesticides sicken residents as neighborhoods sprawl into agricultural land

 

SALINAS, California — From the front windows of their new house, Yesenia and José Castillo can see gently rolling strawberry fields covered in black tarps. Steep green hills rise behind the fields. When the couple first moved to the edge of the city of Salinas — known as the nation’s salad bowl — they loved the view. Sometimes, at night, when the moon reflected off the tarps, the fields looked like a vast ocean.

But last year, their feelings changed. Now, whenever a fresh layer of tarps is rolled over the fields, the Castillos close their windows and think twice about letting their young daughters play outside.

Late on the evening of Oct. 5, 2005, the heat of an Indian summer day still hung in the air. The weather was unusual; the wind, which usually blows from the ocean — about 10 miles to the west — to the mountains, was blowing in the opposite direction. Earlier that day, workers had used irrigation drip lines to apply a soil sterilizer called chloropicrin to the tarp-covered fields. The tarps were meant to prevent the chloropicrin, which is also used in tear gas, from escaping into the air.

After the farm manager and workers completed the application, they flushed out the pipes before turning on the above-tarp sprinkler system. They had no idea that chloropicrin remained in a dead-end part of the pipe. But when the overhead sprinklers came on, a chemical cloud wafted out, drifting down a shallow ravine that runs alongside the Castillos’ house.

The Castillos, who were watching TV, felt their eyes begin to burn. "I just couldn’t take it," says José. Coughing, he hurried to the bathroom to flush his reddened eyes with water. Fifteen people — some living as far as two miles from the fields — called 911 that night, and firefighters and the county’s hazardous materials team rushed in. At least 336 other residents experienced burning eyes, nausea, vomiting, or difficulty in breathing; 14 people sought medical attention within the next few days.

Bruce Welden, a supervisor with the Monterey County Department of Health, was on the scene that night. He says the incident could have been worse if more of the chemical had escaped, nearby schools had been in session, or more people had left their windows open. "Newborn babies, young children, senior citizens: They’re very sensitive," he says. "If you get an allergic reaction triggered or an asthma attack, that’s a life-threatening event."

The episode was only the most recent large drift of an agricultural pesticide into a California neighborhood. Historically, farmworkers have borne the brunt of such accidents (HCN, 9/29/03: Harvesting Poison). But increasingly, residents are being exposed as more and more towns sprawl into the state’s farmland. Farmers and residents are searching for a solution, while some citizens’ groups and California lawmakers are struggling to improve the state’s regulatory system.

 

California’s conundrum

California leads the nation both in farm production value and pesticide use. It also has the strictest pesticide regulations. Still, the state averages one major pesticide-drift incident a year.

In 2000, for example, pesticide drifted from a farm into a school in coastal Ventura County, sending students and teachers home. However, most drift incidents have happened in the Central Valley, which produces half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. The southern Central Valley, called the San Joaquin Valley, is the fastest-growing part of the state; by 2040, its population is expected to double to nearly 7 million people.

The San Joaquin Valley has also been especially accident-prone, particularly in Kern County near Bakersfield. In 1999, pesticide drift in Earlimart made 178 people ill. In 2002, metam sodium drifted into Arvin, affecting 270 people. And in 2003, escaping chloropicrin made 235 people sick on two consecutive evenings in Lamont.

With more people moving to California than any other state in the West, a growing number are at risk from agricultural chemicals. Some 13 percent of all cropland in the state is adjacent to urban areas, according to Alvin Sokolow at the University of California’s Agricultural Issues Center in Davis. "As cities expand into agricultural areas, it’s always a difficult issue," says Gil Haro, the city of Fresno’s planning manager. "You have cities impinging on an industry that’s a main employer in the Central Valley, and at the same time homes are being built for people that will have to deal with the spraying and dust."

David Moore, interim county commissioner for Kern County, agrees that it’s a tough situation. "The grower didn’t invite that development, but they’re definitely impacted by it," he says. "The agricultural-urban interface moves with every development. Each time, we get a grower who hasn’t dealt with the issues before." The same is true for the residents that move next door, Moore says. "The neighbors are attracted by the greenbelt that agriculture provides, and (agriculture’s) downsides are not always immediately apparent."

