Putting a face on pesticide exposure in the Central Valley - by Kevin Hoover

Fall 2009

CALIFORNIA’S CENTRAL VALLEY is America’s salad bar, an agricultural cornucopia where more than half the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown. But behind the glistening produce lies a story rife with contrasts. It’s one of opportunity and isolation, abundance and deprivation, health-giving nutrition and malady-inducing toxins.

The valley’s farmworkers are mostly Latino, and their homes are clustered in and around the fields in which they work. The tight-knit, low-income communities are served by nearby small markets, banks and schools for the laborers’ children. That proximity to agricultural worksites places workers in the pesticide hot zone, day and night.

Workers, their families and the industrial chemicals all share common space, but helping the layperson understand the connections between pesticides, populations and health hasn’t happened—until now.

A new study by two Humboldt State professors and their students offers ways to literally look at the problems – and some approaches for addressing them. “People, Places and Health: A Sociospatial Perspective of Agricultural Workers and their Environment” is the work of Professors Sheila Lakshmi Steinberg and Steven J. Steinberg. Funded by the California Endowment, it maps pesticide use and its proximity to sensitive facilities like schools and playgrounds in six California communities.

Sheila Steinberg, a sociology professor, is director of community research for HSU’s California Center for Rural Policy. Steve Steinberg, a professor in the Natural Resource Planning program, is director of the Institute for Spatial Analysis. To map pesticide use and dispersal, the husband-wife team fused her expertise in sociological field research with his acumen in geographic information systems (GIS). The resulting study has jumpstarted change on the ground where the chemicals are sprayed.

Real people, real maladies

Tulare and Monterey counties are the second- and fourth-biggest agricultural counties in California, together accounting for $7 billion in agricultural value in 2005. The counties employ a proportionate share of the state’s nearly 900,000 farmworkers and absorb a like proportion of pesticides – with nearly 200 million pounds applied in the year 2000.

Health risks associated with pesticide exposure are known but not well understood. Health anomalies can include flu-like illness, nervous disorders and cancer, with lingering suspicion that pesticides may be a factor. When spraying occurs, notification by local authorities is discretionary and inconsistent. And that lack of communication goes both ways. Cultural isolation fosters a sense of detachment among farmworkers from the processes intended to protect them.

Like any other people, work, family and hope for the future consume the daily lives of California farmworkers. “These families are really interested in the education of their children,” says Alma Martinez, a reporter with Fresno-based Radio Bilingue. “They come to this country and what they want is their children to do better than they did, to advance academically and have a career.”

Left: Farmworkers harvest crops in Tulare County, Calif. A new study by HSU professors and students maps pesticide use and its proximity to sensitive facilities like schools and playgrounds in six California communities.

Digital divide

Just what chemicals are applied where? The numbers available through the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) aren’t all that helpful. “There’s a huge digital divide,” says Sheila. “They say it’s ‘public data,’ but the average person would have a hard time getting access to it.”

Professors Steve and Sheila Steinberg. “Without their work, I don’t see how this would have been possible,” says reporter Alma Martinez.

It’s not for lack of organization. Advocacy groups are active in the region, and communication lines are well established between activists and laborers. In fact, the Steinbergs chose the two counties for their study because the Agricultural Worker Health Initiative, a project focused on worker health and political empowerment, was already in place.

Steve says the DPR is forthcoming with data, but information is not the same as knowledge. “They do produce reports and summary tables, but that’s a lot of numbers and statistics. The data was so diffused through so many places that nobody could get a good understanding of the whole picture.”

The Steinbergs could tap a resource few others have: an Institute for Spatial Analysis at HSU staffed by professors and students trained in GIS and other analytical techniques. Geographic information systems allow one to see and interpret data in ways that reveal patterns and trends. A GIS map is one way to work with geographic data to help make it understandable at a glance. Drawing a pesticide information picture for those who can best use it was the project’s goal.

Armed with large, unadorned maps of the six areas in the study region, in 2007 the research team met directly with the communities for input. During a series of meetings, residents marked their observations directly on the maps. Their information was then digitized and added to the maps as overlays. Participants, guaranteed anonymity to encourage participation, revealed the need for improved communication and education – especially given the language barrier.

“Farmworkers don’t understand,” says one interviewee. “Most people just go to work and don’t realize the consequences for coming in contact with pesticides.”

