Pesticide Use Threatens Health in California

President Trump boasts about all the regulations that he has eliminated but he never mentions the important good that many of these rules were  doing, as Dennis J Bernstein explains.

By Dennis J Bernstein

The battle to protect farmworkers and their families from dangerous pesticides has been going on for decades. But it has always been an uphill struggle because of the power and the money behind the mammoth petrochemical industry. In 2017, farmworkers, their families continued to be exposed to toxic sprays that drift into school zones and other populated areas.

Migrant workers harvest lettuce at Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, CA on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013. (USDA photo by Bob Nichols)

While there have been some improvements and restrictions at the California state level, experts and activists in the field say not nearly enough is being done. And compounding the problem, EPA Director Scott Pruitt took swift action against new regulations that were about to be put into place under President Obama

Dr. Ann Lopez, Director of the Center for Farmworker Families, based in Felton, California,has taught courses in biology, environmental science, ecology and botany in the biology department at San José City College for many years. She is an independent researcher whose research addresses the human side of the binational migration circuit from the subsistence and small producer farms of west central Mexico to employment in California’s corporate agribusiness.

Dr. Lopez has worked with over 33 farmworker families in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys. She has also studied 22 of their family farms in the west central Mexico countryside, and has received recognition and awards for her work.

Dr. Lopez,author of The Farmworkers Journey, was awarded the Human Agenda Ecological Sustainability Award in 2014 and the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, Inc. awarded her with the Community Game Changer Award in 2015.

I spoke to Dr. Lopez on Dec. 27, 2017 at her office in Felton, California.

Dennis Bernstein: We know that the struggle against pesticide use continues.  For so many years the farmworkers have been on the front line.  What can we say at this point about these dangerous pesticides that are poisoning so many farmworkers and their families?

Ann Lopez: There has been some progress, especially pertaining to chlorpyrifos, a developmental neurotoxin.  But we still have a long way to go.

I am very concerned about Roundup (glyphosate), which has been determined to be a Proposition 65 carcinogen. Monsanto does not have to label it as a carcinogen until well into 2018, which means that anyone who buys it thinking it is safe literally risks his or her life.  Just mere exposure puts you at high risk, particularly for non-Hodgkin lymphoma and a variety of other horrible diseases, including blood cancers.

I personally know of three people who have died as a result of exposure, they believed, to Roundup.  Yet this is sold in any hardware store as if it were nothing harmful.  It speaks to the neoliberal economy, where profits are much more important than people or the environment.

Dennis Bernstein: There have been struggles around other chemicals and concern about spraying near schools.

Ann Lopez: Fortunately, the Pajaro Valley school district has gotten rid of Roundup spraying.  This is one of my lead concerns because the entire public is put at risk with this and most people are unaware that this chemical can kill them!

Chlorpyrifos is a developmental neurotoxin derived from a nerve gas used in World War II which is primarily active on the brain and spinal cords of young children.  This chemical was banned for residential use in 2000 but is still used in agriculture.  So that is the front line for struggle today.

I have a PhD in environmental science and I have never read of a worse case of environmental racism than what I have studied in the Salinas Valley.  First of all, organophosphates are very detrimental to developing fetuses.  UC Berkeley scientists did a seventeen-year study of mothers and children in the Salinas Valley and found a direct correlation between a pregnant woman’s exposure to organophosphates and resulting brain damage to the child.  For every 522 pounds of exposure within a kilometer of where the mother resides, the child, by the time it reaches age seven, will have lost 2.2 points of IQ.

If you go online, you can see where the spraying occurs.  There are whole residential areas filled with people where this concentration occurs continuously.   Once these children grow up, they are intellectually deficient.  They go to schools surrounding these fields where they use this developmental neurotoxin chlorpyrifos as an insecticide.  Chlorpyrifos is drift-prone so once it is sprayed it moves through the air and into the classrooms, and it interferes with normal development of the brain and spinal cord.

So these children are impacted on two fronts, prenatally and then during their primary school years.  The vast majority of these children, something like 90%, are Latino.  I find it hard to believe that this would ever go on in a white neighborhood.  It would simply not be tolerated.

Environmental Protection Agency logo

Prior to the Trump administration, the EPA banned chlorpyrifos nationwide and then Scott Pruitt, the new director, had a conversation with DOW executives and reversed the ban.  So right now we are trying to get it banned at least in the state of California.

A couple months ago, we went to the EPA office and met with one of their committees, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.  DOW executives gave their position and then those of us who came from all over the state to address this issue gave our statement, and they voted 8-2 in our favor.  This means that chlorpyrifos is now listed as a Prop. 65 developmental neurotoxin, so we at least have that labeling on the containers.

