Strawberries, power, and science

Spring brings thoughts of strawberries...and pesticides. Photo by Leslie Willoughby

Spring brings thoughts of strawberries…and pesticides. Photo by Leslie Willoughby

Monterey County>> Fragrant, tender, and sweet, strawberries brighten produce aisles nationwide. The use of pesticides assures their abundance and affordable price. Yet the chemicals that protect the berries may extract costs beyond those paid by shoppers. They may harm workers who harvest the berries, as well as their children.

A quarter of America’s strawberries grow in Monterey County, California. Here, the month of May resounds with trucks laden with pallets of berries. They depart for other states and rumble through the night. During foggy mornings, brilliant beats of Mexican music uplift workers in the fields. And later in the day, the aroma of ripe fruit complements the warming air. That sweet scent is as memorable as the one that drifts from the nozzles of a passing copter: the odor of pesticides.

Strawberries ripen in the sun near Ohlone Elementary School. Photo by Leslie Willoughby

Strawberries ripen in the sun near Ohlone Elementary School. Photo by Leslie Willoughby

The air is also adrift with talk about the use of pesticides near schools. Monterey ranks first among California counties for the percent of students (25 percent) within a quarter-mile of the greatest poundage of pesticide use, according to a 2014 report by the California environmental health tracking program. The list of pesticides includes some that cause cancer, others that affect reproduction and development, and still others that contaminate the air.

“I remember when we first were surveying the staff and students about the effects that we were having after they sprayed,” says teacher Jenny Dowd of Ohlone Elementary school in Monterey County. “We had people with headaches and congestion and respiratory effects. I don’t want to minimize what’s happening to students, but I want to say it’s also happening to teachers.”

In California, regulations to control pesticide use vary by county. In many cases, it’s voluntary for farmers to notify a school as to when pesticides will be applied. To address growing concern among parents, teachers, and others, the California department of pesticide regulation has announced five workshops statewide. “DPR wants input from the public as it creates a statewide policy,” says Brian Leahy, DPR director, in a press release.

These meetings may give an opportunity for educators, parents, growers, the government, and activists to sort out how to have it all: a healthy strawberry industry and healthy communities. The path forward may include wider buffer zones around schools, mandatory warnings before spraying, and alternate farming methods that cut the need for chemical pesticides.

A workshop is scheduled to take place at the Monterey County seat, Salinas, June 2. To understand the issue, it may help to consider the historic context, the people affected, and the use of a single pesticide—strawberry fumigant 1,3-Dichloropropene—near Monterey County schools.

Concern over pesticide use is not new. In 1988, Cesar Chavez fasted for 36 days to bring attention to how pesticides affect farm laborers and their families. Chavez (1927 – 1993) received the Medal of Honor and is recognized as a prominent leader of America’s Latino people. He compared farm workers to the sensitive canaries that miners carried into coal mines. If a canary died, the workers knew there was a problem with the air. Because farm workers are exposed to pesticides during their work, they show the effects first, Chavez said.

Of 156,000 Salinas residents, three-fourths are Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census estimates. There’s a significant gap in average household income as well as employment rate between households that speak Spanish and those that do not, according to the City of Salinas General Plan.

That plan stated a policy “to reduce exposure to agricultural pesticides and other pollutants,” through specific actions – “Encourage employers and worker advocacy groups to work to reduce exposure to agricultural pesticides and other pollutants” … and “if necessary, modify … regulations to ensure schools, homes, and other sensitive receptors are a safe distance from agricultural fields.”

Almost one-fifth of Salinas’s jobs were agricultural in 2012. Some of those workers feel reluctant to advocate reductions in pesticide exposure. “I was a migratory farm worker. This touches me very deeply,” says Lucia Villarren, who attended a screening of the 2014 documentary Cesar’s Last Fast in Monterey County on April 30. “You can’t believe the pain in the back, from strawberry [picking]. But when people say, ‘Shall we get a petition, shall we go in public?’ a lot of people won’t talk about it because they’re thankful to have a job.”

Growers fumigate soil with 1,3-D before planting strawberries. The chemical controls small worms called nematodes, which damage roots. The pesticide is widely used because it one of few inexpensive choices available. The use of similar fumigants such as ethylene dibromide has been outlawed for this purpose, according to the U.S. EPA.

Exposure may be via inhalation, or by drinking contaminated water, but information about human exposure is limited. Based mainly on animal studies, EPA determined that 1,3-D is a probable human carcinogen. It is listed “as a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer under Proposition 65.” Exposure to 1,3-Dichloropropene should not exceed 0.03 milligrams per liter (0.03 mg/L), according to EPA.

Short-term exposure may irritate mucous membranes, make breathing difficult, and create chest pain. Long-term exposure may sensitize skin or damage mucous membranes and the bladder. Chronic exposure may also affect the forestomach, liver, and kidneys, or result in reduced weight, according to EPA.

Ohlone Elementary School in Pajaro Valley School District is within 1/4 mile of a ranch that uses 1,3-Dichloropropene pesticide. Photo by Leslie Willoughby

Ohlone Elementary School in Pajaro Valley School District is within 1/4 mile of a ranch that uses 1,3-Dichloropropene pesticide. Photo by Leslie Willoughby

The pesticide 1,3-D was applied at ranches that were within a quarter-mile of 16 Monterey County schools in 2010: Alisal Community, Alisal High, Bolsa Knolls Middle, Elkhorn Elementary, Everett Alvarez High, Gavilan View Middle, Hall District Elementary, La Joya Elementary, Loma Vista Elementary, McKinnon, New Republic Elementary, Ohlone Elementary, Oscar F. Loya Elementary, Pajaro Middle, San Vicente Elementary, and Santa Rita Elementary.

The Health Tracking Report cautions that use of a pesticide at a ranch within a quarter-mile of a school means only that the pesticide was used somewhere on that ranch, not necessarily that it was applied within a quarter-mile of a school.

Nevertheless, fumigants travel across the landscape. The effects for children have not been studied, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (updated March 12, 2015). And while this report considers one of the top 10 active ingredients applied by weight in Monterey County, no one has set a limit on exposure to combined pesticides. And no one knows the possible effects of long-term exposure to a combination of pesticides. “It’s not about science, it’s about power,” says Mark Weller of Californians for Pesticide Reform. “It’s about pushing the powers that be to do the right thing.”

Meanwhile, a teacher has proposed that a one-mile buffer zone around schools be turned into a laboratory to test safe, sustainable agriculture. Which goes to show the struggle may be about power and science.

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