Town Hopes Pesticide Study Will Bear Fruit

Times Staff Writer

Pesticides are pervasive in this tiny Central Valley town ringed by fields of grapes, peaches, plums and nectarines.

So are children. Their playgrounds abut groves of fruit trees. The stink of chemicals has wafted into their classrooms. And, increasingly, their lungs are strained by asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Whether pesticides are linked in any way to the region's compromised pediatric health, however, is an open question. Now, a yearlong state project could point to an answer.

The state has typically tested for air- and water-borne pesticides one at a time. This project, which community leaders and scientists from California's Department of Pesticide Regulation will introduce to residents here today, will monitor 40 pesticides as well as other airborne pollutants.

The goal is to determine how they act in concert and whether they are present at levels damaging children's health. Nearly 40% of Parlier residents are younger than 18.

Testing began this month on the rooftops of schools scattered beneath the jet stream that funnels smog, fog and possibly pesticides into this dent of a valley within a valley. ome of the city's wells also will be tested.

"There are auto emissions, smog, particulates kicked up by tractors," said Dr. Rogelio Fernandez, assistant medical director of Parlier's United Health Centers clinic and a member of the local advisory board that helped create the project.

"Now we're going to see exactly what's in the air," he said. "Are the health problems correlated to the use of pesticides? What levels are safe? What levels aren't? We're going to have some data."

The 1.6-square-mile enclave of mostly farmworker families was chosen from a list of 83 Central Valley towns. It is 97% Latino with a median family income of $24,000. And in 2003, commercial growers applied 249 chemicals -- 2.4 million pounds of them -- to crops within a five-mile radius.

Also factored into the selection, said State Department of Pesticide Regulation spokeswoman Veda Federighi, were the number of illnesses reported as a result of pesticide drift, and the availability of complementary data from university researchers and the state Air Resources Board.

It is the only community-based effort in the state to test so many chemicals over such a long period, she said.

A local advisory group is key to the effort -- one of six California Environmental Protection Agency projects created with community help statewide. The group, which includes local growers, a longtime asthma educator, Parlier's city manager and activists who have battled to reduce pesticide exposures in nearby towns, spent hours negotiating compromises.

They helped choose the testing locations and select the chemicals that should be monitored.

Still, the study has not come without controversy.

It pits residents' hunches about the effects of pesticides against the agriculture industry's fears that products which are already regulated will be banned.

At the Parlier Health Education and Access to Life Project last week, Spanish-speaking mothers sat through a class about detecting and managing asthma in their children. Educators also told the mothers about the pesticide-monitoring project.

Maria Pacheco, 45, noted that she has broken out in rashes that feel like "ants biting me" in the months when spraying on nearby fields is most prevalent.

The mothers think there must be a connection between the pervasive chemicals and pediatric asthma, which has surged by 75% among Parlier children in the last decade, according to the health project.

"There's clearly a relation," said Victoriana Loredo, 46, whose three daughters, ages, 15, 11 and 8, developed asthma about five years ago. "It's in the air," she said, "On the fruit, in the water."

Medical experts are more measured. "Any irritating chemical is more likely to be a problem for somebody with asthma," said Dr. Michael O'Malley, a UC Davis occupational environmental medicine specialist who is a consultant for the state pesticide agency.

O'Malley studied acute exposures to pesticides in recent cases of overspray in nearby towns. Although those who already had asthma suffered more severely, "whether more routine [exposures] are causing asthmatic problems, I'm not sure," he said.

The data from Parlier's project, advocates hope, will give a much clearer picture of the prevalence of less acute pesticide exposures and may shed light on the asthma problem.

Growers' advocacy groups, meanwhile, are worried. Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, which represents more than 1,000 growers in California, Oregon and Utah, said monitors cannot differentiate between commercial and residential uses -- such as backyard spraying or city fumigation on public land.

Although his members care about air quality and children's health, Cunha said, he fears that the data "will be interpreted the wrong way.... They want to show that farmers go crazy on pesticides and want to hurt society."

State officials emphasize that growers are not the enemy. The project includes research and education on less toxic alternatives, many of which are already in use.

A final report is not expected until 2007. Regulators will then decide if any response is necessary.

Mary-Ann Warmerdam, director of the state pesticide agency, said the goal is to ensure "that all members of our society receive strong and equal consideration for their health and safety. This especially applies to children."

But she added that "we're also working closely with industry, because wise use of natural resources helps preserve the economic bottom line."

For Parlier residents, the city's selection was a surprise -- one that its leaders chose to embrace despite the potential bruises to civic boosterism.

There have been unexpected benefits: Schools have already incorporated the study into their science curricula, inviting researchers to share their project with fourth- through sixth-graders, who rarely meet professional role models.

"You could hear a pin drop," S. Ben Benavidez Elementary School Principal Armando Ayala said of a recent science assembly.

The project has also sown some rare cooperation between farmworker advocates and some local farmers.

"I would like to see this piece of the puzzle put in the total context of quality of life and the quality of the air that we breathe," said Harold McClarty, a fourth-generation Parlier grower who belongs to the project's advisory group.

"We have kids here. Our neighbors are here. Our friends are here," said McClarty, whose son has asthma.

"We're the ones breathing the air. I'm looking at this as purely educational. If there's a combination of pesticides that [are damaging], if there's drift, then let's change our practices."

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