As a child growing up in Arvin, California, Gabriel Duarte played with his brothers in an orchard 15 feet from his family’s front door. Today he plays in a prison yard. Duarte believes these two points on his 20-year timeline are related.
Earlier this year, Duarte contacted me after reading an op-ed I’d written about the widely used pesticide chlorpyrifos. I’d discovered that the likely reason for each of my three children’s brain malformations was due to my acute exposure, in 1989, to a flea “bomb” containing chlorpyrifos. Duarte believes his ADHD and impulsivity issues are the result of his chronic exposure to chlorpyrifos in his home, school and work environments.
Human and animal studies link chlorpyrifos exposure to structural damage to the brain, neurobehavioral deficits, asthma, diminished IQ, and a wide range of developmental disabilities in children. It has also been linked to heart disease, lung cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and the lowering of sperm counts in adults. Based on my investigative research, and interviews with Duarte along with dozens of other residents in the San Joaquin Valley, I’m left to draw the all-too-obvious conclusion that communities with a higher percentage of residents who are low income are at greater risk of being exposed to harmful pesticides and other environmental toxins. And the issue of race is an inextricable co-factor.
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Duarte’s alcoholic father abandoned the family when Duarte was nine, about the time his mother was diagnosed with leukemia. (Both pediatric and adult leukemias have also been linked to pesticide exposure.) Duarte, the third of four children, became the man of the house and remembers making meals for his sick mother and biking to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for his mom and younger brother, who had severe asthma.
Both Duarte and his brother were diagnosed with ADHD by a school psychologist at Di Giorgio Elementary School. Duarte does not recall being provided treatment or support from the school, which likely speaks to Di Giorgio School District being highly under-resourced, given the district’s meager tax base. Like their home on Richardson Road, the school abuts an orchard where pesticides are routinely sprayed.
And if exposure at home and school weren’t enough, before leaving the family, the boys’ father was a fieldworker who would have likely brought home pesticide residue on his clothing and shoes. Duarte himself worked as a field hand as a teenager and also at a golf course collecting stray golf balls. (Chlorpyrifos is widely used in non-agricultural settings like golf courses and golf balls are commonly thought to be a source of pesticide residue.)
The EPA banned chlorpyrifos in household products in 2000. However, its use in agriculture was allowed to continue. It’s often small, rural, low-income communities of color that bear the cumulative impacts of pesticide exposure and environmental degradation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in communities like Arvin, located in Kern County at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley — the most productive agricultural region in the country. Millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos are used each year nationwide. In 2016, 1.1 million pounds were used in California; more than a quarter of that total was used in Kern County alone.
According to the 2010 Census — about the time Duarte would have been taking on the man-of-the-house role — Hispanic or Latinx persons made up 92.7 percent of Arvin residents. Arvin’s average per capita income in 2010 was $9,241, or only 19 percent of the U.S. average of $48,880 at the time. Today, the percentage of families living below the poverty line in Arvin is more than double the national average.
That low-income communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the health effects of chemical toxins such as chlorpyrifos is not news, nor is it an accident. People of color disproportionately hold the most physically demanding, unpleasant, and low-paying jobs. The roots of the problem trace back to the legacy of state-sanctioned racial segregation. For instance, communities with high Latinx representation such as Salinas, Visalia, Santa Rosa, and San Luis Obispo, California, rank among the lowest U.S. metropolitan areas in employment opportunity. Not only have low-income families and people of color been segregated according to residence and work, they’ve consequently been forced to play host to the worst kinds of environmental burdens.
Both of Angel Garcia’s parents worked the fields when he was growing up. He is now the head of the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety. “If you drive through the Central Valley from town to town you will realize the proximity of these homes to the fields,” says Garcia. “You can speak to many community residents who will tell you ‘oh, it’s that time of the year where I have to close my windows, shut my door, not let the kids go outside.’ It’s almost normalized but I don’t want to say it’s normalized because I feel like it not normal. It’s just so common.”
Sacrifice zones are hot spots of chemical pollution where residents live or work immediately adjacent to heavily polluted industries or military bases. The Gulf Coast post-Deepwater Horizon, Cancer Alley in Lousiana, a Tesla plant built on a Superfund site in Buffalo, and polluted neighborhoods surrounding Houston’s shipping channel are but a handful of examples of locales where public officials have turned a blind eye to extreme environmental contamination in minority-dominated areas so that society at large can reap the rewards of a robust economy. This pattern of unequal protection constitutes environmental racism.
The San Joaquin Valley in general and Kern County in particular are examples of sacrifice zones. Here, the burden of the vibrant agricultural economy is carried by those predominantly-Latinx workers who pick and pack the fruits and vegetables that feed America. The health risks associated with these jobs and attendant living conditions have been well documented, but perhaps no more strikingly than by the CHARGE study conducted by UC Davis’ MIND Institute, and led by epidemiologist Irva Hertz-Picciotto, PhD.
Dr. Hertz-Picciotto and her team questioned mothers living in California about what their health was like before and during pregnancy, linking this information to another set of data that the state keeps, a pesticide-use reporting system. Their findings — that the incidence of developmental disability increases significantly in areas where pesticides are applied — bolster previous research and have dire implications for families working and living in agricultural communities near where pesticides are applied.
Garcia and others, such as Nayamin Martinez of the Central California Environmental Justice Network, have led recent caravans to Sacramento to lobby their state representatives and organized an environmental bus tour that highlighted hot spots and problem issues throughout the region. To their credit, the tour was attended by the newly appointed Cal EPA director, his director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), and a lone local agriculture commissioner.
Garcia and Martinez’s organizations also advocate for larger pesticide-free buffer zones surrounding schools, an Amber Alert-like notification system that would notify residents of pesticide applications in their vicinity, and more sustainable agricultural practices. “We will never stop pushing for greater health protections for low-income people of color,” says Martinez, “but the fact of the matter remains that most of the jobs in this region are agricultural.” Martinez, Garcia, and others in the environmental justice movement recognize they must find a win-win roadmap for both the residents who depend on those jobs and the industry that provides them.
Their largest “victory” to date may provide just such a road map. In April, as a result of the overwhelming scientific evidence and intense lobbying from environmental justice groups, the California Environmental Protection Agency, flying in the face of the federal EPA’s example, directed the state’s DPR to begin the process of banning chlorpyrifos throughout the state. After initial resistance, the chemical industry gave up its fight over the ban, which is now expected to go into effect in early 2020. It is the first time in the history of California that a pesticide’s registration has been revoked. To sweeten the bitter pill that industry is being asked to swallow and to help farmers make the transition away from chlorpyrifos, the state is adding $5.7 million to fund research into safer and more sustainable alternatives.
As for Gabrial Duarte, he is currently awaiting trial at Laredo Pretrial Facility in Kern County on charges stemming from illegal gun possession. He has spent two and a half of the past five years in detention, first in juvenile detention, and currently while awaiting trial. After our first conversation at the prison in July, he asked to be seen by a mental health professional and has since been prescribed medication for his ADHD. He is also attending anger management classes.
“Before, I was a reckless renegade,” he told me over the phone. “Now, I think things through. I ask myself, ‘if I were to do this, how would you view it, how would they view it, and how would I view it’? It [the classes] has helped me to learn empathy.”