This is Ventura County California, and I'm standing at the edge of the new American frontier the one where the suburbs end and the farms begin.
We're collaborating on this with our friends, Public Television's CALIFORNIA CONNECTED to report on what's been happening when new development meets the fields.
And what we've found is that out here, along with that big yard and two thousand square feet of extra floorspace, you can pick up a dose of something you hadn't quite bargained for pesticides in the wind. This is a cautionary tale for those of us who think what we really need is just to move closer to nature.
Peter Meryash produced our report.
There is a building boom in this part of the world where the Ventura Freeway leads. It's attracted lots of new residents looking to escape Los Angeles. And in the fields, crops of new houses are springing up amid the strawberries and the citrus groves.
People wanna look out their window and they wanna see this. They wanna see hills, they wanna see orchard, they wanna see crops. This is what people all over the country envision as being the ideal place to live.
BRANCACCIO: Susan Johnson is a Deputy Agricultural Commissioner in Ventura County. She says as more people move to bucolic places like this, they're finding a downside living with farm chemicals.
Unfortunately, they don't envision a helicopter flying a half a mile away putting out pesticides. They don't envision that their child's school is gonna be right across the street from a lemon orchard.
BRANCACCIO: The thing is, farmers spray orchards to get rid of insects, fungus, all sorts of pests. And these chemicals may be affecting residents in ways they never saw coming.
Like Mary Haffner, who never thought twice about those lemons across the street from her kids' school in Ventura until early one November morning in the year 2000.
The citrus orchards are on the left and the school's on the right, and as I drove down the street, it was like a fog. And then as I looked to right at the school, I could see that that fog had landed on the campus.
BRANCACCIO: It turned out farm workers were spraying the lemon grove with an insecticide
and the stuff was drifting over to the school.
There should have not been any spraying done on that day with the kids on their way to school, with the, on their skateboards and bicycles and walking through that cloud of pesticide.
BRANCACCIO: One of those students was Andrew Uvari, a third grader at the time. His mother is Lynda Uvari.
I took him out of school. He was complaining of a headache and being sick to his stomach. And, I actually phoned several parents that I knew were not working and that could come and pick up their kids, and I suggested that they take their kids out of school.
BRANCACCIO: Thirty-two students, parents and staff said they felt dizzy and sick to their stomach. A county agricultural official ordered a stop to the spraying.
Just months earlier, the Environmental Protection Agency and the manufacturer had agreed to phase out the insecticide chlopyrifos for most household uses. Citing possible "neurological effects"
especially to young children
the EPA stated: "it is clear the time has come to take action to protect our children from exposure to this chemical."
But spraying on most crops no matter how close to homes and schools was still permitted.
I guess I believed that they would never use pesticides that could harm anyone so close to where families live and where children are playing in backyards and where day care centers are, or schools are. I just couldn't imagine that our government would let that happen.
BRANCACCIO: Overall, California does have the strictest regulations in the country when it comes to pesticide applications. But even here, authorities can only do so much.
Most chemicals are what are called general use materials. The farmer is bound by the label and is bound by a significant body of regulation. But there is no-- we have no capacity to say no, you can't do that, before they do it.
And if there are questions or suggestions that there's a problem? Can you investigate?
After the fact.
After the fact.
So, in the case of someone drifting onto the school or someone drifting onto a house or someone drifting onto a car, certainly that's something we investigate, but only after the damage has been done with the general use pesticide.
BRANCACCIO: In the Ventura school case, the county prosecutor did take action. And a year and a half after the incident, the grower agreed to pay 25,000 dollars in fines and restitution and was restricted from further spraying during school hours.
No one knows for sure just how many people around the country are sickened by pesticide drift accidents. The federal government doesn't officially track that number. But researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control provided us with a rough estimate
more than five thousand serious poisonings a year from accidental drift.
That includes several major incidents like the one six years ago in the farming town of Earlimart, California.
About 180 people there were evacuated when a pesticide used in a potato field drifted into a residential area. Forty-six people sought medical attention complaining of vomiting and headaches.
Fortunately, most farmers do everything they can to be good neighbors, says county Ag official Susan Johnson. But with development encroaching more and more on farmland, it's becoming an increasingly difficult landscape to navigate for both homeowners and growers.
