The Toxic Secret of California’s Salad Bowl

The farmworkers who help bring fresh fruit and produce to your table aren’t protected by the safety standards most workers in the U.S. enjoy. The farmworkers’ reality is often a nightmare of back-breaking work and repeated exposure to toxic chemicals.

Maria Aguilera, a farmworker for 24 years, has learned to protect herself from toxic chemicals applied to the fields.
Maria Aguilera, a farmworker for 24 years, has learned to protect herself from toxic chemicals applied to the fields. (Dave Getzschman for Earthjustice)

The farmworkers who help bring fresh fruit and produce to your table aren’t protected by the safety standards most workers in the U.S. enjoy. They rely on the Worker Protection Standard, a rule which had not been updated for more than 20 years. (Read about the updated standard.) The farmworkers’ reality is often a nightmare of back-breaking work and repeated exposure to toxic chemicals. The stories of individuals who live this reality allows us to get beyond the statistics of 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S., experiencing 10,000–20,000 reported pesticide poisonings a year. Earthjustice is sharing these stories—starting in California with the help of our partner organization Lideres Campesinas.

Olga Santos

Santa Maria, CA

I started working in the fields with my parents at 6-years-old. We worked the seasonal crops, so we moved around a lot. I went to school and would work full-time during school vacations. We lived in a van and parked on the side of the fields. Most of the time, we slept in the clothes we worked in. Even if we changed clothes, the chemicals would still be in the van.

To think about my childhood makes me so sad and teary-eyed. They would spray pesticides near us over and over and there was nothing that could be done. As a child, there is not much you can do, other than try to speak up as loud as you can. My parents were fearful of losing their jobs, so they wouldn’t say much.

If you do speak up, you run the risk of getting fired. I remember my parents having to find new jobs and never hearing why. It could be because we spoke out. My parents still work in the fields and these things still happen. You would think things would be different because of stronger laws today. It hasn’t.

Ernestina Santiago Salazar

Santa Maria, CA

I started working in the corn fields in Mexico when I was 10. I moved to California at age 24 and have been a farmworker ever since. I’ve seen children’s bodies damaged at an early age because of pesticide exposure. There should be a law allowing only adults to work in the fields. If properly enforced, it will enable children to stay in school and get a better education so they won’t have to do field work like me. Field work is hard work, physically demanding, and it is no place for a child, especially around the chemicals.

While I was picking grapes, I was exposed to pesticides because the chemicals drifted over from a nearby field. They spray early in the morning and I smell the chemicals when I get to work. Sometimes they are still spraying when we arrive. They tell us it is not dangerous and won’t harm us. When I smell it, I feel like I want to vomit.

Pedro Reyes

Santa Maria, CA

The poisons that are intended to kill the bugs in the fields can stay in the fields for days. I’ve seen farmworkers who have fungus on their fingers that eats away their fingernails. Workers are often not given proper training or protective gear, like gloves.

Repeated exposure, week after week can cause real damage not only to their hands, but to their eyes. We see an alarming amount of farmworkers with cataracts. Many workers live with daily headaches and vertigo. After working in the fields for five years, that’s when I’ve seen people develop the hardcore health issues like cataracts and arthritis.

I work for a local community college where my students are predominately farmworkers. I hear so many horror stories about the mistreatment of this labor force. Many of my students don’t know how to speak, read or write English. All they’ve ever known is work and they will endure hard, physical, painful labor just to earn some decent money. I’m more of a case manager than teacher. I give this vulnerable population resources on pesticide exposure, domestic abuse, labor abuse and translation services.

Graciela Silva

Santa Paula, CA

I came to California from Guatemala in 1981, and when I first arrived, women didn’t work in the fields. But there was more work than workers, so they began hiring women as field workers. Lemons are the most difficult crop to pick because of the size of the bags that get very heavy. We have to carry those bags up and down the ladders next to the trees. I quit working in the fields because I knew it was bad for my health. To this day, when I get close to the fields, I get nauseated and feel faint.

I think farmworkers need trustworthy, mobile clinics that go to the fields and perform regular check-ups of the workers every six months or so. I’m sure they would find skin rashes, boils, fungus on hands and feet, along with many other ailments. I think workers would be better served, even if there was a charge for services. Most people turn to home remedies to make themselves feel better. I know that pesticides are a necessary evil in our fields. But more emphasis needs to be placed on protecting workers. They endure so much to put food on our tables.

Andrea Cabrera Hubbard

Santa Maria, CA

I started working as a child in the fields, picking squash for a half day and then going to school the other half day. At the school, I would be bullied for working in the fields. I made it to fourth grade and then quit. After that, I worked all day, every day cutting tomatoes. Sometimes the cans were heavier than I was.

