BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Across the state, Kern County is known for agriculture and oil. However, local community organizers say these industries that helped the area financially grow are the same ones harming the health of those who live near them.
They point to a 2020 and 2021 study that links pesticides used in agriculture fields to childhood cancer and other health problems.
One of the monitoring devices the Department of Pesticides Regulation has been put to see the pesticide levels in the area. Near the place, there’s a monitor device on the grounds of an elementary school and across the street is an almond field.
Organizers say how close everything is to the community is why a notification system is so important.
“Now, residents are being affected but we don’t know what is down in the ground, we don’t know what kind of chemicals are being applied that causes an asthma attack, allergies or pulmonary problems, things like that,” said Byanka Santollo, Community Organizer for Center on Race, Poverty, and Education.
Byanka Santollo is an Arvin native who grew up around these fields, she is now a community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty, and Environment, which is a group that has been advocating for communities to be alerted when the pesticides will be used so that families can try and reduce exposure like staying inside, closing windows, clearing backyards, or simply leaving the area.
Their work has led to some change from Sacramento.
“The state budget did allocate 10 million dollars to the department of pesticide regulation to begin the development of a statewide pesticide notification system to provide transparent and equitable access to the public about pesticides used around them,” said Julie Henderson, DPR’s acting director.
Julie Henderson, with the Department of Pesticide Regulation, adds community organizers in Kern have been instrumental in this investment.
Despite this achievement, Santollo said they are receiving pushback from the Kern County AG Commissioner, Glenn Fankhauser, who would oversee implementing the system.
We were not able to reach Mr. Fankhauser for comment but he did speak about this issue in August at a Board of Supervisors meeting
“I have made it very clear that I don’t believe that a public notification is going to accomplish what they believe it will accomplish, their arguments are that it will allow residents to close their windows, bring in laundry from outside, try to protect themselves in some way,” said Fankhauser.
He says the issue is the grower has a four-day window to do spread the pesticides.
“For residents to change their behavior for up to four days until an application is concluded, I don’t think that is a reasonable thing that could happen,” said Fankhauser.
Although Fankhauser has said he would implement a public system if it became state law, he does not want to be part of the pilot program. Santollo argues, Commissioner Fankhauser has a notification system for growers to alert other growers and people living within 200 feet of the fields when they are applying pesticides, but she wants the field workers and the rest of the community, who she says is also affected, to be included in those conversations.
Meanwhile, Associate Dean for research at the College of Health and Public Service at the University of North Texas, Julia Heck said ideally people should not live near these fields.
Given entire communities have already sprung up, she decided to study those pesticides that are the most harmful so people can know what they are breathing.
“One of the pesticides that we found to be associated with childhood leukemia is Dioran and that one is actually banned in Australia, and I think it might be banned in the EU, but I was surprised to see that it is still being used in the U.S.,” said Heck.
Her research is from across the state, so while we know it’s used in California, we were not able to see if this specific pesticide was used in the Shafter community, but the latest information from the Department of Pesticide Regulation during 2018 shows the greatest pesticide use was in the San Joaquin Valley with Kern among the regions with the highest use.
Community organizers like Anabel Marquez say they hope the Kern County AG Commissioner does choose to implement the notification system before it is too late.
“Years ago, I remember, there were kids playing here and the planes spraying the pesticide at around 4 pm and I remember we were working on the community garden, and we just could not believe they would spray while the kids were out playing so close by,” said Marquez, Shafter resident and Coordinator for AB 617.
The state, this week, had a public webinar for people to share their opinions and are accepting public comments.