‘Our air is being poisoned’ Activists call on Agricultural Commissioners to reduce number of permits to apply cancerous pesticide


By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

“Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s seminal book on pesticides and the environment, was published on Sept. 27, 1962. In it, Carson denounced the environmental harm caused by the use of pesticides, inspiring a movement that led to the banning of DDT for agricultural uses.

To commemorate the book’s 60th anniversary this year, Central Coast activists called on the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner and the Board of Supervisors to limit the applications of 1,3 dichloropropene, a soil fumigant that is designated as a “probable carcinogen” in humans by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Not only farmworkers are being impacted by the cancer-causing pesticides, but also our schools, our neighbors, and everyone who lives in the Salinas Valley,” said Yajaira García, an activist with Safe Ag Safe Schools, during a press conference at the Monterey County building on Tuesday, Sept. 27. “Our air is being poisoned by pesticides. When you compare the air (of the Salinas Valley) to the Peninsula’s, ours is highly polluted by pesticides. And what does this mean? This is environmental racism.”

Also known as 1,3-D or by one of its commercial names, Telone, the fumigant is injected into the soil or drip applications prior to planting some crops that include strawberries, caneberries, Brussels sprouts, and wine grape vines, among others. According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulations, the annual concentration of 1,3-D detected by an air monitoring site in Watsonville has been higher than what the state Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment recently designated as safe.

The air monitoring site happens to be placed at Ohlone Elementary School, a fact that alarms teachers on behalf of their students.

“The state leading toxicologist said a significant lifetime risk comes from average daily exposure,” Oscar Ramos, a teacher at Sherwood Elementary School, said during the press conference. “The state has tested the air of Ohlone School every year and found above 0.04 parts per billion. Over the years it has been 2.5 times above what the state toxicologists say is safe.”

About 30 people attended the press conference. Earlier in the day, the group delivered a letter to Monterey County Ag Commissioner Henry Gonzales, calling him out for not protecting the community.

“It’s great to see so many people coming together to push our pesticide regulator to do their jobs and protect our communities from pesticide harm, because that’s what it will take to make change,” Ramos said, referring to the ag commissioners.

Gonzales did not come out to meet the activists. In a letter dated Aug. 19, 2022, he and Juan Hidalgo, agricultural commissioner for Santa Cruz County, told Safe Ag Safe Schools the annual concentration screening levels at Ohlone School have not exceeded the regulatory targets set in place in 2015.

Meg Brown, a recently retired pediatric nurse, said she saw many farmworker families coming to the hospital with illnesses that may have been caused by pesticides.

“We are lucky there were scientists in the area who listened to the farmworkers and took action,” Brown said. She referenced the CHAMACOS study, which began in 1999 and has researched the impacts of pesticides on children’s brain development and respiratory health. CHAMACOS researchers linked developmental delays and autism to their mother’s exposure to pesticides during their pregnancies.

Greenfield resident Isabel Ramirez said her second child, now 22, is a “special” child on the autism spectrum and with severe asthma.

“We moved away from the fields and he stopped having asthma attacks, but the autism is also due to (the pesticides),” she said in Spanish. “Due to family reasons, now we are living near the fields again, and now he has the asthma attacks again.

“As a mother, many times I can’t sleep when he’s having the attacks. Across the street from our house there’s a field of grapes. We would like to know when pesticides will be applied so we can close our windows and not go out.”

On Tuesday, activists said during the press conference they want three things: they want the ag commissioner to reduce the number of permits issued for 1,3-D in order to reduce its emissions. They would like for the Board of Supervisors to hire a new ag commissioner who will protect their health, as they feel Gonzales did not do so during his tenure (he’s retiring). And they would like for Monterey County to implement a notification system immediately, ahead of the one now being planned statewide.

Ideally, they would like to see for 1,3-D to be banned, like it is in the European Union. To support their pleas, they quoted Carson herself.

“We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts. It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks the insect controllers calculate. The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the current road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts,” García said, reading from Carson’s book.

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.