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Study Warns of Pesticide Threat to Farm Children

Health: Watchdog group's report states children of field workers face disproportionately high exposure to toxins. Agricultural representatives call results alarmist and unscientific.

October 23, 1998|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The children of Ventura County farm workers are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of pesticides, putting them at serious risk of developing health problems, an environmental watchdog group reported Thursday.

The report by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that children in the United States who live on or near farms, or whose families work in the fields, face disproportionately high exposure to toxic chemicals. The findings were immediately criticized by agricultural representatives.

In Ventura County, the bulk of the affected youngsters are the sons and daughters of farm workers who come in contact with pesticides through residues from their parents' clothing, dust tracked into the house and a variety of other means, the report stated.

"I'm here because I'm worried about our children," said field laborer Maria Mercedes Garcia, a farm worker advocate who spoke Thursday in Oxnard at one of several press conferences held across the nation to unveil results of the 50-page study. "I'd like to ask the government to remove the poisons that are affecting our children."

While many of the children with the greatest pesticide exposures come from migrant farm worker families, environmentalists warned that potential problems extend to all of those who live, work or go to school in agricultural areas.

"Although farm children are on the front line, all children are exposed to pesticides," said Mary Haffner, a Ventura attorney with Community & Children's Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning. "Really, is there a safe exposure for a child to a chemical that has been linked to cancer and neurological impairment? I don't think so."

The report was criticized by agricultural groups as alarmist, unscientific and a transparent ploy to push a political agenda to limit pesticide use.

Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., said virtually all local farmers apply pesticides responsibly and in accordance with some of the strictest application regulations in the country.

"They are looking for a new poster child for their whole movement and I guess it's farm worker children," said Roy, adding that the association plans to hire another attorney to deal with pesticide-related issues.

"It's all for effect," he said. "They're going to keep hammering away at this until they scare people into believing there's a problem."

The report is the latest in a series of studies released by environmental groups in recent years documenting the heavy use of potentially dangerous pesticides near homes and schools in Ventura County, especially Oxnard and El Rio.

A study released two months ago concluded that Ventura County residents risk more exposure to highly toxic airborne pesticides than those in all but two other California counties--suburban Orange and agricultural Fresno counties.

The new report also ties into a local effort launched last summer that aims at reducing health risks from pesticides among farm workers and those who live or work near agricultural areas.

The Central Coast Environmental Health Project seeks to document health risks from agricultural pesticides in Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. The project also is educating farm workers and others about pesticides and potentially hazardous agricultural practices.

"Farm workers and their children may experience exposure to pesticides where they work, where they live, where they go to school and in what they eat," said Cesar Hernandez, a community worker with California Rural Legal Assistance. The poverty law firm is working on the project with other environmental and public health advocates.

"Farm workers and their families do the work in this country that allows all of us to survive, namely harvesting the food we eat," Hernandez added. "They deserve to have government agencies afford them the maximum protection from pesticide exposure that they are entitled to under the law."

The report, "Trouble on the Farm: Growing Up With Pesticides in Agricultural Communities," concludes that children living on or near farms are likely the most pesticide-exposed subgroup in the United States.

Levels of exposure, the report said, have often exceeded so-called "safe levels" of exposure set by state and federal regulatory agencies.

The report said such exposure is especially harmful to children because they are smaller than adults and because their bodies cannot efficiently detoxify and eliminate chemicals.

It recommends several courses of action, including providing subsidized day care for working families so that children don't have to accompany their parents into the fields.

The report also was accompanied by an administrative petition to the state and federal environmental protection agencies asking that farm children's exposure be taken into account when determining pesticide tolerance levels.

That petition was signed by several environmental and public health groups, including the Environmental Defense Center of Ventura County. "No one believes it's appropriate to be growing fruit and vegetables at the expense of anyone's health, much less children's health," said Armando Nieto, executive director of the local environmental group. "But there are many things we need to look at when assessing risk to children. And for those things we don't know enough about, we need to err on the side of figuring them out."

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