The pain of pesticides is still real for former Guadalupe farmworker Lucila Hernandez, who has difficulty sharing her experience roughly 27 years later.

Speaking during a Friday morning press conference at Minami Park, Hernandez, now retired and no longer working in the fields, shared about a 1991 incident where she and 32 other farmworkers were sprayed with chlorpyrifos — an organophosphate pesticide linked to neurodevelopmental disorders in children — by a crop duster. 

"I was pregnant [at the time we were sprayed] and my son was born sick," she said, before pausing to gather her composure and hold back tears.

"Pardon me for being emotional," she continued. "This is something that hurt me [then] and still hurts today. We spent a long time in the hospital recovering. My friend who was in that group [lost her child.]"

Falling on the one-year anniversary of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's decision to deny a 10-year petition to ban chlorpyrifos use, Hernandez and a slew of allies and farmworker advocates spent the morning calling on the Santa Barbara County agricultural commissioner to implement a series of local protections and reforms regarding use of the brain-altering chemical.

"The federal government has failed us," said Adam Vega, pesticides community organizer for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), "while the state is entangled in a lengthy, yearslong review process. We are here today to ... demand that more is done beyond the minimal protections proposed by the state."

Chlorpyrifos use

Introduced in 1965 by Dow Chemical Co., chlorpyrifos has been a staple pesticide used by corn, broccoli, cauliflower and other row crop growers for more than half a century. A 2001 report issued by the EPA regarded the substance as the "one of the most widely used organophosphate insecticides in the U.S."

Despite its widespread applicability, research has found chlorpyrifos to be moderately hazardous to humans. In adults, excess exposure of the substance can overstimulate the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness and confusion. Very high exposures may lead to respiratory paralysis and death.

Children and pregnant mothers are most sensitive to the substance, as scientific consensus surrounding organophosphates has linked exposure to long-lasting health effects and pediatric brain development. The EPA banned chlorpyrifos for household use in 2000, but advocates are concerned children, expectant mothers and other sensitive groups will be exposed due to lax regulations and protections imposed by the state.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation reported 176 pounds of chlorpyrifos — 44 percent of all use in Santa Barbara County in 2015 — were used within a 6-square-mile radius of the city of Santa Maria. Five local schools — Kermit McKenzie Junior High; Bonita, Mary Buren and Oakley elementary schools; and Pioneer Valley High School — fell on a 2014 list of the 100 schools within a quarter-mile of the heaviest chlorpyrifos use, as compiled by the California Department of Public Health.

A call to action

The fight to ban organophosphates and usher in comprehensive pesticide reform has been a ongoing, multigenerational battle for labor organizers and farmworker advocates. In 1988, three years prior to his death, United Farm Workers (UFW) co-founder Cesar Chavez engaged in a 36-day fast demanding comprehensive pesticide reform.

"Here we are, almost 30 years later, continuing the fight for farmworker communities in the Santa Maria-Guadalupe area," said Eriberto Fernandez, civic participation and policy coordinator with United Farm Workers Foundation. "We're here to defend their most basic human right: a right to a healthy life."

The state's Department of Pesticide Regulation published a risk assessment regarding chlorpyrifos last August, stating that "chlorpyrifos may pose a public health risk as a toxic air contaminant." Though the EPA's 2016 report reached a similar conclusion, the state subjected it to a two-year scientific review process set to end in December 2018. No regulations surrounding chlorpyrifos can be imposed until then.

"Your current risk assessment ignores the conclusions of the November 2016 EPA risk assessment," Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann wrote in a September 2017 letter to the Department of Pesticide Regulation, calling for a suspension of use during the scientific review period.

"As shown by years of research, childhood and prenatal exposure [to chlorpyrifos] can lead to changes in brain structure ... developmental and behavioral disorders and reduced lung function, along with other harms," the letter read. "I urge you to take these findings into full consideration and support steps to discontinue the use of chlorpyrifos in California agriculture."

As the state continues its review process, Santa Barbara County organizers are asking the county's agricultural commissioner to "implement reforms regarding chlorpyrifos applications."

"Ag commissioners have a lot of power and can decide how to enforce pesticide use at the county level," Fernandez explained. "If the state of California wants to delay the ban on chlorpyrifos, and the EPA doesn't want to listen to their own scientists, then we have no more than to resort on calling on county ag officials to do the right thing."

Organizers are asking the county to establish one-mile "protection zones" around schools, residences and other sensitive sites where chlorpyrifos cannot be applied; require a public notice be issued a week in advance for chlorpyrifos use near schools, homes and hospitals; and mandate biologically-based pest management methods be attempted before using chlorpyrifos or other synthetic pesticides.

"'Farmworkers are society's canaries,'" Vega said, quoting Chavez. "'Farmworkers and their children demonstrate the effects of pesticide poisoning before anyone else.'"

"As we take into account the countless number of schools, homes, neighborhoods and day cares that are adjacent to these fields," he continued, "[remember that] we need to do more to protect our kids, plants and people alike."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.