But this past year has been a travesty for farmworkers.  Thirty-four workers in Bakersfield were hospitalized because of exposure to chlorpyrifos and then another 17 in central California.

Dennis Bernstein: This can involve a whole series of treatments and then you have to worry about the long-term damage.

Ann Lopez: Absolutely, there is the issue of chronic exposure.

Dennis Bernstein: Could you describe the suffering that’s involved?  What are the symptoms like?

Ann Lopez: They become very weak, very nauseous, some even collapse out in the fields.   The ones I worry about most are the children, who face permanent brain and spinal cord damage.   I have studied farmworker issues for many years now and every parent I have spoken with wanted their children educated and to have a better life out of farm work.  What are the chances for children to succeed academically and move on when their brains don’t develop normally?  We have a program called Safe Ag Safe Schools and we are partnered with Californians for Pesticide Reform.

Dennis Bernstein: These pesticides were created by companies that began working for the US defense industries making toxins to kill people.  What we are seeing here is an attempt to mainstream the industry into everyday life.

Ann Lopez: Whenever I meet with Mark Weller, Co-Director at Californians for Pesticide Reform, I ask him, “Has World War II ended yet?”  We are still using these horrific chemicals and continue to spray million of pounds of this poison all over the planet, all in the name of profit.

We had a press conference in Salinas on March 31, 2017 and I remember asking at the end of my talk, “Are your profits really worth the compromised brains of our children?”  You can ask the same thing about the biosphere, and so on.  At what point do we stop destroying the very planet that supports our existence?

These chemicals play a crucial role in all this.  I don’t think there is any excuse for using them.  Studies have long shown that if we converted to an all-organic, regenerative agriculture tomorrow, we could feed every human being on the planet and mitigate climate change by 30-40 percent.

So the question becomes, why aren’t we doing that?  The only reason is to keep these outdated industries in operation which are basically destroying the planet and all of its life-forms.  Personally, I find it unethical and reprehensible, and it can only happen when the public is kept uninformed.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at


15 comments for “Pesticide Use Threatens Health in California

  1. mike k
    January 10, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    Pesticides should be banned completely. We are being poisoned to death – a slow death. Cuba seems to do just fine without all the expensive agrichemicals. The chemical industry needs to be 90% shut down. Nuclear for any purpose should be ended. Will we? Of course not – no more than stopping wars, or all the ways we are choosing group suicide. We are doomed by our own actions and failures to act more sanely.

    • mike k
      January 10, 2018 at 10:18 pm

      Good to see the site up and running again. I hope Robert is doing well in his recovery. Get well soon Robert, we need you!

      • January 10, 2018 at 11:17 pm

        Ditto on that … I’m hoping for his take on the full Fusion report.

      • Chris Jonsson
        January 18, 2018 at 3:15 am

        Robert Parry, you are sorely missed. I hope your recovery is speedy and complete.

    • S Kowalski
      January 15, 2018 at 12:57 pm

      I would like to alter your idea of banning pesticides. There are actually pesticides that have been used for centuries without any harm (except for the harm to the pest).
      I know of a pesticide made from fermented stinging nettle. Plants produce their own pesticides (like nicotine) and those cannot in a million years be as harmfull as the chemical weapons remnants that are used today. Even without pesticides there are options: Some insects are very easily deterred from eating your plants by using their own behaviour against them. There are leaf-cutter ants who will keep away from their own waste – farmers just make a ring of that waste (easily obtainable) around the young plant.
      Another interesting fact is that if you step back from monoculture some pest-related problems no longer occur. In household gardens people plant a ring of onions around their lettuce, that is an easy way to deter land-based creatures. There have been field studies that reach the same conclusion. But SOMEHOW they have been silently forgotten.
      I would like to forbid the selective breeding of poison resistances, hybridasation and patenting of seeds, that would make it impossible to use those hard-core plant-holocaust-pesticides. The pure idea of taking a heavy duty poison and just manipulating your crop to withstand it is madness. And hybridasation and patent laws guarantee that every farmer, however poor or small has to buy from “big agro”, because you can no longer just use part of last years harvest as seeds and you cannot even break out of that cycle because what you sow has to be patented, which of course costs a lot of money.
      Suddenly, I never want to eat again.

  2. Zachary Smith
    January 11, 2018 at 12:13 am

    That this interview sits next to the one titled Missing the Trump Team’s Misconduct is quite meaningful. Trump is continuing the destruction of the regulatory system in the US. To be fair, as obnoxious and ugly as Trump has been on this issue, it’s not just him.

    These days I avoid NPR, but while on a not-short car ride today I flipped on the radio and tried to find something to listen to which wouldn’t trigger the gag reflex. Surprisingly, that was an NPR interview.

