How Keeping Your Food Bug-Free Is Hurting Countless Women

Expectant mothers and developing children can suffer the most from exposure to toxic ag chemicals. In California, women are fighting to change that.

Poisonous pest control chemicals sprayed on a field in the Salinas Valley, Calif. (Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 9, 2014· 8 MIN READ
Danielle L. Davis is a nonfiction writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Intentional, L.A. Weekly, and on various Internet platforms.

Teresa de Anda was watching Holyfield fight for the 1999 heavyweight championship. It was a typical Saturday afternoon in Earlimart, Calif., a small, rural town in the San Joaquin Valley that sits like a lost buoy in a sea of sweeping almond orchards. Many of de Anda’s neighbors were barbecuing with their families; her own four kids played in the backyard. From across the fields, a London-like fog drifted toward them.

At first, residents smelled something odd. The unfamiliar odor was quickly followed by a deluge of coughing as kids went reeling into their houses. “We can’t breathe!” they screamed. Eyes were red and watering, and fits of vomiting progressed from the young ones to the adults. Skin started burning. Vision blurred. Mothers made panicked calls to 911.

When emergency responders came to investigate, they saw signs posted on a nearby potato field indicating a recent application of the pesticide fumigant metam-sodium. They immediately left the scene to get their hazmat suits. Once exposed to the environment, metam-sodium degrades into methyl isothiocyanate—tear gas.

Left wheezing, unaided, and uninformed, many residents evacuated themselves, caravanning to nearby family. 911 dispatchers told people who felt very sick to go to the middle school for “treatment”—a blasting of high-pressure fire hose water on naked skin. Others shut themselves in their homes. Infants turned blue under the death-throttling grip of chemical asphyxiation. It took responders until evening to figure out a course of action and return to facilitate evacuation—no emergency protocol had yet been established for mass pesticide exposure. In the meantime, riot-grade tear gas continued to seep into the lungs of children and young mothers-to-be.

“That day changed people's lives,” said de Anda.

Workers box lettuce in the Central Valley, Calif.
(Photo: Inga Spence/Getty Images)

Modern pesticides have roots in weapons-grade poison. Many were adapted from chemicals engineered during World War II. Today, any pesticide sold or manufactured in the U.S. has to be registered with the EPA along with evidence that the product won’t pose an “unreasonable adverse effect” to human health or to the environment. The idea is that small amounts of exposure are safe. Twenty thousand chemicals have been registered with the agency to date; only 33 have had their use severely restricted.

The lopsided numbers are partly due to the difficulty of measuring the cost to human health. It can take generations to uncover problems. As childbearers, women shoulder the brunt of the cost brought by delayed regulation. More than a quarter of California’s 800,000 farmworkers are female, and millions of other women live in the valley towns surrounded by agrochemicals. During pregnancy, toxins harbored in their bodies can pass through the placenta and into the baby’s delicate, developing cells. Women who are expecting can be, in essence, a conduit of poison to the next generation.

The San Joaquin Valley, along with the rest of California’s Central Valley, is home to the world’s largest patch of Class I soil—the best land for farming there is. It makes up about 1 percent of the nation’s farmland but produces a quarter of its food supply. Last year the valley’s 8.6 million cultivated acres produced about $28 billion worth of product. Driving through the back roads of Tulare County, you’ll see almond-shell piles the size of small ski slopes or harvesters ripping thousands of carrots from the earth in a single pass.

Pesticides (and chemical fertilizers) are used in quantities that match the immensity of the output they help to create. In 2012, nearly 8.5 million pounds of metam-sodium was sprayed across California. The fumigant is injected into the soil, killing all living organisms within it, so that industrial monoculture crops can continue on a mass scale. When relating their experiences of sickness and injury to a pesticide awareness forum de Anda helped organize shortly after the Earlimart drift incident, local residents referred to the chemicals as “medicina—medicina por los árboles” (medicine for the trees).

