Maria Castro has worked in Kern County’s fields for 14 years, since her family moved to Delano from Mexico when she was 16 years old. She started working as a grape harvester two days after her arrival.
She soon noticed a weird scent on her clothes that wouldn’t come off, even after washing. Her brother-in-law told her it was sulfur that growers applied to fields to help the grapes grow faster.
“They never really tell us the names of the pesticides,” said Castro, “or their dangers.”
But Castro, who asked that her name be changed for this story because she's in the country illegally, learned first-hand about the health issues that come with exposure to pesticides.
She’s noticed that soon after chemical applications on or near where she’s working, she feels nauseous and dizzy. Sometimes she vomits. She said she’s seen co-workers faint.
One of the more dangerous chemicals workers like Castro are exposed to is Chlorpyrifos, a common and highly toxic organophosphate pesticide produced by Dow Chemical. Symptoms of exposure include nausea, dizziness, confusion and, in the highest levels of exposure, respiratory paralysis and death.
Despite controls put in place by the state EPA office, exposure to dangerous levels of the chemical do happen. In May, a group of farmworkers in Kern County was exposed to dangerously high levels of chlorpyrifos when it drifted from a nearby field. In August, Kern County saw a second incident, also involving chlorpyrifos.
And in the CDPR’s most recent air monitoring report, released in August, data indicated that for a four-week period the chlorpyrifos air concentration at a site in Shafter was 18 times higher than the EPA’s “level of concern” for pregnant women, as calculated in its Chlorpyrifos 2016 Revised Human Health Risk Assessment, published before the department reversed course on its proposed ban.
Researchers have identified exposure to organophosphate pesticides such as chlorpyrifos as a health threat. In 2011, three studies found a link between levels of prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides and lower IQ in the children at the age of 7, in both rural and urban settings. A 2014 study from the UC Davis MIND Institute found that pregnant women who lived near fields where organophosphate pesticides, including chlorpyrifos, were sprayed saw an elevated risk of their children being born on the autism spectrum.
EPA DROPS PROPOSED BAN
The EPA’s 2016 Revised Human Health Risk Assessment of the popular pesticide found that there are no safe uses of the pesticide. The EPA had been set to ban the pesticide until it announced at the end of the review period, in March 2017, that it would reverse course.
In his announcement, newly-appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said that the agency was “returning to using sound science in decision making.”
Paul Towers, organizing director and policy advocate at the Pesticide Action Network North America (one of the organizations that has been pushing for a ban on the pesticide), said “the science has been in a long time, and it’s only getting stronger.”
More concerning than cases of overt exposure are the low levels of ongoing exposure faced by people living and working in agricultural communities, according to Towers.
“Low levels of ongoing exposure don’t send a person to the hospital, and it’s difficult to observe and diagnose,” said Towers. That’s true of many different pesticides commonly used in agriculture, he noted, not just chlorpyrifos.
This exposure can occur through dust or residue that can blow into homes and schools near agriculture, or through residue left on produce.
According to a 2014 California Department of Public Health study, more than half a million pounds of pesticides of public health concern were applied within a quarter mile of public schools in the 15 counties with the most agricultural pesticide use; more than 118,000 students attended the schools within a quarter mile of the highest levels of pesticide application. Hispanic children were significantly more likely than their white peers to attend schools near fields where pesticides were being applied.
MORE PROTECTIONS NEEDED, ADVOCATES SAY
Chlorpyrifos is considered a “restricted use pesticide” in California, which means there is a significant number of additional rules and restrictions for how and when the pesticide can be used, beyond those enforced by the federal EPA. In Kern County, where the pesticide is regularly used (the county used more than 285,000 tons in 2015), those rules and regulations are even stricter.
The Environmental Health Division under the Kern County Department of Public Health Services has a robust response system to notice of possible dangerous pesticide exposure, including decontamination and medical treatment, with prevention as a main focus of the department, according to its director, Donna Fenton.
Though rare, incidents like the two most recent ones in Kern County, where the pesticide drifted from a nearby field, still happen.
This is at least partly because of the difficulties of coordinating efforts to keep the public safe and enforcing regulations. In the May 2 incident in Kern County, for example, the companies fined for the pesticide drift were not tied to the workers who were exposed to the pesticide.
Moreover, there’s no way to count how many incidents of improper pesticide exposure go unreported, explained Eriberto Fernandez, an organizer with the United Farm Workers Foundation.
“There’s a lot of information farmworkers don’t have [about pesticides], because employers don’t train their employees before a harvest, or there’s not a lot of awareness among farmworkers of what to do or who to call,” he said.
Even so, making these reports isn’t always a viable option.
As Fernandez noted, the laws on the books are not always the laws in the fields.
“Some farmworkers are afraid to report pesticide exposure because they’re afraid of being blacklisted or reprimanded,” said Fernandez.
Castro said that while she and her co-workers do report their possible exposure to pesticides, it’s rare that the foreman then reports that incident to their supervisors. When supervisors are made aware, they usually just move the workers to a different area.
“By then, we’re already sprayed and soiled in chemicals,” said Castro.
CALIFORNIA CONSIDERS MORE RESTRICTIONS
Advocates, including PANNA, are now asking California, which uses more chlorpyrifos than any other state (1.1 million tons in 2015), to ban the pesticide at the state level.
Charlotte Fadipe, spokesperson for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR), which is part of the California EPA, said that her department is examining chlorpyrifos to see if more restrictions are necessary.
The CDPR encourages growers to manage and solve pest problems using natural resources as an alternative to chemical pesticides, but growers are often hesitant to make the switch, according to Fadipe.
“If you’re a grower and growing on hundreds of acres, employing hundreds of people, including drivers and pickers, you want certainty that if you switch, it’s going to work,” said Fadipe.
Traditionally used pesticides like chlorpyrifos provide both certainty and efficiency. Alternative methods can take months or seasons and require additional resources to work. They are less efficient.
There has been some recent movement in California toward increased state restrictions on chlorpyrifos. After the CDPR released an updated draft risk assessment of chlorpyrifos on Aug. 18, 2017, the California EPA announced it will begin a public and scientific review of the document, which could lead to increased restrictions, though those restrictions might not come until December 2018, after the comment and review process is completed.
The CDPR will provide interim recommendations to county agricultural commissioners Sept. 15.
Advocates say this is not enough. Representatives from Californians for Pesticide Reform and United Farm Workers issued a joint statement that criticized the risk assessment’s failure to consider the pesticide’s possible brain harming effects.
While action on chlorpyrifos might be stuck in administrative limbo, the lives of Castro and others working and living near agriculture must continue.
Castro has to pick up her children immediately after work, which means that she and her children must sit in the car with her soiled clothes as they drive home.
One time, her daughter complained of being “itchy all over,” and asked if it was the chemicals causing it.
“I told her maybe and that she should shower as soon as she gets home,” said Castro.
Often, Castro said, her children complain of the smell when they get in the car.
“All I can say is you better study hard so you can prepare yourselves,” she said.