Catching Drift

Edelmira Alcazar was cooking salsa on the day that people in Earlimart — a California town of about 6,000 in Tulare County — would come to call “el dia de la quimica,” the day of the chemical. As she prepared for a birthday party planned for that November night in 1999, she began to smell a strong odor. “You put too much garlic in the salsa, Mama,” her children and grandchildren teased her as their eyes started to water.
“No, just one tiny piece,” she told them. But when their neighbors started to choke and gag, and she heard the sirens of emergency vehicles in the distance, Alcazar and her family began to suspect something far worse: pesticide “drift” from a nearby farm. They were right. A nearby potato grower had been fumigating his 160-acre field with metam sodium, a known carcinogen and hormone disruptor.
Within hours, say community members, many more people — especially children — reported burning eyes, headaches, and vomiting. As the acrid rotten-egg smell spread throughout the town, more than 150 residents of the mostly agricultural town were evacuated and 24 hospitalized. Many who made their way to the emergency crews waiting at a nearby school say all of the exposure victims were made to strip naked, as firefighters sprayed them repeatedly with a fire hose in the cold night — a procedure that turned out to be unnecessary, since the exposure was through inhalation.
Teresa DeAnda, a homemaker who lives across the street from fields that are frequently sprayed, packed her kids and uncles into her vehicle and drove to her daughter’s home miles away, but when the authorities told her three hours later that it was safe to go back, she did. It was a decision she would later come to regret.
“It was awful,” she said, recounting the story at a recent workshop on pesticide drift sponsored by Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR). “My face was swollen, my baby’s face was swollen, and everyone I called said they were sorry, but they weren’t the right place to call.”
“After that my daughter got migraines and nosebleeds, and sometimes, she would beg me to take her to the hospital,” DeAnda says. Eventually, when evidence surfaced indicating that the pesticide application company, Wilbur-Ellis, might not have mixed the chemical correctly, the company agreed (without admitting guilt) to pay a $150,000 fine, half of which went to pay the medical bills of the victims. Since then, several lawsuits have been filed against Wilbur-Ellis and the potato farmer.
What happened in Earlimart is called “pesticide drift,” the airborne movement of pesticides away from application sites. Drift is responsible for about half of California’s average of 475 reported cases of acute pesticide poisoning each year, says Ann Katten, a researcher at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF), which has been active in providing legal help to farm workers and others.
And, cautions Katten, those are only the reported cases, most of them tracked through the state’s Workers’ Compensation program. The true number is probably much higher, she believes, because many of those exposed are uninsured and are therefore reluctant to get — and pay for — medical attention. And drift doesn’t happen only to farm workers, say pesticide experts. As California’s urban sprawl edges out into agricultural areas, increasing numbers of Californians will become vulnerable to episodes like the one in Earlimart.
“That’s really the future of this issue,” says Michael Graf, a San Francisco-based environmental attorney involved in two separate suits that concern drift. “The Central Valley is not just an agricultural valley; it’s [increasingly] a residential valley, too.”
California’s $26 billion agricultural industry relies heavily on the 188 million pounds of pesticides that it uses annually for everything from killing grape pests, such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, to the routine sterilization of soil in strawberry fields. A recent study of Earlimart, for example, found that growers apply a total of 189 pesticides during  317 days of the year to their lands, which grow mostly  carrots, grapes, and orchard crops. On a typical day, the town gets an average of 29 separate pesticide applications.
Of the approximately 905 chemicals registered in California, 264 are known to be “bad actors,” meaning they’re known to cause cancer, nerve damage, or other serious conditions. For example, Telone (1,3 dichloropropene), a soil fumigant used on many crops, is known to cause cancer, and has turned up in air samples taken at schools in Arvin and Salinas. Metam sodium, another bad actor, breaks down into by-products that have both immediate and long-term respiratory effects, and has been found in the air at Earlimart and Arvin schools.
Ultimately, more than 90% of the pesticides used each year in California are subject to drift, often miles from their site of application.