Of particular concern were the schools, since children are especially vulnerable. Says one respondent, “There is no notification for pesticides in California with the exception of schools and day cares... and there is a strong noncompliance with the law.”

Other testimonials detail stories of family illnesses consistent with chronic pesticide exposure. Especially troubling is the undercurrent of helplessness. “Even if people know they got exposed and feel ill, the symptoms look like the flu or a hangover,” says one respondent. “They realize that they have to go to the doctors, but they don’t go. Even if they do, we see that doctors don’t know how to identify exposure.”

Left: In a series of community meetings, residents marked their observations directly on maps.

The data was so diffused through so many places that nobody could get a good understanding of the whole picture. - Steve Steinberg

The maps

The key tool for bootstrapping the entire community to a new awareness – citizens, ranchers, regulators and educators – are the startling GIS maps the study generated. Readily usable across language and cultural lines, the color-coded visualizations show locations of pesticide and fumigant use in the two counties.

On the maps – there are dozens of them – chemical use is overlaid on locations of schools, hospitals and even state Assembly and Senate districts. “A map really is worth a thousand words,” says Sheila. “We presented this in a lot of different venues, to non-English speakers, and they get it.”

Data was collected for the project with the help of a team of HSU students in natural resource management, GIS, psychology, English and sociology. The students participated in everything from field interviews and research to cartographic analysis.

On seeing the graphic depiction of the toxins billowing around them, parent groups and school districts have been electrified. “When mothers and grandmothers saw the tons and tons of pesticides, they were outraged,” Martinez says. “People know the smell of pesticides and what they have seen. It started them thinking about solutions.”

The map that had the most effect was one labeled “Reported Pesticide Use in Areas Surrounding Cutler and Orosi, Calif.” In deepening shades of orange, it details pesticide saturation around residential areas. “That map was the most shocking to them,” Martinez says. “The darker zones, astonishingly enough, were where the schools were.”

Getting the drift

The maps made it clear that agricultural chemicals don’t stay put in the fields. Because of wind drift, “Everyone is getting a certain amount of exposure just because that’s where they live,” Steve says.

A recent Tulare County drift incident exercised the workers’ new familiarity with pesticide enforcement procedures. “They were surprised,” Martinez says. “We’d trained them and given them the maps. It’s making them more motivated and empowered.”

Meetings with local commissioners, county supervisors and ranchers followed. Officials decided to notify those within a quarter-mile of pesticide application – an option they can exercise at their discretion but which is not required. “Now, when they are going to be spraying, they [county representatives] knock on their door and tell them,” Martinez says.

The project has fostered activism among all ages and genders in the affected communities. “Our group in Orosi is mostly women, and in Lindsey it’s mostly men and their fathers,” Martinez said. Youth are becoming involved, adding energy and innovation. One teen discovered a novel way to spread awareness: La lotería de los pesticidas. Based on a traditional Mexican bingo game, La lotería includes 54 cards that teach pesticide safety.

The game was a hit. “It was really amazing that it came from one of the teenagers,” Martinez says.

A map really is worth a thousand words. - Sheila Steinberg

Top: This map shows reported pesticide use in areas surrounding Salinas, Calif., schools. On seeing the graphic depiction of the toxins billowing around them, parent groups and school districts have been electrified.

Aftermath and action

The Steinbergs’ study is not destined to gather dust on a shelf, and the maps were not its only artifacts. A bilingual website, peopleplaceandhealth.org, offers the fruits of the project, including the maps, the final report, a booklet, testimony from interviewees and posters designed to raise awareness – all still in use by those at ground zero in pesticide country.

While much remains to be done, Martinez credits Steve and Sheila Steinberg with getting the ball rolling. “Without their work, I don’t see how this would have been possible,” she says.

The study provides an informed basis for more investigation into health effects of pesticide exposure, as well as legislation to create buffer zones around sensitive sites. Reforms could include better advance warning before pesticide application; creation of a database for pesticide information; establishment of buffer zones around sensitive sites; and more research into wind drift.

Efforts are already underway

A bilingual website offers maps, testimony from interviewees, awareness posters, a booklet and the full report: peopleplaceandhealth.org

“They’re very smart, the community organizers,” Sheila said. “They’re trying to work with the owners of the farmland to come up with a solution that’s viable for both groups. They’re trying to work together.” She says she’s proud to have laid the groundwork for further studies as well as political action.

Steve concurs. “For Sheila and me, that’s the main motivator – real-world research that’s not ‘ivory tower.’” End Story