All sides are seeking ways to help farming and development co-exist. Community advocates say it’s important to create buffer zones around farms and to have growers and their neighbors write agreements about spraying times.

But there’s a cultural divide between the Central Valley and the coast, says Ray Chavira, a scientist who studies pesticide migration for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "The coastal areas of California are much more progressive and compliance-oriented," he says. "The Central Valley is not as in tune with development issues; they still see (themselves) as being a rural area."

 

Legislating a way out?

Chavira says that statewide regulations would help promote consistency in how counties implement pesticide laws. State lawmakers have taken some action in response to a growing awareness of the problem, driven partly by citizens’ groups such as Californians for Pesticide Reform and the Pesticide Action Network. But agriculture still wields considerable influence in the Legislature and the governor’s office.

And many farm groups shy away from new regulations, which they see as increasing their costs. "This is part of a bigger picture that could be characterized as death by a thousand cuts," says Bob Perkins, head of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. "The smaller farms are being weeded out because they can’t economically compete and meet all these requirements."

In 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, signed into law the Pesticide Drift Exposure Response Act, introduced by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter. The law requires the responsible party — usually the farmer or pesticide applicator — to reimburse victims for medical bills related to incidents not covered by existing workers’ compensation laws.

However, many contend that the central problem is not the regulations but the lack of enforcement. During the 2003-’04 fiscal year, California agricultural commissioners issued 6,152 letters of warning or notices for agricultural pesticide safety violations, but handed out only 582 fines. Many violations are not even reported in the first place.

In response, Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, introduced the Pesticide Safety Enforcement bill, which established deadlines for pesticide-related investigations and penalties for violations, only to see it vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger last October. In place of the bill, the governor directed the Department of Pesticide Regulations to adopt a weaker Enforcement Response Policy, which, among other omissions, provides no right of appeal for victims.

Sen. Florez, who represents the southern Central Valley, is one of the first California legislators to make a sustained effort to propose laws that will protect residents from pesticide drift. Last year, he introduced a bill that would have required farmers to notify adjacent residents before applying dangerous pesticides. But in January, that bill, too, failed in committee.

 

Act locally — or globally?

Some communities have taken matters into their own hands. Coastal Ventura County, which has 90 schools within a half-mile of agricultural lands, lets schools out during major spraying times and has put conditions on pesticide permits for farms adjacent to schools. The agricultural commissioner’s office lobbies to ensure that schools aren’t built near established farming areas, and they recommend mitigation efforts, such as buffer zones and conditional-use permits, for developments that abut long-term agriculture.

Still, "you can’t get to zero," says Eric Lauritzen, the agricultural commissioner for Monterey County. "We strive for zero events like (the Salinas incident), but I don’t think you can build a regulatory program that will address or prevent any kind of accident."

Besides the acute effects that arise from accidents or violations, there are also concerns about the chronic effects — farm neighbors may be exposed to pesticides at low levels a good portion of the year. Fumigants such as chloropicrin are designed to disperse quickly, Chavira says. Tarps are put over fields to contain the pesticide when it’s most volatile, he explains, but, on average, 50 to 90 percent will eventually off-gas into the air.

Some experts point out that the only surefire solution is to use non-toxic chemicals, because there is always the potential for accidents. "Even if you follow the label," says Chavira, "you will still have mistakes."

The Monterey County district attorney’s office is still investigating the Salinas incident. Bruce Welden, the Monterey County hazardous materials specialist, says it is time for the agricultural community — which is facing economic pressure to do everything faster and cheaper — to slow down.

"With all these people living next door, they can’t do that. They need to do it slower, better, and more carefully, to make sure that nothing ever happens, because you can’t afford any slip-ups," he says. "I think people would be willing to pay a little more for a head of lettuce to be able to sleep safely in their beds at night and not have to get gassed out."

 

The author, a former HCN intern, reports for the Gunnison Country Times in Gunnison, Colorado.

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