At my Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, we’ll be talking about what we’re thankful for. I'm very thankful to live in the resource-rich state of California, the topmost producer of fruits and vegetables in the country. And I'm thankful for the hard, often dangerous work that thousands of farmworkers do across the state to help bring nature’s bounty to our table.
I'm also thankful for the growing awareness that food choices matter. People in California — and across the country — are beginning to see that choosing food grown without chemical pesticides is not only healthier for their own families, but can help protect the health of farmers and farmworkers, families in rural communities and children everywhere. This is real and exciting progress.
For me, my work here at PAN makes these connections very clear. For example, my plate this Thursday will be filled with cranberries, almonds, broccoli and oranges, to name but a few ingredients. I named these particularly because each is produced with a brain-harming pesticide called chlorpyrifos, which research has linked to IQ deficits, autism and other developmental harms for children.
Over a million pounds of chlorpyrifos is applied in California each year. Scientists have known for years that this chemical is harmful to children's developing brains — federal officials cancelled its use in homes back in 2001 for this reason. Yet it continues being used in close proximity to rural communities, where it can drift off fields and into homes and schools. It is also commonly found as a residue on many foods.
Let’s unpack exactly what this means, from the fields where these crops are grown to where they finally end up — on our tables.
Implications for farmworkers, their families...
Along the path from farm to fork, conventionally grown cranberries, almonds, broccoli and oranges are sprayed often with chlorpyrifos and other pesticides.
At the first line of exposure are the who apply these chemicals, often at considerable risk to themselves. While protective equipment and delayed field entry after pesticide applications is mandatory for many pesticides, often the rules are not fully followed or protective equipment is defective, which all leads to exposure.
As my colleague Margaret Reeves points out:
Laws that protect almost every other worker in the U.S. do not apply to farmworkers. As a result, farmworker in the U.S. face, for example, a rate of pesticide poisoning that is 39 times higher than the rate among workers in all other industries combined.
Many farmworkers and their families also live near fields where chlorpyrifos and other brain-harming pesticides are used. A recent study from UC Davis showed that mothers who lived within a mile of fields where certain pesticides (including chlorpyrifos) were applied during their pregnancies were 60% more likely to have children with autism than mothers who lived further from treated fields.
Another important study from UC Berkeley is tracking the long term health impacts of chemical exposures in pregnant women and their children in California’s Salinas Valley region. These researchers have found associations between prenatal chlorpyrifos exposure and negative impacts on brain development.
... & other rural children
Not just farmworkers and their families, but entire communities in rural California are harmed due to exposure to chlorpyrifos and other pesticides.
In April 2014, the California Department of Public Health issued a report which found chlorpyrifos to be one of the top 10 pesticides used within a quarter mile of public schools in the 15 California counties studied. Latino children comprised 67.7% of the population for those schools with the highest pesticide use nearby.
You can read more about people's exposure to health harming pesticides in the agriculture heavy Central Valley of California here.
A system of agriculture that relies so heavily on use of hazardous pesticides continues this pattern of risk and exposure for farmworkers, their families and rural children. But these are not the only communities at risk.
Urban kids & pesticides on food
Children in urban areas are routinely exposed to chlorpyrifos and other organophosphate (OP) pesticides through residues found on their food: whether through holiday staples like cranberries and almonds or everyday foods like apples, oranges and broccoli.
Studies show that children who switch from conventionally grown fruits and vegetables to organically grown versions have dramatically lowered levels of pesticide breakdown products in their urine. This suggests that switching to foods grown without chlorpyrifos and other OPs can reduce the exposure of children to these brain-harming pesticides through food.
Even when the residue levels on foods seem low when compared to levels deemed “safe” by EPA, the possibility of long-term harm are still very real. Even very small doses of pesticides can damage children’s learning abilities, especially as children are usually exposed to a cocktail of hazardous chemicals.
As Dr. Bruce Lanphear, an environmental health expert and Professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia explained recently in a video, low dose exposures can and do have a significant impact on children's brain development:
As levels of organophosphate pesticides increase from 10-75 parts per billiion the IQ scores of their children drop by 5 points . . . By allowing children to be exposed to toxins or chemicals of unknown toxicity, we are unwittingly using our children in a massive experiment.
This gives me real pause when I think about the dangers faced by farmworkers and rural families and children everywhere. I’m thankful that I can help reduce this exposure by choosing to eat pesticide-free, organically grown foods — and by actively pressing for changes in how farming is done in the state of California.
We need faster change in California
California officials recently took a mini step in the right direction by moving to make chlorpyrifos a restricted use pesticide, in reality this step will achieve very little. The decision to imposing any concrete restrictions on the chemical's use will still be very much in the hands of county officials, many of whom have shown unwillingness to make changes unless legally compelled to do so.
This is not acceptable, and state officials need to ramp up the pace and strength of change.
In light of how frequently chlorpyrifos is found in California’s air and water, and its disproportionate impact on children across the state, PAN and our partners in the Californians for Pesticide Reform coalition are demanding that state officials lay out a clear roadmap for strong and meaningful actions to reduce — and ultimately eliminate — exposures to this dangerous pesticide in California.
Take Action » Please join me in pressuring Governor Brown of California to compel the Department of Pesticide Regulation to take concrete, enforceable steps towards reducing the exposure of families around the state to this hazardous pesticide.
And then join me raising a glass to a chlorpyrifos-free Thanksgiving meal!