The toxic chemical reportedly drifted from the mandarin orchards where it was being used as a pesticide, temporarily shutting down the harvest as it caused some workers to become immediately ill.
According to local news, "twelve people reported symptoms of vomiting [and] nausea and one person fainted." Kern Golden Empire reported that twelve farmworkers showed no signs of sickness, but noted that most had left before medical help could arrive.
As it stands right now, it is still just an assumption by the Kern County Department of Public Health that chlorpyrifos was the culprit, but a safe one considering it is commonly used by agricultural giants in the region. It is also a precaution so that the potential health impacts on workers are dealt with accordingly. The facts of the matter are still under investigation by the Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards.
"We started getting an odor, pesticide odor, coming in from the mandarin orchards west of our field," recounted Efron Zavalza, supervisor and food safety specialist at Dan Andrews Farms. "I'm not pointing fingers or saying it was done incorrectly. It was just an unfortunate thing the way it was drifted. The wind came and pushed everything east and you know we were caught in the path."
While Zavalza may indeed be right that everything was done by the book and that this was just an unfortunate case of weather meeting agriculture, all of this could have been prevented if chlorpyrifos and other dangerous pesticides were never used in the first place. Health experts, scientists, and environmentalists have been demanding a ban on the chemical for years, and under the President Barack Obama administration, it seemed like there would finally be one. However, the President Donald Trump administration has reversed the government's stance on chlorpyrifos, and the chemical remains at large for the learning disabilities and health struggles of residents in central California regions.
Kern County health officials strongly recommend that all workers exposed to the chemical during the recent drift see a doctor as soon as they can.
"Anybody that was exposed, that was here today, we encourage them to seek medical attention immediately," said Michelle Corson, public relations officer at Kern County Public Health, in a TV announcement. "Don't wait. Particularly if you're suffering from any symptoms. Whether it's nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, seek medical attention immediately."
California has stayed the largest agricultural producer in the United States for decades, even through historical drought.
Naturally, it has also been at the forefront of sweeping reforms to improve life for farm workers — the backbone of the state's economy.
Working long and hard hours in fields, groves, orchards, and warehouses, these individuals are the first to touch our food; they are also the first to suffer the devastating effects of the pesticides so many companies refuse to stop using.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended the banning of chlorpyrifos, a commonly used pesticide adept at killing insects on grapes, almonds, walnuts, oranges, and other crops in California's agricultural Mecca — Central Valley. A growing body of research links chlorpyrifos to a number of chronic health conditions, including asthma and autism. Many of those exposed to the pesticide, or who live in areas that are in close proximity to fields where it is heavily sprayed, suffer from painful skin irritations, vomiting, and debilitating headaches.
However, despite strong signs that chlorpyrifos is dangerous to human health, President Donald Trump's administration has decided to reverse the Obama-era ban, rejecting years of scientific study and evidence in favor of making business easier for the heads of agricultural companies, who will never have to work in the fields from which they profit.
"We're very heavily regulated," Bob Blakely, vice-president of Tulare County industry group California Citrus Mutual, told The Guardian. "I'd be more concerned about children not eating fresh fruits and vegetables."
However, while Blakely is concerned about children not getting their five-a-day, he seems to have overlooked the struggles of children growing up in communities near his company's agricultural empire, three hours north of Los Angeles.
The Guardian reported that more than a dozen Tulare Latino residents came to them with stories of pesticide poisoning from either direct contact by working in the fields or from chemical drifts carried by wind into surrounding residential areas. Parents complained that their children were vomiting, consistently dizzy, and struggling to focus in school because of their exposure to chlorpyrifos.
In a story by The Washington Post, grandmother Domitila Lemus recalled a particularly disturbing incident after a pesticide spray drifted over elementary students at recess, among them her 8-year-old granddaughter.
"They were out of breath. Some were throwing up. The children had teary eyes … It’s a strong smell that gets into your head and hurts your brain.”
Zenaida Munoz, another resident of Tulare County, told The Guardian that she used to walk amongst the orange groves for exercise when she was pregnant. Her son, who is now 9 years old, was eventually diagnosed with autism.
According to a University of California at Davis study reported on by The Guardian, pregnant women living near fields sprayed with chlorpyrifos are at a higher risk of giving birth to a child with autism. Researchers at Columbia and UC Berkeley discovered that low to moderate levels of pesticide exposure during a woman's pregnancy coincide with lower IQs and memory problems for the baby as well. Berkeley has also raised concern about the link between pesticides and reduced breathing capacity, and a study that spanned universities across the country found evidence that it negatively impacted fertility.
The use of chlorpyrifos has also taken on an edge of racism and classism, as it disproportionately effects Latino communities and people living in poverty. The Guardian reported that Tulare County and the surrounding Central Valley region have the highest poverty rate in California and the worst air pollution in the country. Furthermore, state data reveals that Latino children are 91 percent more likely to live in or in close proximity to areas where pesticides are used.
“There’s a sense of helplessness,” Luis Medellin, a dairy worker in the small Tulare town of Lindsay, explained. “I’m being poisoned and I can’t do anything about it. It’s like a slow death.”
A study conducted in 2004 and 2005 found that the amount of chlorpyrifos in Lindsay was 11 percent above levels the EPA considered safe for daily exposure for children. The pesticide was found in three-quarters of the town's air samples.
“Farmers in about 100 countries rely on the effectiveness of chlorpyrifos to protect more than 50 crops,” Dow AgroSciences wrote in a statement to The Guardian.
They are responsible for the manufacturing of chlorpyrifos under the name Lorsban and insist that the “authorized uses” of the chemical are perfectly safe for human exposure.
Their statement echoes that of Trump-appointed EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, who said in a statement last month in support of reversing the ban:
"We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment. By reversing the previous administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results.”
Pruitt, who has a friendly relationship with corporate America, cannot be relied upon to act in the interest of America's most vulnerable, so some are looking to California to take a stand.
State officials are indeed investigating the use of chlorpyrifos to see if additional restrictions should be put in place, but a spokesperson for the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) made it clear to The Guardian that it is different than "an all-out ban." Without the support of the current White House, activists and advocates for farm workers rights and the health and safety of Latino communities are back to fighting a battle they thought they had won.
“It was pain in my heart,” Amy Huerta, who grew up in a trailer park in Lindsay and was frequently exposed to drifts, said sadly. “Now we have to start all over again.”
Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters