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The Faces and Voices of Pesticide Poisoning

Each year, nearly a billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed in fields and orchards across the country. As the families who live nearby can tell you: those pesticides don't always stay in the fields and orchards where they're sprayed. For well over a decade, Earthjustice has been battling in the courts to curtail the use of dangerous pesticides that poison workers and their families. While we have succeeded in having some nasty pesticides banned, we are still fighting over a dozen others to keep people from being poisoned where they live, play, or work.

Spend some time in regions of the country where industrial agriculture dominates the landscape, and you'll find that plenty of people have stories to tell about their unnerving encounters with the chemicals neighboring growers use that our work targets.

  • Meet Cindy Dominguez, a mom from Eastern Washington, whose daughter Elena was nearly killed after being exposed to pesticides that had drifted onto school grounds from the nearby apple orchards.
  • Hear from Genoveva Galvez, a 14-year old from Lindsay, California, who has to rush indoors when the orange and olive groves surrounding her house are sprayed. Her neighbor, Domitila Lemus also has a story to tell: about a visit to a nearby elementary school that went horribly wrong after a cropduster began spraying the neighboring orange trees, sending schoolchildren gathered on the playground into spasms.
  • And that's far from the Central Valley's only mass pesticide poisoning incident. In the neighboring town of Earlimart, 250 people became violently ill when pesticides blew in from the neighboring potato fields. Among those who witnessed the tragedy was Teresa de Anda, who had to flee the poisonous cloud in a van with her three kids, two dogs and two uncles.

In the face of such threats, these rural residents are putting up a good fight. Cindy Dominguez took on the local growers and the school district and won increased safety measures for children at the school. 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. Teresa de Anda won similar buffer zones in her community.

Many of our cases are trying to protect people from the very pesticides that caused these poisonings. Most recently, Earthjustice has partnered with farmworker and public health groups around the country in an effort to gain federal protections from pesticide drift for agricultural communities nationwide. Earthjustice attorneys filed a petition in October 2009 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.

In response to the petition, the EPA opened up the group's petition for public comment. While a promising sign, EPA has not yet committed to put the necessary protections in place. Now comes the hard work of making sure that decision-makers hear that children need and deserve immediate protection from poisons in the air where they live, play, and go to school. They'll surely be getting an earful from the pesticide industry telling them to keep the status quo. Industry interests have already started putting the pressure on 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.

Spotlight Features

Stories On Pesticide Drift: A Cloud Over Earlimart

In 1999, Esteban Agpalza was among the 250 people in Earlimart, CA who became violently ill after a cloud of pesticides drifted over the town. Sitting on his front patio, across the street from a fallow field, he recalls the events of that November night.