Journalism | Pesticides: The Poison Within

Reported and wrote this longform feature on insufficient federal regulations that leave rural children vulnerable to pesticide exposure. The piece focused on efforts of local communities to fight back. This piece is unavailable online. The full text -- from In Brief (Earthjustice's printed publication for donors) Winter 2009/2010 -- is reprinted here.

GENOVEVA GALVEZ knows there are pesticides inside her 13-year-old body. What she really wants to know is this: how does she get rid of them?

The dark-haired high school freshman has a pretty good idea of how these nerve damaging chemicals got there in the first place. She remembers one sweltering summer evening in particular. Genoveva was sitting with her mother and a cousin on the front stoop of her family’s modest home in California’s Central Valley. Dusk was just settling in between the branches of the nearby olive trees and orange groves when a sickly smell began to burn their eyes and sent them reeling indoors. With nowhere else to go, they closed the doors and windows and waited it out in the oppressive heat.

Later, a neighbor who was rounding up residents for a pesticide monitoring study dropped by to ask if they’d ever had problems with nearby spraying. Genoveva reminded her family of that night and convinced them to sign up for the study. With the help of scientists from Pesticide Action Network, Genoveva and her family set up a device in their backyard to measure pesticides in the air. And one by one, family members were tested to see if the toxic chemicals were present in their bodies.

Sure enough, they found them. And it wasn’t just the Galvez family.

Of those who participated in the community’s 2006 study, 91 percent discovered they had above-average levels of pesticide breakdown products in their bodies. The pesticide monitoring devices in their community found chlorpyrifos — a nerve-gas pesticide developed by the Nazis — at concentrations almost eight times what the government calls a “level of concern.” What’s more, Genoveva and her family learned that even when they couldn’t see or smell the pesticides being sprayed in the nearby orchards, they were at risk of exposure: the toxic chemicals could adhere to fog or dust particles, silently drifting into their home and yard.

The news was disturbing, but not at all uncommon in regions of the country where industrial agriculture dominates the landscape. Spend some time in these areas, and you’ll find that plenty of people have stories to tell about their encounters with the chemicals neighboring growers use to kill weeds, insects, fungi and other pests.

In western Illinois, where corn and soybean crops stretch for miles in every direction, Rick Collins was picking his children up from their babysitter’s house, when he learned that the yard had just been sprayed by a passing crop-duster. His 6-year-old daughter, Arianne, had been playing in the pool and had dunked her head under the water as the plane passed. But 3-year-old Liam was still wet from the spray. Collins rushed his children home, showered them, then began telephoning everyone he could think of—including state elected officials—to determine the spray’s source.

And in eastern Washington, where homes and schools are nestled alongside apple orchards, a sixth grade girl was nearly killed after being exposed to pesticides that had drifted onto school grounds from the nearby orchards. Elena Dominguez had been playing Frisbee during an outdoor gym class. The next thing she knew, she had been rushed to the hospital after passing out at her desk. At first, befuddled doctors chalked it up to dehydration. Then it happened again 10 days later, at the finish line of a track meet.This time, Elena’s mother Cindy suggested pesticides as the culprit. Sure enough, investigators tested her gym clothes and found them soaked in Endosulfan—a DDT-like pesticide banned in many countries.

Down the road from Genoveva Galvez, Domitila Lemus recalled a visit to a nearby elementary school that went horribly wrong. The feisty grandmother was spending the day at Sunnyside school for its annual Grandparents’Day.

The children were gathered in the schoolyard for the festivities when a foul cloud of pesticides came rolling in from the nearby orange groves. Children began collapsing in spasms, vomiting on the blacktop. Others passed out.

In the face of such threats, these rural residents are putting up a good fight. Enlisting the help of state legislators, Rick Collins is gaining ground on a quest for a state law that would require growers to notify nearby residents before crops are sprayed. Cindy Dominguez took on the local growers and the school district and won increased safety measures for children at the school. And Domitila Lemus and Genoveva Galvez were among a band of citizen activists who successfully persuaded their county agricultural commission to adopt a quarter mile buffer zone around schools and residential areas for aerial pesticide spraying.

On the national level, Earthjustice is partnering with community groups around the country in an effort to gain federal protections for agricultural communities nationwide. Earthjustice attorneys filed a petition this fall asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set safety standards protecting children who grow up near farms from the harmful effects of pesticide drift—the toxic spray or vapor that travels from treated fields. The petition also asks the agency to immediately adopt no-spray buffer zones around homes, schools, parks and daycare centers for the most dangerous and drift-prone pesticides.

The petition was filed on behalf of farm worker groups United Farm Workers, Oregon-based Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, as well as Physicians for Social Responsibility, Washington-based Sea Mar Community Health Center, Pesticide Action Network, and the million-plus member

In response to the petition, the EPA announced that it is taking the first step in addressing this problem—opening up the group’s petition for public comment. It’s a promising sign. Now comes the hard work of making sure that decision-makers hear that they’re on the right track. They’ll surely be getting an earful from the pesticide industry telling them to keep the status quo. Industry interests like Monsanto and CropLife have already started putting the pressure on the EPA.

But as powerful as these industry groups may be, they’ll be hard-pressed to dull the spirits of the brave rural residents fighting to protect the children in their communities from pesticides. Or to outnumber the growing ranks of people around the country rallying in support of these safety measures. At press time, 18,266 Earthjustice supporters had gone on record with the EPA in favor of these protections. To join them and to get more information, visit