    Lax Oversight, Lack Of Clinical Trials Mean Some Medical Devices More Likely To Injure Than Cure

    A book author was telling how the medical implants which go inside so many people these days are hardly tested at all. The FDA has been completely “captured” by the Big Pharma industry to the degree that if you have a deadly reaction to one of the dangerous devices, the FDA will now side with the industry against you. The link says this has been going on now since 1976. Think of the progression of Reagan, Bush Daddy, Clinton, Bush the dumber, and Obama. Not a one of these people were worth a crap in terms of citizen’s interests. Trump is just the latest and loudest and ugliest of this series of Presidential Twits.

    Now back to something said by Ann Lopez in the interview:

    Studies have long shown that if we converted to an all-organic, regenerative agriculture tomorrow, we could feed every human being on the planet and mitigate climate change by 30-40 percent.

    That’s a pair of really amazing claims, and if you’re going to say such things, you really ought to provide evidence. At the very least, ‘links to’ or ‘titles of’ those “studies”.

    • mike k
      January 11, 2018 at 8:56 am

      There is no daylight between the FDA and Big Pharma – they are one and the same. One big revolving door………

  3. Bob Van Noy
    January 11, 2018 at 9:53 am

    Many thanks to Dennis Bernstein for this interview and to Robert Parry’s CN for presenting it.

    Supposedly California is a deeply blue and environmentally enlightened State yet I’ll bet that most of the California population knows nothing of the risk chemicals used in its massive agricultural operations. Why?

    Each year I’m able to experience the wonder of the massively productive estuary that is the Salinas and Monterey area and wonder about the natural forces that make it so magnificently beneficial and fragile. I watch the workers, the soil, the water and produce thinking that the Real Wonder of California is this kind of unique combination of life and water and land yet here, and again, the unbalanced influence of Corporate and Government indifference is threatening life itself

    • mike k
      January 11, 2018 at 11:58 am

      Bob. the California population is being slowly and skillfully poisoned by the agricultural industrial complex, just like a clueless spouse is done in by the slow addition of arsenic to their diet by their supposedly loving and concerned spouse. And all for the sake of $$$$$$$$$$$………….

  4. January 11, 2018 at 3:42 pm

    I have been stalked by a female psychopath for 30 years. She uses a commercial sprayer to cover where i live with pesticides. My kidneys have been damaged and now I am workking to preserve my liver. The police are too inadequate to do anything. I am with the farmworkers to stop the poisoning of our lives.

  5. peg
    January 11, 2018 at 9:11 pm

    “find it hard to believe this would happen in a white neighborhood. Would not be tolerated.” NIMBY

  6. January 11, 2018 at 9:41 pm

    The battle to protect farmworkers and their families from dangerous pesticides has been going on for decades

  7. godenich
    January 12, 2018 at 4:20 am

    “The Farmworkers’ Journey demonstrates how corporate agribusiness operates, how genetically modified corn strains pouring into Mexico from the United States are affecting farmers, how binational institutions and laws promote the subjugation of Mexican farmworkers, how migrants face exploitation from employers and how migration affects family life. Most dramatically, the book shows that it has become nearly impossible for rural communities in Mexico to continue to support themselves by farming the land, leaving few survival options except the perilous border crossing to the United States.” – excerpt from book cover.

    Growing up, my house was across the street from a big tomato field. The owners were our neighbors who lived and worked on the farm. They also had an apple orchard and dairy. They used pesticides. My mom (94) would go over and help sometimes and also bring back tomatoes. Back then, very few people had air conditioning so everyone in the neighborhood had their windows open during the summer. I never heard a complaint.

    When you dive into the human interest story of migrant workers, you may find a few pearls that may be true or not, but are worth exploring:

    1) Use of H1B visas to artificially keep wages low and artificially increase immigration.
    2) Increased taxation on local communities due to rising costs of public goods from immigration.
    3) Currency circulating out of the domestic economy.

    It is unlikely, if economic prospects were better in Mexico, immigrants would be uprooting their families from their local communities so it is likely a bi-national problem with probable political culpability on both sides of the border aggravated by multinational agribusiness interests. Multi-national agribusiness monopolies (with multinational shareholders), NAFTA failures including the Mexican Peso crisis, Monsanto seed patents (flying in the wind) and super-weed evolution in Canada from use of Roundup are riveting to this topic, along with any possible issues of municipal government failing to act on the danger to school children.

    Use of natural substitutes for pesticides and fertilizers may also be an enlightening investigation. The higher cost of organic vegetables I’ve seen in the supermarkets is a disincentive to buy for many, especially lower income families, and just raising the cost so everyone has to buy organic products has it’s downsides. Perhaps these issues are explored in her book, but the consensus-forming message in this article is not coming through as clearly as it might.

  8. Chris Jonsson
    January 18, 2018 at 3:13 am

    Natural born killers.

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