I have a farmer who has three church day care centers, a public school, a residential area, and two extra churches within a quarter of a mile of his farming operation.
That's a challenge for that grower.
It's extremely challenging. You're talking a helicopter, all these schools, a residential area. And we've done a variety of things. They've tried to do it very early in the morning. And we get complaints from joggers who are out at five. They've tried to do it on Sundays. We get complaints from the churches who are having services. We've tried weekends. And you've got people in the residential area barbecuing. I mean, it's just very difficult.
BRANCACCIO: And it's not getting any easier. In Ventura County alone,
there are 29 schools next to farms, and another 24 within a quarter mile of the fields.
Tight budgets have left just a handful of officials to patrol and regulate pesticide use on the 70 thousand acres of farmland in this county.
We actually have about four people that do this.
Doesn't sound like a lot to an outsider like myself.
It's not a lot. It isn't a lot. And that includes clerical. It includes administration. It includes everything.
BRANCACCIO: Paul Gosselin is the Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. He says the state has the largest enforcement program in the world but efforts are constrained by California's budget woes.
Obviously if we had more resources we could do more inspections. But our job and job one is to make sure with the resources we do have we're utilizing them in the best way we can by directing them out to go where the highest risk areas are.
BRANCACCIO: And the risks can be high. In a handbook prepared for farmworkers, the EPA warns: "Getting pesticides on or in you may have effects after months or years have passed"
or harm to the nervous system. It emphasizes: "If pesticides drift to where you are working, get out!"
Jay Vroom, the President of CropLife America, the trade association representing pesticide manufacturers, says their products are among the most regulated substances in the country. He acknowledges there can be risks, however
The amount of exposure that people normally would encounter who are not farm workers and not involved with the mixing and loading of our products, it is so tiny as to be an insignificant risk with regard to the population at large.
BRANCACCIO: That assurance is not good enough for Lynda Uvari, who lives with her family in a neighborhood snug up against these strawberry fields. She worries about what might be floating in the air around her, even long after the spraying is done.
Someone referred to is as living in a toxic soup, and that, you know, it's constantly-- we're constantly barraged with some kind of chemical, and we see it in our air. We see it in our water-- you know, it's real unfortunate.
BRANCACCIO: Folks in Ventura County are not the only Californians worried about that "toxic soup." Up in Fresno, they have concerns as well. David Pepper is on the faculty at the University of California and a doctor at the community medical center's asthma clinic.
DR. DAVID PEPPER:
When we started looking at the rate of asthma here, and the rise in asthma in the Fresno Unified School Districts, we really became concerned and realized that we weren't really dealing with one patient or five patients or 500 patients, but thousands and tens of thousands of patients.
BRANCACCIO: He started wondering why so many patients were coming in with respiratory problems.
DR. DAVID PEPPER:
One of the more striking figures is the comparison between ourselves and the Los Angeles basin, where we rival each other for the quote worst air in the nation, and yet our asthma rate is double theirs. So why, when we have, quote, the same bad air, do we have twice the asthma rate? And that has me wondering, what is particular about the air here?
BRANCACCIO: Fresno is surrounded by farmland and the county is one of the biggest agricultural producers on the planet, relying heavily on farm chemicals.
DR. DAVID PEPPER:
I'm very concerned that many of these chemicals may have links that need to be investigated further.
BRANCACCIO: The industry trade group points out there are many well-proven causes of asthma such as exhaust fumes, second hand smoke, or dander from household pets and the higher asthma rates in Fresno could be due to the city's bowl-like topography which traps polluted air.
End of story? Well not quite. Here's what you've got to see: how some concerned citizens, faced with this community challenge, didn't just complain, they took personal action.
Let's start small: with Josh, Dr. David Pepper's son.
I guess my first exposure to asthma was my brother. He had asthma at a very young age and was pretty severely afflicted. I mean tons of people that I know every time we do sports have to use inhalers and just knowing-- I mean-- every in Fresno knows that asthma is a huge issue.
BRANCACCIO: So Josh decided to undertake some junior epidemiology. He mapped out real asthma data from the Fresno school district and compared it to where the students lived and the relative wealth of their households. He found something intriguing.
The northern, richer areas of Fresno had a much higher rate of asthma than the southern, poorer areas.
