Catching the Drift Salinas Valley residents live with pesticides beyond the fields

Photo by Carlos Rene Castro


By Diego Picazo
Monterey County Youth Media

The Salinas Valley is known for its agriculture and rolling fields enclosed by mountains. Although residents have a front row seat for these breathtaking views, it comes with a steep price.

In 2009, a chloropicrin leak spread more than 3 miles from its initial application site in North Monterey County. Chloropicrin is a fumigant used for defending plant roots from insects and fungi, and is a key ingredient for making tear gas.

In the 2009 incident, the wind picked up the gas with ease, affecting hundreds of people and animals and spreading to other crops.

Salinas Valley residents have come into contact with pesticides for decades. Well-known ways of becoming exposed to these chemicals include breathing the air after a pesticide application, eating unwashed produce and working in, or being around someone who came back from work in the fields. For generations, these were seen as the main points of contact, but today we know much more about pesticides and how we come into contact with them.

Pesticide particles can attach themselves to virtually everything they land on, and we know that they can also be present in the environment for weeks after their initial application.

“California has the most robust pesticide program and comprehensive set of pesticide protections in the country,” Charlotte Fadipe, assistant director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR), explained in an email. (Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales declined to answer specific questions about the subject.)

Besides the regulations and protections placed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, California almost always adds its own state regulations for new pesticides, and then counties format those regulations so they do not conflict with pre-existing protections in the local environment. This process is a lengthy one, and depending on how complex an issue is, can take years to complete.

Until the goals of organizations pushing for better pesticide regulations are met, Salinas Valley residents will continue to face a plethora of health risks.

These organizations have been fighting for additions to the current rules and regulations for years. One regulation that has been pushed for several years is the implementation of buffer zones between fields and residential areas. Buffer zones would be at least one mile wide in order to protect towns and other fields by giving more room for pesticides to dissipate.

Buffer zones are still a topic of debate, and only a handful of areas have implemented their use.

“Pesticides drift for miles… days and weeks after application,” says Mark Weller, co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform. “There is no current regulation that recognizes this fact.”

“Drift” is a term used for any pesticide residue or particles which drift into towns and residential areas, and other fields. It can occur during, immediately after, or long after the initial pesticide application. Drift can cling to almost anything it comes into contact with, and when you factor in the strong winds that constantly blow through the Salinas Valley, pesticide drift here is much more prevalent, and can be far more dangerous than in other locations.

In March, a hearing was held in Greenfield about banning chlorpyrifos (a pesticide that can cause serious health problems), and implementing buffer zones in the area. The organization Safe Ag Safe Schools (SASS) attended, and is currently frontrunning the push to ban use of the pesticide in California. The United Farm Workers and SASS say chlorpyrifos causes birth defects, cancer, vomiting, muscle cramps, and tremors in workers who inhaled the pesticide.

Wes White, a self-described “community enthusiast” who also attended the hearing, says that even with 1-mile buffer zone notices that pesticides will be sprayed, avoiding contact with the pesticide is nearly impossible. At schools like Elkhorn Elementary in Castroville, and towns like Greenfield, the scent of the pesticide is prevalent in the air, he says.

The cities and towns in the Salinas Valley are surrounded by fields and constantly experience high wind speeds. These two factors can spell disaster for residents as the wind easily picks up dirt, dust, leaves and other small objects that can be coated with pesticides. While safety measures are taken to ensure as little drift as possible, the high wind speeds in the valley have a big impact on the amount of drift going into residential areas.

The regulations for this pesticide mandate that the wind speeds be under 10 miles per hour on the first day of application, and the weather must be “favorable” 48 hours after the application.

If growers try to follow these regulations almost anywhere in the Salinas Valley, it seems impossible to apply the pesticide at all — yet its application still occurs in these areas. This is because wind speeds are so sporadic that the only window for application is, at most, about 11 hours at night.

Eleven hours may seem like a decent window, but wind speeds during this time fluctuate between 7 and 9 miles per hour, and can reach nearly 20 miles per hour once those 11 hours are up. Eleven hours might be enough time for the pesticide to dry, but growers may be dealing with other fields that need spraying, sprayed dirt picked up by machinery, or not having enough machines to spray multiple fields within the same window. This means growers either need to speed up the process or risk spraying when winds begin to pick up.

“Hundreds of farmworkers are acutely poisoned in California every year, and untold thousands are likely damaged permanently by long-term exposure,” said Weller of Californians for Pesticide Reform, referring to the effectiveness of the state’s safety rules and regulations that mitigate pesticide drift. “If drift mitigation were working, these illnesses wouldn’t continue.”

The illnesses he’s talking about are referenced in the findings of the UC Berkeley’s CHAMACOS (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas) research team. The team has conducted a study since 1999, focusing primarily on the effects pesticides have on pregnant women and their children. The researchers followed families for 19 years and found links between exposure to these chemicals and increased risks of cancer, asthma and lung damage, ADHD, rashes, skin problems, lower IQ scores and learning disabilities.

Weller said lung-damaging chloropicrin was found above state health-risk levels at the Salinas airport in 2011, even though none was applied nearby. State air-monitoring at Ohlone Elementary School in North Monterey County has measured high levels of the pesticide 1,3-dichloropropene in the air from 2011 to 2016, he said.

“We know that farmworkers are often the most immediate victims of pesticide drift from other fields,” Weller said. “Such a case happened last year at Tanimura & Antle, poisoning 18 workers. Another incident last year in Santa Cruz County poisoned dozens of raspberry workers. Organic growers have successfully sued pesticide-using growers for drift that contaminated organic produce, making it impossible to sell as organic, thus reducing profit.”

Weller and others at the CPR are urging “an outright ban on the worst pesticides,” including chloropicrin and chlorpyrifos, as well as improving buffer zones around schools and providing a week’s notice before applying pesticides.

LETTER | Pesticide poisonings a bellwether

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Diego Picazo

About Diego Picazo

Diego is an 18-year-old student at Millennium Charter High School in Salinas.