The techniques used to apply pesticides include hand  spraying, soil injection and fumigation, crop dusting, and “airblasters” — huge tanks that spray a steady stream to leave fields drenched with pesticides. Sometimes — as in the case of sulfur — solid particles of “pesticide dust” blow across adjacent areas. In the case of liquid sprays, droplets can blow over nearby neighborhoods. And when applying fumigants, growers inject the soil with chemicals that turn into gases and escape into the air to drift in the wind.
Scientists are now finding that at least some of these chemicals can drift many miles from where they’re being used. “Something applied here in the Central Valley can make it all the way to the Sierra,” says Ray Chavira, a US Environmental Protection Agency scientist who studies pesticide migration.
Indeed, methyl bromide, a soil fumigant used for strawberry and tomatoes crops, wafts even further — into the upper atmosphere, destroying the global ozone layer in what is perhaps the ultimate drift disaster. [See sidebar, p. 22.] Many of these airborne chemicals have serious, immediate effects, often on the nervous or respiratory systems.
“We hear a lot of talk about war, and everybody is worried about poison gas,” says John Mataka, a community activist and member of the Neighborhood Council in Grayson, a small town near Modesto, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “But our community and our farm workers have been victims of poison gas for years.”
Mataka is not alone in his anger; many farm workers and residents of farming communities say they’re amazed at how little has been done to protect them. It took many years of grassroots organizing for the United Farm Workers to win even common-sense reforms. Growers, for example, are finally required to let workers know when their own fields are to be sprayed and to keep workers out during the application and immediately afterwards, a rule that took years of negotiations to establish.
And only in March of this year did California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) announce that it’s developing rules that will require workers to get oral notice of recent pesticide applications at their own work sites and written information about nearby pesticide use. The current rules still allow such information to be posted at a central location that might be many miles from where the workers are laboring and is incomprehensible to illiterate workers.
Warning signs giving the date that workers can safely re-enter a field after pesticides have been applied are required only when the recommended waiting period is more than seven days. The DPR has said that it wants to change this rule as well, to require such warnings after any pesticide application.
But the rules won’t account for all drift: growers are not required to notify workers in adjoining fields, nor must they specify how long workers are supposed to be kept out of fields adjacent to heavy spraying. “Someone could be working in a nearby field and get sprayed by someone else,” says Susan Kegley, a staff scientist for the Pesticide Action Network (PANNA). “And every time we propose neighbor notification rules, [pesticide applicators] scream that they can’t do it, that it’s too restrictive.”
For Lupe Martinez, third vice-president of the United Farm Workers, environmental justice delayed is environmental justice denied. “I am angry because it’s been happening for the last thirty years,” says Martinez, who points out that many drift victims never seek medical attention, making it more difficult to track exposures. “Our people often don’t go to hospitals or doctors because they don’t have the money,” he says. “It’s nothing new, but now it’s not just the farmworker, it’s everyone being exposed. We’re still having the same problem we had thirty years ago, when Cesar [Chavez] was here.”
Throughout central and coastal California, many homes and schools border on sprayed fields, often without even superficial barriers such as fences. Indeed, part of the reason the anti-drift campaign has recently gained momentum is the dawning recognition that pesticide exposure isn’t strictly an occupational hazard limited to field workers. Kegley, the PANNA scientist, cites a recent study by the California Public Interest Research Group that showed that almost 13% of all Californians live within a half-mile of a heavily sprayed area.
As more communities sprawl beyond city limits, people who never thought they’d be pesticide victims will risk exposure to drift, says Kegley. “We sometimes get calls from people who are thinking of buying or building a new home [in a farming area],” she says, “and a lot of times, I have to tell them that  I wouldn’t do it.”
Graf agrees that until now dramatic examples of drift haven’t gotten much notice beyond their immediate regions. “Mis-spraying, where people are clearly exposed to acute levels of poisons, currently affects the poorest people, and it doesn’t get the attention that it would if they were in Marin County,” he says. “But what we’re learning now is that even when it’s applied according to the labels, this stuff drifts for tens or hundreds of miles and stays around for a long time. So lots of people and wildlife are getting a lot of cumulative exposure, and agencies are telling us that they don’t even know how to start addressing that problem.”
