Health & Safety, Pesticides

Salinas: Salad Bowl or Pesticide Bowl of the World?

From Blogs.KQED.org, Patricia Carillo, 21 Sept 2011.

A farm in Salinas, California. (Photo: Patricia Carrillo)

A farm in Salinas, California. (Photo: Patricia Carrillo)

In Salinas, pesticide exposure is a major concern. Salinas is an agricultural community and pesticides are widely used. The health effects of pesticide exposure are numerous, ranging from asthma, birth defects, hormone disruptions, neurological effects and cancer. According to the Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the U.S. [PDF], pesticide exposure is among the primary issues that affect the farmworker population. But farmworkers are not the only ones affected: residents of agriculture communities can also become exposed as a result of pesticide drift. Pesticide drift ends up on nearby playgrounds and furniture and puts the rest of the population in danger. According to the Pesticide Action Network, some of the most toxic pesticides in use in the U.S. today are also the most drift prone.

Farmworkers who enter fields that have been sprayed recently bring pesticide residue home on their clothing and skin, thereby exposing their children to pesticides also. In 1998, the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health Research created the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) to investigate the potential effects of pesticides on growth, neuro development and respiratory disease in children living in the Salinas Valley. The group found that pesticides are harming the children of Salinas. Children whose mothers were exposed to higher levels of pesticides had the worst mental development and had poorer attention span and autism spectrum behavior. Children of women that were exposed to pesticides during pregnancy will have lower IQs than those that have not been exposed.

After heated debate from environmental groups, methyl iodide, a pesticide used in strawberry production, was approved for use by Governor Schwarzenegger before he left office. Methyl iodide is included on California’s official list of cancer-causing chemicals [PDF]. It is a pesticide so toxic that it is used to induce cancer in laboratory animals. Despite this, the state approved its use allowing exposure levels of more than 100 times higher than what some scientists believe to be safe.

Farmworker advocacy groups and environmental groups were quick to react. California Rural Legal Assistance, based in Salinas, and Earthjustice filed a suit against California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR), arguing that methyl iodide may cause cancer and miscarriages in farmworkers. As a result of the lawsuit, the CDPR was forced to release internal documents that show that even its own internal scientific advisory panel did not support the approval of the pesticides’ use in strawberry production and raised concerns that the pesticide could poison the air and water.

California’s new Governor, Jerry Brown, is being urged by the public to ban the use of methyl iodide. A coalition of groups submitted 53,000 comments urging that he prevent the use of the pesticide. One of the comments posted to Earthjustice came from a Salinas resident and farmworker, Jose Hidalgo. Hidalgo argues that it is the farmworkers like himself who become sick:

“As a strawberry picker, I have worked near many pesticide applications. First we smell the pesticides. Then our eyes burn, our noses run and our throats hurt. I’m against using methyl iodide because it’s already too dangerous in the fields, we don’t need new, even more dangerous, toxins.”

Hidalgo is only one person, but his story illustrates the story of all of the farmworkers in the Salinas Valley who are exposed to pesticides. “If this decision is allowed to stand, strawberries may very well become the new poster child for giving farmworkers cancer and late term miscarriages.” Unfortunately the farmworker population will be the group that suffers some of the most tragic consequences of methyl iodide exposure.

Source: Blogs.KQED.org, “Salinas: Salad Bowl or Pesticide Bowl of the World?” by Patricia Carillo, 21 Sept 2011.

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