“But for us as humans,” one community member testified at the forum, “it makes us sick.”

In a 15-year longitudinal study examining chemicals in the environment and children’s health, UC Berkeley Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) researchers found a strong correlation between pregnant women’s exposure levels to organophosphate pesticides, the most commonly used form of agricultural insecticide in the U.S., and their children’s neurodevelopment. First developed as nerve-gas agents during World War II, organophosphates kill insects by the same mechanism that sarin gas kills people—by causing nerves to fire uncontrollably.

“During [the] sensitive life stages [of in utero development, infancy, and early childhood], exposure can cause permanent brain injury at low levels that would have little or no adverse effects in an adult,” wrote Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Philip Landriga, dean for global health at Mount Sinai Hospital, in a study they published last month in Lancet Neurology.

A farmer sprays pecticides on crops in Santa Cruz, Calif. (Photo: David Gomez/Getty Images)

This brain injury can manifest in several ways, from greater risk of autism to slower reflexes to hyperactivity. The CHAMACOS study found that by age seven, kids with higher levels of prenatal exposure scored an average of seven points lower on IQ tests—the equivalent of being a half year behind their peers. Other studies on organophosphates and other pesticides have found associations between in utero exposure and birth defects or childhood cancers.

De Anda was born in Earlimart in 1959 and spent every school vacation from ages nine to 18 working with her father in the fields. She raised her own kids in the house she grew up in, the house she lives in today. After the drift incident, she quit her two-decade-long career as a caretaker and launched full steam into a life of activism for stricter pesticide control.

“I was so upset that three months after the accident my kids and the kids of my friends were still so sick,” she recounts. “They had constant ear infections, throat soreness, migraines, asthma, that continues to this day.”

One of her sons started showing signs of autism not long after the incident, and though she realizes it’s impossible to pinpoint that day as the cause, the literature she read about links to certain pesticides and health problems began to deeply upset her. She’s sure that growing up in a house flanked by almond orchards is the root of what seems to be a disproportionately high rate of cancer among her family and neighbors—her father, two uncles, and godfather all suffered from prostate cancer, while several nearby friends fought brain cancer. De Anda herself received a liver transplant last year to replace her cancerous one.

She fought to bring the drift incident to government officials’ attention and continued to fight after subsequent accidents in the nearby towns of Arvin (2002) and Weedpatch (2003) left hundreds ill. Each time, the director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation assured activists that “drift should not happen”—DPR’s official policy is that “substantial drift” (drift defined as “off-site movement of pesticides”) is not permitted.

There are practices that try to limit drift. Some fumigants require tarps to be placed over the treated soil so that the gas releases into the air slowly, over time, rather than all at once. Others mandate that the soil be irrigated immediately after application to help prevent the gas from rising. The DPR pesticide drift guide states that “application rules focus on ensuring that the fumigant dissipates slowly so that it doesn’t build up to harmful levels.” Applying fumigants when the weather conditions could make drift more likely, such as on a windy day, is to be avoided.

“Ag was here first,” de Anda said of the pesticide-laden fields’ proximities to homes and schools. “And it’s a multibillion-dollar industry.”

“But all of that is far from foolproof,” said Tracey Brieger, codirector of Californians for Pesticide Reform. “It’s basically impossible to contain a gas.”

De Anda and others’ initial efforts to change policy resulted in the passage in 2004 of California’s Pesticide Drift Exposure Response Act, which established emergency protocol for drift incidents. The number of reported accidents in Tulare County has declined over the last decade, partly thanks to activists' applying pressure on agencies for better enforcement. But while rates of large-scale accidents have decreased, smaller quantities of gas regularly and inevitably move from target sites—the silent, unnoticed drift—which pesticide reform leaders are worried causes substantial harm in communities experiencing prolonged, intermittent exposure.