Even officials at the EPA (which is the target of one  of Graf’s lawsuits, as is California’s Department  of Pesticide Regulation) agree that the drift issue must be reexamined.
“The encroaching urban-agricultural boundary has made us look at off-site impacts, which we didn’t really do five years ago,” says the EPA’s Chavira, who adds that part of the problem is that many of those moving into agricultural areas don’t fully understand the nature of what happens in the scenic vistas where new developments are sprouting.
“Living out in the middle of nowhere might look bucolic and pristine,” says Chavira, “but it’s like an industrial zone for producing food.”
Many activist groups say that the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation (to which EPA delegates enforcement of pesticide laws) have not done nearly enough to enforce existing laws. “A big part of the problem is that most of what we consider drift doesn’t even fit the limited definition of what these agencies consider drift,” says  PANNA’s Kegley. “They only look at movement that happens at the time of application, or shortly — often just minutes — after it,” she says. “Many new California studies show that a lot of these chemicals linger and drift at quantities many times the level considered safe, for hours or even days after the application.”
The EPA and the DPR define drift as “the physical movement of a pesticide through air at the time of application or soon thereafter, to any site other than that intended for application,” (often referred to as off-target). But EPA does not include in its definition “the movement of pesticides to off-target sites caused by erosion, migration, volatility, or contaminated soil particles that are windblown after application, unless specifically addressed on a pesticide product label with respect to drift control requirements,” according to its website. And it’s precisely under these conditions that many pesticides drift.
“We address most of those other areas through other rules, such as label requirements and application rules,” says DPR Chief Deputy Director Paul Gosselin. He also disputes that the DPR isn’t doing enough to regulate the chemicals most dangerous to people, fish, and wildlife. As an example, he cites the DPR’s recent move to propose tougher regulations for diazinon spraying on dormant trees and vines, after critics charged that some of the levels of the chemical found in California water posed “an unacceptable risk.” Gosselin says that proposing regulation under the theory of “unacceptable risk” uses authority that DPR has had for a long time but has only recently begun to use. If the technique is successful, he says, DPR plans to use it to regulate other pesticides, as well.
But promises like these are little comfort for those  currently living under drift. In air studies in Kings County, for example, concentrations of diazinon peaked about 12 hours after spraying, to almost 50 times the level considered safe for adults and more than 100 times the safe level for children. Under current law, as long as the application follows the label’s directions and restrictions, little can be done to stop these exposures.
Part of the problem, pesticide critics say, is that there are few strong laws that specifically protect people from drift.
The Clean Air Act, for example, applies to pesticide manufacturing, but not to its application, says the EPA’s Chavira. One of EPA’s most important ways of forcing change is through label registration requirements; in theory, if a manufacturer doesn’t address EPA’s concerns in its labeling, it can be prevented from selling the product.
But even Chavira admits that the EPA hasn’t always kept up with new findings on drift. “As a licensing agency, we probably don’t do a good enough job of getting field data back and evaluated and incorporated for the next review [of a chemical].”
County agricultural inspectors are on the front lines enforcing application rules, says Chavira, “but a county might have four inspectors and thousands of farmers,” so there’s a limit to how much they can do to monitor pesticide use.
Existing laws and enforcement are so ineffective, legal experts believe, that the most important protections for  people often come as side-effects of legislation designed to achieve other aims, such as protecting endangered species.
“It’s ironic that perhaps the strongest law we have to use against drift is the Endangered Species Act [ESA],” says Graf. “You can’t experiment on people by exposing them to pesticides and seeing what happens, but you can do that with animals, and that’s what they have to do [to prove harm].”
