Rosenda Mataka remembers a time when pesticides were used less frequently.
Now in the small California Central Valley town of Westley where Rosenda lives and works as a community activist, planes regularly fly overhead spraying pesticides on blossoming almond orchards that surround this farm town’s elementary school.
The fungicide being sprayed wards off mildew, making for a good nut crop. But parents worry that as the chemicals drift across the school playground, their kids will get sick – and they do. The chemicals make the parents sick too. The spray is visible as it floats through the air, sticking to any surface it lands on. It sticks to swing sets, park benches, and car windshields, and it gets into the water supply.
The toxins in pesticide drift can cause or contribute to miscarriage and sterility, fetal developmental disabilities, and other illnesses and disorders.
California’s Central Valley is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country’s most populous state, and it grows and supplies one-quarter of all the food that people in the US eat. In the Valley’s 18 counties, pesticide exposure is causing alarm among a growing number of communities, and not just among the millions of farmworkers on agriculture’s front line.
In many towns across the Central Valley, pesticide drift and other by-products of agribusiness development are causing significant health problems. California’s agricultural heartland offers a bounty of crops, but its industries also contribute to water contamination by nitrates from fertilizer use and mega-dairy waste and pesticide components, such as DBCP – a chemical banned for causing cancer and harming men’s reproductive systems that still appears in Central Valley wells.
A 2007 groundwater sampling in Tulare County found that three out of four homes with private wells have contaminated water that is unsafe to drink. Susana De Anda of the Community Water Center works on water issues in the Central Valley and brings attention to the fact that when people drink this water, they consume known carcinogens and acute poisons, such as nitrates, which can kill infants in a matter of days. Read more about the Community Water Center’s work in this blog post.
There are a growing number of coordinated efforts across California and the US advocating for better regulation and increased awareness about the multifaceted health, safety, and labor issues related to environmental toxins. Learn more.