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SPECIAL REPORT: Organization fights to increase protection against pesticides near schools on the Central Coast

MONTEREY COUNTY, California (KMUV)- Victor Torres was 10 years old when he was poisoned by pesticides. His mother, Yanely Martinez said the field next to his school had sprayed the ground around 4 a.m. on a school day. By noon, Victor had an asthma attack and couldn't breathe.

"It was pretty traumatic," Victor recounted. "That's because it's something you don't think would happen, but at that moment it came and it really changed my life."

This intoxication incident is one of several throughout Monterey County.

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Last year, several agricultural companies had to pay more than $100,000 after spraying farmworkers during their round of fumigation.

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These are just one of several cases in the state of California, according to Eriberto Fernandez, a government affairs officer for the UFW Foundation.

"Many times workers are asked to enter the fields, to work in the fields without even knowing what was applied to them or what the product was sprayed," Fernandez said.

In a survey, the UFW spoke to more than 2,000 workers last year. In that survey, 54% said they knew they worked with hazardous pesticides, but did not know that many of those pesticides can cause harm to their health and to their children.

This is one of the problems Yanely Martinez is fighting to fix.

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"It's not just environmental justice anymore, it's racism," Martinez comments about how pesticides in agricultural areas affect the community, most of whom are people of color.

In a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, they found that Latino students are 91% more likely than whites to be exposed to the highest levels of hazardous pesticides.

"Community members from Carmel, from Monterey, from Seaside, from Marina, they don't have these problems, it doesn't even cross their minds," adds Martinez. "But yet in smaller cities, here like the heart of the east valley in the Watsonville area in the Salinas Valley, Soledad. This is a problem."

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Five of the most commonly used pesticides near schools are fumigants - the most dangerous on the market, according to the same CDC study. They are applied in the form of gases to the soil before crops are planted. They include 1,3-dichloropropene and chloropicrin.

1,3-dichloropropene and chloropicrin are popular fumigants in the strawberry crop before planting because they kill certain pests. But 34 countries, including the European Union, banned this agrochemical because it can caused cancer and other health problems.

Martinez is a Greenfield City Councilwoman, but she was also involved in the pesticide reform organization Safe Ag Safe School, where she was fighting for the Commissioner of Agriculture to impose certain limits on the pesticide 1,3-dichloropropene.

  • Stop approving the application of the pesticide 1,3-dichloropropene to reduce airborne concentration levels to 0.04 parts per billion.
  • Increase the perimeter protection around schools to more than a quarter mile.
  • Post Notice of Intent on the Internet when they will use the fumigant 1,3-dichloropropene.
  • They can now be notified of pesticides in Santa Cruz County.

This stems from a 1999 lawsuit filed by Latino parents at Ohlone Elementary School with the Environmental Protection Agency, charging that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) discriminated against Latino children by allowing methyl bromide to be applied near schools. Twelve years later, in 2011, the state settled the case by installing an air monitor next to Ohlone's playground.

Safe Ag Safe School is now complaining to CDPR and the Monterey County Agriculture Commissioner that levels of another carcinogenic agrochemical -- 1,3-dichloropropene -- is above 0.04 particles per billion for nearly 10 years.

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According to Monterey County Agriculture Commissioner Henry Gonzales, "My job is to implement the regulations that are in place. It would not be appropriate for me to start out on my own, on my own, to do things that the Department of Regulation doesn't see fit."

According to OEHHA, part of his work comes from the Proposition 65 Program that has created a list of chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

In July, OEHHA determined that the chemical 1,3-D is at the "non-significant risk level" - NSRL - 3.7 micrograms per day of 1,3-D exposure. That means that to be hazardous, a company must be exposing more than 3.7 micrograms of 1,3-D per day.

OEHHA determines whether chemicals meet the scientific and legal requirements for inclusion on the Proposition 65 list, and administers regulations, such as the no significant risk level (NSRL) for 1,3-D.

However, it is the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) that imposes restrictions considering the warnings OEHHA proposes to reduce exposure to potentially harmful pesticides.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation said it will propose a regulation in November that would limit the use of certain pesticides such as 1,3-D and how it is applied to reduce releases to nearby communities.

However, this is not enough for Victor.

"The fight against pesticides," Victor says. "To reform all of that and to make sure another child or my age doesn't have to go through the same experience I went through that day."

Currently, Monterey County has an alert system where they can sign up with their email or phone number to receive notifications when they will be spraying near schools. Click here to sign up. The state is in the process of creating a similar system for all residents near agricultural fields.

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Melody Waintal

Melody Waintal is the Digital Content Director for Telemund23.com and KION546.com

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