Farmworker Community Health and Pesticides in the Golden State: Leadership or a Tarnished Record?

By Ana Mascareñas

This essay is in response to: How does our nation’s reliance on pesticides affect the health of those who plant and harvest our food?, cross-posted from PSR’s Environmental Health Policy Insitute

Half of US grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables come from California fields, which all depend on the hard work of approximately 700,000 farmworkers. The state’s approach to pesticide use has critical implications for workers and their families, as well as the rest of nation that often relies on the example of policies adopted in California. Unfortunately, many challenges remain in implementation and enforcement decisions that affect the health of farmworkers and surrounding communities. The Golden State’s reputation for leadership in environmental policy and protection of farmworkers has also been severely tarnished by the recent decision to register the soil fumigant methyl iodide.

California’s Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) houses the CA Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), which is responsible for evaluating, registering, and regulating all pesticides before sale or use in California. County agricultural commissioners enforce actions and conduct trainings at the local level, including inspecting the operations of growers and pest control operators, conducting pesticide incident investigations, and providing training to pesticide applicators.

While tracking and data collection is an important step in California’s farmworker protection program, gaping holes still exist that prevent such programs from actually protecting worker health. An example of this problem — and recent progress made – is a PSR-LA-co-sponsored bill that was signed into law last year: The Farmworker Health Act (AB 1963 – Nava). In 1974, California established the Medical Supervision Program, which required employers to medically monitor farmworkers handling organophosphate and carbamate pesticides for changes in cholinesterase levels (ChE, which maintains normal nerve function). This kind of biomonitoring is one of the only tools available to health professionals to monitor chronic pesticide exposure. While the 1974 program intended to flag pesticide exposure in workers through this regular testing, those results have not been used for action. The 2010 Farmworker Health Act creates a system of sharing the cholinesterase test results with pesticide regulators and the State Department of Public Health on an ongoing basis, which will allow the state and public to see warning signs and prevent further pesticide exposure.

A 2005 state measure, the Pesticide Exposure Drift Response Act (SB 391 – Florez), achieved some success in protecting residents who have been exposed to pesticides in non-occupational drift incidents, many of whom are farmworker families. The law requires county and state agencies to work together to include new pesticide drift response protocols in their emergency response plans – something which had not previously been in place – and established a penalty process for the medical expenses of persons affected by pesticide drift.

Additional air and biomonitoring tools also provide information about the pesticide exposure of farmworker families and surrounding communities. For example, the CHAMACOS study is a longitudinal cohort study examining pesticides and other factors in the environment and children’s health. Pregnant women living in the agricultural Salinas Valley are enrolled in the study and researchers follow children through age 12, measuring their exposures to pesticides and other chemicals to determine if exposures impact growth and development. This study has produced more than a dozen peer-reviewed research articles that indicate that high pesticide exposures among pregnant women in the area are routine and are related to poorer developmental outcomes among their children. Also, from 2004-2006, the Lindsay Project in Tulare County helped establish buffer zones for communities living near farms by presenting community-led sample air quality collections.

Farmworkers are a particularly vulnerable group, not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, and the workforce includes many undocumented immigrants. Farmworkers still receive poorer healthcare than most Californians, and conditions of poverty exacerbate the risks and consequences of pesticide exposure. According to the 2002 report, Fields of Poisoncollective bargaining agreements (union contracts) are the best way to secure the right to a living wage, protection from pesticide hazards, treatment for pesticide illness, and incident reporting. Unfortunately, just last month, California farmworkers experienced a major setback towards this goal when Governor Brown vetoed a measure that would have given workers an alternative to traditional, on-the-job polling place elections to decide on union representation. Under a new process, farm workers would have filled out state-issued ballots in privacy, decreasing the risk of employer intimidation influencing union elections. Without this private voting strategy, farmworkers are less likely to choose union representation, and therefore less likely to be protected from the health effects of heavy pesticide exposure.

The state’s vulnerability to corporate pressure also threatens California’s ability to make science-based decisions that protect the health of farmworkers and surrounding communities. In the face of major scientist concerns and public disapproval, Bush administration officials approved a new, dangerous pesticide, methyl iodide, in 2007, while the outgoing Schwarzenegger administration approved its use in California in December 2010. A panel of internationally–renowned scientists convened by California’s DPR conducted a formal review of methyl iodide that concluded that because of its high toxicity, any agricultural use of methyl iodide “would result in exposures to a large number of the public and thus would have a significant adverse impact on the public health,” and that “adequate control of human exposure would be difficult, if not impossible.”

Methyl iodide use in California would harm workers. Anne Katten, a pesticide and worker safety specialist at California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, points out that fieldworkers near methyl iodide fumigation sites would have significant risk for miscarriages and nervous system effects. According to PANNA (Pesticide Action Network of North America), since the US EPA approved methyl iodide in 2007, New York and Washington have declined to register this pesticide. California — whose strawberry fields represent the pesticide’s largest potential market — is the final, pivotal holdout preventing methyl iodide from gaining a real foothold in the US agricultural market. There have already been four methyl iodide applications in California. Responding to pressure from California advocates, the US EPA re-opened a methyl iodide review earlier this year, and more than 200,000 comments poured in against its registration. Californians are currently pushing Governor Brown to stop its use in the state and promote safer alternatives.

A major driving force behind pesticide reform in California is a statewide coalition of more than 185 organizations, founded in 1996, called Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR). Through its diverse, multi-interest coalition, CPR has challenged powerful political and economic forces. CPR’s platform includes eliminating the use of the most dangerous pesticides; reducing use of and reliance on all pesticides; supporting safer, ecologically sound and more socially just forms of pest management; and expanding and protecting the public’s right to know about pesticide use, exposure, and impacts. PSR-LA has been a member of CPR for the past 13 years, and the recent paper, Public Health and the Green Economy, also offers perspective and recommendations on how California and the rest of the nation can move forward with eliminating hazardous pesticides and growing a healthy, green economy for workers and communities.

Ana Mascareñas is committed to advancing the precautionary principle as the basis for public health and environmental policy. She is the Policy and Communications Coordinator with Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA), where she works to inform the medical community and policymakers about toxic threats, promote safer practices, and strengthen local community organizations to engage in meaningful public health and environmental advocacy. Ana studied human biology at Brown University and has worked in public service and for nonprofits in Los Angeles for the past 6 years. She comes from three generations of a California farmworker family.

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