Paul Towers

Paul Towers

16 years later: Pesticides & race in California

Sixteen years ago, a group of California parents sued state regulators for failing to protect their children from hazardous pesticides.

Sixteen years ago, a group of California parents sued state regulators for failing to protect their children from hazardous pesticides. The parents showed that their children – who were Latino – were more likely than their white counterparts to be exposed to pesticides at school.

More than a decade later, without involving the impacted children and their families, the lawsuit was settled by state and federal officials. The only result was one new air monitor near one school, without anything more comprehensive or meaningful for schoolchildren across the state.

If the outcome of that lawsuit was any indication, it shouldn’t be surprising that the problem of environmental (in)justice and pesticides hasn’t gone away.

Environmental justice. It’s the law.

A rigorous report released by California health officials last year clearly documents the problem: Latino schoolchildren are nearly twice as likely as their white peers to attend schools near the heaviest and most hazardous use of agricultural pesticides.

Maybe it’s fitting then that tomorrow — October 6th — also marks the 16th anniversary of the signing of one of the state’s most foundational environmental justice laws, the first law anywhere in the country to define environmental justice in statute. The law compelled the state’s lead environmental agency — California EPA — to develop a new plan and approach to protecting children fairly, calling out issues of race. Here’s how it reads:

‘Environmental justice’ means the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

How do things stack up now? While it’s clear that some hazardous pesticides have been taken off the market since 1999, in part due to dedicated advocacy of impacted communities, hundreds more remain in regular use and wind up in our air, soil, water and food – exposing communities (particularly of color) to continued threats.

Safe, healthy communities — for all

As Californians eagerly await Governor Jerry Brown’s signature on outstanding pieces of legislation this month — and celebrate one bill that successfully added environmental justice representation on air quality issues (largely excluding pesticides) — here are five key pesticide environmental justice issues that deserve the attention of Gov. Brown and other state policy leaders in the coming months:

  1. Schools: The disparity has not gone away. The California Department of Public Health released a report last year showing that Latino schoolchildren in key agricultural counties are more likely to attend schools near fields where pesticides linked to cancer, as well as impacts on the developing brain and hormone systems, are applied. In fact, over 140 highly hazardous pesticides are used in close proximity to California schools.
  2. Fumigants: Use of the cancer-causing fumigant Telone — the most heavily used gaseous fumigant pesticide in the state — is highest near low-income Latino communities. State air monitors found it in greatest amounts near the town of Shafter (83% Latino), and applications above health limits are clustered in low-income communities of color across the state. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation first took action to end use of this pesticide in 1990, but today use is rising again after pressure from Dow Agrochemical to create and expand a loophole for their product.
  3. Brain-harming pesticides: UC Berkeley research showed in 2005 that women from (mostly) farmworker families in Salinas Valley were more highly exposed to the insecticide chlorpyrifos and its chemical relatives than average women across the U.S. The CHAMACOS study also showed that when mothers were exposed to these pesticides during pregnancy, their children scored lower on IQ tests at age seven. DPR has been considering taking action about chlorpyrifos for years, but has yet to finalize anything meaningful.
  4. Smog & pesticides: Large regions in California violate federal Clean Air Act standards for ozone or smog. One source of ozone is volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), including certain widely used pesticides. Under the Clean Air Act, California was required to develop a plan to reduce VOC pollution. While the current plan does require reductions in VOCs, these reductions are significantly less in the majority Latino San Joaquin Valley than elsewhere in the state.
  5. Enforcement: County agricultural commissioners are primarily responsible for enforcement of pesticide laws. Although California farmworkers are often Spanish-speaking Latinos, very few of the agricultural commissioner offices are bilingual, making the difficult job of reporting pesticide violations even more difficult for some of the people who are most likely to witness them.

While there is growing awareness and acknowledgement around the issues of race and the environment, including by CalEPA, it’s clear that more needs to be done.

The rights of communities of color in California, be they schoolchildren, farmworkers or families living near agricultural fields, continue to be violated. It’s time for race and environmental disparities to become more central to state decision-making. And we will not wait another 16 years.

Paul Towers

Paul Towers

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