BRANCACCIO: There could be all sorts of reasons for this, says Josh. Perhaps those richer parents living north of town get their kids treated for asthma more often. Or maybe they spend more time in cars. Or could it be that's where most of the new housing boom in Fresno is happening?
In the 10 years that I've lived in Fresno, I've seen houses spread out and out into the farmlands, especially in the northern areas. On one side of the street, there's farms, and on the other side there's houses. So the urban sprawl could possibly be playing into this asthma rate.
BRANCACCIO: Josh won a scholarship for his study of asthma rates while in high school. The report isn't peer reviewed, of course, or conclusive.
And Fresno's Agricultural Commissioner takes issue with a link to farming one of Josh's possible explanations. The commissioner says, those living in the north are no closer to the fields and pesticides than people in the south of the city.
Even so, a recent study may lend support to the theory.
Researchers at the University of Southern California reported in this 2004 scientific article that "children exposed to any pesticide or herbicide in first year of life were at a 2 and a half fold higher risk of asthma compared with children who were never exposed to either of those."
The industry trade group counters scientists they've consulted are not convinced the study proves cause and effect and they point to another study which found "... No significant association
" between asthma and the spraying of one specific class of pesticide used to kill mosquitos in New York City.
All agree, more research is needed.
Members of one community in central California concerned about pesticides in the air are taking action. The town of Westley is about a two hour drive northwest from Fresno. Rosenda Mataka has lived here for thirty years. She believes pesticides have contributed to health problems in her community.
A lot of times we're told, "No, you don't have any pesticides in the air. No, your kids are not exposed to it. No, that's not the cause of that." But as a community we really believe that that is a cause of it. So, we've tried to find some-- the scientific data to show that what we think is right.
BRANCACCIO: Mataka belongs to a community group whose members have volunteered to use this device to monitor for pesticides floating in the air in backyards and neighborhoods.
It's called a "drift-catcher." It was developed by Susan Kegley, a chemist with the Pesticide Action Network, a non-profit, advocacy group.
Here's how it works: it's set up in a backyard, in the house, or in a school-room and it captures air samples. The tubes are then brought to this lab where they're analyzed.
Kegley's team has used the drift catcher in at least six towns so far. And they're particularly alarmed by findings in one small farm community in central California.
We had five drift catchers out in this community and found really high levels of a fairly toxic insecticide called chlorpyrifos that-- you know were above levels of concern that even the EPA would think it would be above levels of concern.
BRANCACCIO: That's the same chemical that sickened school children in Ventura. They promise to share their data with school boards and state officials. California regulator Paul Gosselin, says he welcomes the help.
We actually think the cooperative program with private non-profits is actually a good thing. And can actually enhance the surveillance network we have state wide.
BRANCACCIO: But while these concerned citizens have promised to share their work with regulators, they've also brought a lawsuit against the state
charging it's done too little to reduce the air-borne exposure to pesticides.
That exposure, says chemist Susan Kegley, may carry long-term risks.
Even if people apply pesticides according to the label instructions, according to the law, there are people who are still being poisoned. Not necessarily just acute poisoning where they end up in the hospital or the doctor's office but also these long term, low level exposures.
BRANCACCIO: But Jay Vroom, with the industry trade group, counters that the government requires extensive testing before pesticides are approved.
I'm absolutely confident that the results of those tests are conclusive and exhaustive to give me the assurance that our industry's products are safe with regard to those kinds of risks.
BRANCACCIO: The moms back in Ventura remain worried. That drift exposure at the school fired them up and so they too have been taking action.
That was the beauty of this is we all came together as a community. We became educated about what was being used-- about the possible chronic long term health effects of these chemicals. And, then we said, "That's it. We're gonna do something."
BRANCACCIO: And they did. They lobbied the state legislature and got a new law that gave local officials more power to restrict pesticide use around schools ... And increased the fines for drift accidents.
Our legislators listened. And, that was a wonderful thing.
BRANCACCIO: A wonderful beginning, says Haffner, but she believes much more needs to be done. For one thing, spraying around schools in most places continues.
And just keep in mind, California has the strictest pesticide enforcement in the country. As new homes push further into farmlands in other states, balancing the production of an abundant food supply with the safety of school kids and families may prove even harder.