When Melissa Dennis began teaching third grade at Ohlone Elementary School, she noticed that an unusual number of her students at the school in the rural Royal Oaks community just south of Watsonville had health issues.
She says she finds it alarming how many children at the school have severe asthma. She also consistently sees learning issues “above and beyond what you might expect for a class of, say, 24 students.”
But the most devastating pattern, she says, is the prevalence of childhood cancer in the community. Over the last six years, she and other teachers counted six young children with cancer. The school has less than 500 students.
“Having worked in Santa Cruz at Santa Cruz City schools, and then coming down to work in Watsonville, I saw a big difference,” she says.
Dennis believes the health issues are linked to pesticide exposure. So she started working with the community coalition Safe Ag Safe Schools (SASS) to advocate for safer and more transparent pesticide practices.
Recently, SASS joined Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR) and various other community groups in a statewide call for online warnings about agricultural pesticide applications.
“We don’t have any idea when or what is being applied around us,” Dennis says. “That kind of information should just be public for anyone to know, because it affects the public.”
In order to use a high-toxicity group of chemicals known as California Restricted Materials, growers must submit notices-of-intent (NOIs) to the county agricultural commissioner at least 24 hours in advance. These NOIs include what pesticide farmers plan to spray and where. But the information doesn’t become available to the public until after the application.
“That doesn’t help anyone once it’s already been applied,” says Héktor Calderón, the Monterey Bay Area community organizer for CPR. “What we’re asking is for it to be in real time, so that then those folks can take those preventative steps and not be affected.”
Simple precautions such as closing windows and taking clothes off drying lines can help reduce exposure, Calderón says. With sufficient warning, people might also choose to stay inside or wear protective equipment.
“Doctors and nurses would be able to use this information as well,” says Calderón. If someone goes to a hospital with poisoning symptoms, for instance, knowing whether they were exposed to a particular pesticide could help medical professionals treat them effectively, he says.
So far, the cities of Watsonville, Greenfield and Soledad, as well as Pajaro Valley Unified School District and Greenfield Union School District, have passed resolutions that urge Monterey and Santa Cruz counties to post NOIs online.
On May 27, advocates gathered outside County Agricultural Commissioner offices in Salinas, Bakersfield, Modesto and Tulare. They held press conferences and hosted an online rally. A petition for advance notice garnered more than 23,000 signatures.
After holding a press conference, the group in Salinas knocked on the office door of Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales.
“The door was locked, and no one came to open it,” says Ann López, founder and director of the Center for Farmworker Families. “So we just started chanting, ‘We’ll be back. We’ll be back.’”
López has worked with farmworkers for more than 20 years. People sometimes call her from the field and describe symptoms—vomiting and fainting, among others—looking for ways to protect themselves.
“I think it’s a human right to know what you’re being exposed to,” she says. López, like many others in the community, is worried about the long-term harmful effects of pesticide exposure.
“It’s disgraceful. I mean, we’re poisoning children, we’re poisoning the environment. We’re causing species to go extinct,” she says. “This is absolute stupidity. There’s no amount of money or profit that is worth this kind of carnage.”
Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo says the county doesn’t plan to start posting the information online in advance or in real time.
“Posting actually requires a lot more staff to be able to manage that information,” he says. “Moreover, it’s not just about posting the information … Once you put that information up, people are going to have questions. Having staffing to answer those questions from the public is another issue—and something that, currently, I just don’t have the staffing to be able to do.”
The Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Hidalgo wants the public to know that the state and county heavily regulate pesticide use.
“There’s a lot of oversight over the use of these pesticide products,” he says. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation conducts air quality monitoring, and “so far our region has been doing really well,” he adds.
But some are not convinced the current regulations are enough.
“There’s a lot of pesticides that they use, and later on—like 10 years, 15 years later—say, ‘Oh, sorry, we’re not going to use this pesticide no more. We’ll use another one,’” says Horacio Amezquita, the manager for the San Jerardo Housing Cooperative in Salinas. He has lived in the co-op, surrounded by crop fields, since 1979. “The public is the one that ends up paying the price,” he says.
He gives the example of chlorpyrifos. It has been one of the most heavily-used pesticides in the U.S. since its introduction in 1965. The chemical kills pests by disrupting their nervous systems. It’s also toxic to humans and linked to developmental delays and disorders. The EPA banned chlorpyrifos this year.
A Safer Future
In the absence of county transparency, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation announced plans to develop a $10 million statewide notification program. But outlining the process will take until mid-2024.
“What we’re looking for is to have something happen now,” says Calderón. “We know ag commissioners can do it. It’s very simple and low cost. And they’re refusing to do it.”
Several of the advocates find the county responses dissatisfying.
“Once you set up a system, you can even make it automatic,” says Amezquita. “I don’t think the excuses they’re using are true. Besides, the health of the residents is what matters most.”
Amezquita and several of the other advocates hope to eventually see more sustainable farming methods take hold in the Pajaro Valley.
“There’s a better way for farming,” he says, before listing a few organic agricultural practices. “We need to find a way that the farmers and the Department of Pesticide Regulation protect the people first and then [worry about] the pests.”