I help other women so they don’t have to live the life I had to live. There’s a lot of abuse. The bosses, foremen, supervisors are the most abusive to the workers. I think most field workers would share their stories but because of the fear, nobody speaks up. They think they are going to be deported so they would rather keep silent and hold back the pain from all the chemicals they use.

Many people here in the U.S. think that we are here to steal their jobs. But are they willing to work in the fields, bend down for hours to cut the strawberries, run after the boxes to fill when you get paid $1.25 a box? The work goes on whether it is pouring rain or 105° heat. Who else is going to work that hard for those low wages? Without us, Americans would not have their cheap food.

Maria Aguilera

Santa Maria, CA

I witnessed a plane swooping down and spraying pesticides over a field filled with farmworkers. When those workers complained, those workers were sent home to take care of themselves. Not all bosses are brutal, but the plane should have never sprayed a working field like that. I’ve never been directly sprayed by pesticides, but I’ve seen it happen plenty of times in my 24 years of working in the fields. I know that pesticides have drifted onto me and people around me, and I think rules need to be improved regarding spraying on nearby fields. I do wear glasses while working, because I’m losing my vision rapidly.

Sometimes, the employer knows the rules, but not the employee. I would never work without a mask but I see people who do. I think some workers don’t protect themselves properly because of lack of training. When you move from field to field, from boss to boss a lot, training isn’t a priority. Some ranches are better than others at protecting their workers. In my 24 years of working in the fields, I have seen working conditions improve.

Rufina Vazquez

Santa Paula, CA

Strawberries are the hardest crop to work because you have to follow the tray tractor, stooped but working fast to keep up. Breaks are rare, even when you are thirsty; the days are long and it is backbreaking work.

I’ve been sprayed by pesticides many times. Each time, it made me sick with headaches and nausea. I believe most of the people I work with have been exposed to pesticides. If they aren’t spraying in the field where we are working, the chemicals drift from one field to the next.


(Last Name Withheld)

I’ve been exposed to pesticides many times. Now, I try to protect myself because I know better than to count on anyone else to look after us. Just today, the field next to where we were working was being sprayed. We asked, “Hey, what are you doing?” They replied, “Don’t worry. It is just sulfur.” Because of the lack of enforcement, even if we did complain, no one would investigate or take action.

When the wind is blowing in my direction and I see a drift coming towards me, I walk away and cover my nose and mouth with my sweatshirt. Even if they get mad at me for walking away, I am simply not going to put myself in harm’s way anymore.

We are forced to work in toxic fields, because the supervisors aren’t being supervised. In the fields, my eyes are always irritated. I have cataracts now, and I can’t afford to get my eyes fixed. Many people in the fields have damaged eyes.

Elvia Vasquez

Oxnard, CA

I worked in the strawberry fields of California and Washington State. I picked and packed lettuce but mainly we followed the crops, blackberries, blueberries, wine and table grapes and many other fruits and vegetables for a decade. Washington State protected their field workers better than California. The fields I worked in there were never freshly sprayed with pesticides.

About a year ago, we were working here and they sprayed right next to us. I got sick. If I was in charge, I would make the fields off limits for two days after spraying just to ensure that workers weren’t poisoned. Sometimes when you start picking in a field the day after it has been sprayed, you can feel and sometimes taste the pesticides.

Often workers are trained in languages they don’t understand. Mixtecos can’t understand Spanish most of the time. Sometimes trainings are given in English to a Hispanic-speaking group. If you don’t use their language, they won’t understand the importance of the information. Workers come home with pesticides on their clothes, they pick up their kids after a long day at work and they want a hug. That hug comes with toxic chemicals. Some workers even sleep in their field clothes and wake up with headaches.

Celia Mendez

Oxnard, CA

The workers don’t report pesticide exposure poisonings because they are afraid of losing their jobs. They are afraid to speak up because all of their relatives are working in the fields and if one person speaks out, everyone in the family can lose their jobs. Many of the workers I know only speak Mixteco, and that also is a reason for people to be afraid to report it. When they don’t speak either English or Spanish, it is hard to speak up for yourself.

In my work translating for farmworkers, I’ve heard so many horror stories. One woman lost her baby in the field, miscarrying her pregnancy because of repeated exposure to pesticides after feeling faint and nauseas in the fields. The same woman gave birth to a baby with abnormalities.

Pregnant farmworkers are forced to work up until the baby is born. The work is harder for them, but they do it to support their families. So often, these women have deformed babies; some are born with no strength in their bones. Many of these children develop speech problems.

But these problems belong to more than just the farmworker. The affected include the communities around the farms, the children, and the schools.