Indeed, Graf is currently involved in a lawsuit that claims that pesticides are causing harm to the California red-legged frog and other endangered amphibians. “The populations on the coast are surviving, but near the [Sierra] foothills, where there’s drift, they’re dying out,” he says. “We want the EPA and the DPR to have to consult with agencies such as Fish and Wildlife about the impact that their actions have on endangered species.” The people who are exposed to drift may benefit, says Graf, but they may resent having been helped out of concern for a frog.
If it’s not frogs, it’s food: one of the best commonly acknowledged legal protections against drift comes out of the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. But that law is designed to cope only with the problem of pesticide residue in food; it offers no recourse to human drift casualties.
“The only time the DPR ever does something is when there is tremendous political pressure,” says Graf, “or when someone else — such as the EPA — is about to make them.”
The DPR responds that it must balance the growers’ need to protect themselves from economic losses against health concerns that it says have until recently often been only sketchily quantified in scientific studies.
And so drift remains a largely unregulated phenomenon. Almost half of the most obvious drift-related poisonings occur even though the pesticides are applied according to label instructions, and nobody has violated any laws in doing so.
Fines, when they’re levied, usually cost the applicator only a few hundred dollars per exposed person; the average fines for work safety violations regarding pesticides ranged from $50 to $252, according to data extracted from a DPR database and summarized in Fields of Poison 2002, a study of pesticides’ effects on farmworkers published by Californians for Pesticide Reform, PANNA, and the United Farm Workers.
When regulators do respond to an incident, time often defeats those who try to quantify the seriousness of an event. “Even if you’re lucky enough to get someone [from a regulatory agency] to come out — and they don’t, usually — unless they get out there in a half an hour to an hour, the levels are usually much lower, or they’re undetectable,” says Denny Larson, an East Bay toxics activist. This time lag often leads agencies and corporations to argue that no exposure took place or that it was inconsequential. “Then they say, ‘There’s nothing here now, so probably there was nothing here before.’ Where’s the scientific method in that? It’s just pure conjecture. And then they try to say that we aren’t scientific enough.”
With the aim of being more scientific, Larson helped create “the  Bucket,” a cheap, portable air sampling device that’s been used  to monitor factory and refinery emissions. PANNA’s Kegley and  Larson are trying to develop a similar monitoring system called the “Driftcatcher” to help activists monitor the air in agricultural areas.
Until communities develop the technology to do their own documentation of pesticide exposure, they’ll have to rely on regulators like the US Department of Agriculture. But, according to Ken Vick, a USDA senior national program leader, the agency is reluctant to tell growers that they can’t use pesticides unless they’ve got ironclad proof of severe health or environmental effects. “Many of these chemicals have been used and worked well for years,” says Vick.
The net result of this policy, say activists, is that pesticides have been assumed innocent until proven guilty. “People get sick and die, and the chemical mindset is so ingrained in our system, and the laws so stacked, that all the chemicals get out on bail,” says Marion Moses, a doctor with the San Francisco Pesticide Education Center who has worked with farm workers for many years.
“We believe in the precautionary principle,” says Martha Arguello, director of environmental health programs at Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles. “That is, we think that chemical manufacturers need to prove that spraying is safe, and if they can’t, then we should err on the side of safety and prohibit their use until they can show they’re safe,” she says.
Nothing will change, says Graf, the attorney, until Californians begin to recognize drift as an air pollution issue, and demand that it be regulated as such. “But it’s going to take more than just lawsuits,” he says. “It’s going to take a political movement.”
That’s a challenge that Teresa DeAnda and many like her have taken up. After the Earlimart drift experience, DeAnda helped to organize other residents into El Comite para el Bienestar de Earlimart, the Committee for the Wellbeing of Earlimart. After months of requests, DeAnda finally got Tulare County to set up a hotline (559-733-6441) to report local pesticide incidents and exposures, and she says that the grower near her house has quit farming some of his fields and has added buffer zones to others.
“The growers don’t want any trouble, really,” she says. “They don’t want to drift on us, but they often will if someone lets them. We have to let them know that people are watching, and that people are aware now.”

Comments are closed.