CHAMACOS suggests that this is the case, as does a study done by Pesticide Action Network, which analyzed hundreds of samples taken from multiple sites over three years in the Tulare County town of Lindsay. Lindsay’s orange groves wrap around the 12,000-population town’s elementary and high schools, butting right up against swing sets and basketball courts. Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide that is classified as “very highly toxic” to birds and freshwater fish and “moderately toxic” to mammals, was found in the vast majority of samples, many of which were taken from school premises. About a quarter showed levels that exceeded EPA’s “level of concern” for infants. (Chlorpyrifos was banned for home use in 2000 following more than 200 reports of poisonings, but it is still used widely in agriculture.)

“Ag was here first,” de Anda said of the pesticide-laden fields’ proximity to homes and schools. “And it’s a multibillion-dollar industry.”

Aerial view near Crow's Landing in California's Central Valley. (Photo: Chris Saulit/Getty Images)

Indeed, suburban sprawl has converted an average of 30,000 agricultural acres per year to non-agricultural uses in California since the 1980s, and the San Joaquin Valley’s total population is predicted to double by 2050. That means many more homes and schools will continue to find themselves amid the fields, the margins between city dwellers and industrial agriculture ever shrinking.

It’s a reality that translates into cultural practice throughout the valley. Residents shut windows and keep kids inside when they smell a tang in the air or when they see spray tractors nearby. Those who work directly in the fields—in close contact with plants and soil that are regularly treated with chemicals—don’t hug their kids after work until they shower. They leave their boots outside the house and wash their clothes in loads separate from the rest of the family’s laundry.

It’s next to impossible for a pregnant worker to forge the same protective buffer between toxins and her unborn baby. Out of economic necessity, she is often working the fields until just days before giving birth, and her child-to-be is right there with her, absorbing the chemicals she breathes in during the most crucial stages of neurodevelopment.

“Some doctors here say that we shouldn’t be out there, working in that environment, especially in the first trimester,” said one Lindsay orange picker, who preferred to remain anonymous. “But you know, we have to. It’s seasonal work; you have to take what you can get to make your living, even though you’re risking your baby.”

A criticism of CHAMACOS and similar studies is that there is no proof of a cause-and-effect relationship. In other words, they don’t prove that pesticide A produced health effect B.

“To make a causal link at an individual level is not possible, but to say that certain pesticides can cause certain health effects on a population level is definitely possible—strong science supports that,” said Brieger.

For instance, in Argentina’s farming communities, which started adopting American biotechnology in 1996, cancer rates are two to four times higher than the national average, and rates of hypothyroidism and chronic respiratory illness are elevated as well. In one province, birth defects quadrupled in the decade after agrochemicals dramatically expanded the nation’s farming.

“Can we say that Teresa’s son’s autism is 100 percent related to the fact that he’s lived next to pesticides his whole life? We can’t say that,” Brieger said. “But can we say that certain pesticides are very strongly linked to autism? Absolutely we can.”

CPR’s position is that fumigants in particular are simply too dangerous to be on the market. Brieger and her team are pushing for the state to create a program to phase them out by 2020 and, in the meantime, to invest in research to ensure that safe alternatives are market ready and at scale. Activists hope that studies such as Rodale Institute’s 30-year Farming Systems Trial, which found that organic farming can be as productive as and less expensive than conventional techniques, might help motivate change.

Charlotte Fadipe, DPR communications director, assures that “California has the most comprehensive pesticide regulatory program in the world” and that the agency takes rigorous measures to regularly consider new scientific literature on pesticides and health. Though the department believes that “fumigants are an effective agricultural tool that can be used in a safe, protective manner,” it has also invested millions of dollars in research to see if it can find alternatives, “because [fumigants] are so challenging.”

“As of yet, we don’t have a silver bullet,” said Fadipe.

De Anda wants to see a future in which all toxic pesticides are banned from the market. She’s hopeful that, similar to the way we cast a shameful, retroactive glance at widespread mercury or lead use, in 20 years we’ll look back and think, as she puts it, “How in the hell could we have let this happen?”