Despite decades of research linking pesticide drift to health harm, regulation remains weak and leaves the most vulnerable with few protections.
From Environmental Health News
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Yanely Martínez was at work in 2017 when she received a phone call from her son’s school in Greenfield, an agricultural city in California’s Salinas Valley. Victor, 10, was having a severe asthma attack and his inhaler was nowhere to be found.
Martínez, an educator, soon realized pesticides were the likely culprit. Victor smelled something sweet before he had trouble breathing — a smell associated with one of the pesticides local activists were trying to get banned at the time. Later, Martínez discovered a field adjacent to the school had been fumigated before dawn.
“The application was at 4 a.m., and he got sick at 1 p.m. That’s how long the pesticide stays in the air,” she said.
Hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides are applied to California crops each year, the largest share of agricultural pesticide use in the United States, where an estimated one billion pounds are applied annually. According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, 209 million pounds of active ingredients found in pesticides were applied in the state during 2018 alone.
Across the country, communities like Greenfield are largely neglected by state and federal regulators when it comes to addressing pesticide drift, leaving residents to battle county by county to find out how pesticides are affecting local air quality and to demand stronger protections.
There are no federal limits restricting the amount of agricultural pesticide mixtures allowed in the air. Despite pesticide links to health effects including nausea, headaches, asthma attacks, cancer, lower IQ and learning disabilities like autism, change has been slow, piecemeal and often driven by those most affected.
Pesticide use and sale is regulated by different agencies, beginning with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which evaluates safety based on potential harm to people and environment, and down the line by state regulatory agencies and counties, depending on the patchwork of laws in each state.
But despite myriad laws intended to minimize pesticides’ harm to people and the environment, a growing body of research points to the disproportionately adverse effects of pesticides on people of color, particularly Latinos.
“Disparity on pesticide exposure has been documented. It’s a problem,” said toxicologist Alexis Temkin, co-author of a recent study by the Environmental Working Group examining pesticide exposure in Ventura County, a significant producer of berries, citrus and vegetables about 250 miles down the Pacific coast from the Salinas Valley. The study found that areas of the county with higher percentages of Latinos and low-income residents were exposed to larger quantities of toxic pesticides.
It’s not just Ventura. A 2015 study about the impacts of pesticides in California communities of color, published by the American Journal of Public Health, found that pesticide use was the pollution type with the greatest racial, ethnic and income disparities in the state.