Fresno County, nestled in the San Joaquin Valley, is home to nearly one million residents. Many of them live outside of city limits in rural parts of the county, and are enveloped by orange groves and almond orchards. Residents say that comes with a price. More than a third of Fresno County's schools are within a quarter of a mile of fields where pesticides are applied. While new state regulations prohibit applying pesticides during school hours, residents claim that results in toxic chemicals being applied throughout the night, affecting their health and well-being.
One in six children in this region suffers from asthma, the highest level in the state. How does living near farmland impact residents in the Central Valley?
Farmland runs through the Central Valley indiscriminate of county borders. In the towns of Orange Cove and Lindsay, orange groves stretch for miles, providing citrus for companies like Sunkist, stores such as Costco and Walmart, and countries as far as South Korea.
Pesticides such as chlorpyrifos are used in orange groves to protect the fruit from troublesome insects such as thrip and the Asian citrus psyllid, which recently made headlines in California. Both seriously damage citrus fruit — the latter is a death sentence, according to the USDA. They’re among the reasons farmers say that pesticides are necessary to protect their crops and livelihood.
Chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxin and attacks the nervous system of insects. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that it causes brain damage in humans at very low doses. A 2016 report by the EPA also found that its residue on crops exceeds safety standards. It belongs to a class of chemicals called organophosphates, many of which have already been banned by the EPA. Despite this, in 2017, Trump-appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt reversed an Obama administration proposal to ban chlorpyrifos. The battle over the chemical has shifted to the states in light of the EPA’s decision not to ban it.
“California is the most stringent in pesticide protection,” said Charlotte Fadipe, assistant director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR). “But we know we can do more.”
In January of 2018, CDPR's new requirements went into effect, prohibiting the use of pesticides, such as chlorpyrifos, within one-quarter of a mile of schools and daycare centers on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
But some residents who live near farmland, and activists who proposed a one-mile buffer, say the new rules aren’t enough.
Fidelia Morales is a mother of five, and a foster care provider. She lives in Lindsay, in Tulare County, 60 miles southeast of Fresno. Tulare County is home to thousands of acres of citrus groves.
Fidelia’s home is nestled between the groves, which border her home so closely that where her property ends and the farms begin can be unclear. Though she provides care for children other than her own, the latest regulation prohibiting pesticide application near daycare centers during the day doesn’t apply to her home.
In 2016, Fidelia woke up to find her swing set covered in white residue. She suspected it was chemicals that a tractor sprays on the orange groves surrounding her home.
She reported it to the local Agricultural Commissioner, and test results reported that over 19 pesticides were found on her foster children’s swing set, who could not be filmed in order to protect their privacy. The report identified the residue as drift from over a mile away, but Fidelia believed the chemicals came from the farm adjacent to her home.
Fidelia filmed farmers applying pesticide next to her home in the middle of the night.
“Sometimes we are asleep, and suddenly they begin spraying. I wake up, and remember the bathroom window is open, or I remember I left the clothes outside to dry,” Fidelia said.
Tractors usually stop spraying when they make a turn at the edge of their groves, and very few farmers spray in the day time due to regulations and heavy daytime activity.
Activists, residents, and researchers say that regardless of these precautions, pesticide residue lingers for days as it drifts and settles into yards, pools and windows, according to a report by Pesticide Action Network (PAN).
“We tell families who live near fields to be very conscious about kids’ toys that are outside,” said Dr. Kim Harley, Associate Director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health. “We tell them to make sure they wash them with soap and water if there are pesticides being sprayed nearby.”
Days after filing the complaint over residue on her swing set, Fidelia discovered her trampoline had been torn and dragged 15 feet away. She also received a visit from Child Welfare Services because a complaint was made stating that Fidelia had exposed her foster children to pesticides. Fidelia believes that someone reported her to authorities as a form of retaliation for filing a complaint.
The two social workers asked her if she was allowing her foster children to play outside, but they did not proceed with an investigation.
“It’s my property, I should be able to go wherever I want on it,” Fidelia said. “But I try to avoid having them go out.”