By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Romo stays in the cheerless camp for a simple reason: Decent housing is unaffordable for many farm workers, especially in the Salinas Valley, where residential spillover from Silicon Valley has sent costs soaring in recent years. A good number of older farm workers who have lived in the area since before the dot-com days own houses in Salinas and other towns. But for the less fortunate, especially migrants who will only be in town for a few months, the options are dire. It’s common to find two or three families sharing a single apartment. Thousands of people live illegally in rented garages — often sharing them with up to a dozen others.
To Israel Gomez Ruiz, a crowded garage must sound pretty appealing some nights. Ruiz, a short, stocky 27-year-old from Oaxaca, has been living for months in an American shantytown, a squalid straggle of trailers, camper shells and shacks in a field outside of Gilroy. Ruiz pays $150 a month to stay in a tiny camper shell barely high enough to stand up inside of and literally not big enough to swing the proverbial cat in. It has electricity, but no heat or running water. Trash bags are piled up in the mud outside, full of cans Ruiz has collected to recycle for a little extra money.
I confess to being surprised that someone can be working full-time in the United States and have to live like this. “The choice is to live somewhere nice, or to have some money to ‰ send home,” shrugs Ruiz. After all, it could be worse. His cousin lives in a smaller camper shell next door, which doesn’t even have electricity.
Farm workers also face odds of being injured or even killed on the job that would make most Americans blanch. In California, agricultural workers are killed on the job at four times the statewide average for work-related deaths — crushed by machinery, killed in bus accidents or poisoned by toxic chemicals. In 2000, 476 farm workers nationwide were killed on the job. Tens of thousands more are injured every year — and to make matters worse, a recent report by the California Institute of Rural Studies found that nearly 70 percent of the farm workers they surveyed had no health insurance of any kind. Nearly one-third of the men had never been to a doctor in their lives.
But the most insidious danger farm workers face is from the swarm of toxic chemicals that pervade the fields they work in. Starting from before my romaine seed was even planted in the earth, a whole arsenal of chemical killers was deployed to annihilate every imaginable living thing that might interfere with its development. The soil was probably treated with fumigants to kill microbes and herbicides to kill weeds; depending on conditions in the field as it ripened, my head may have been treated further with insecticides to kill aphids, nematicides to kill worms, rodenticides to kill rats, fungicides to kill downy mildew, and on and on. It’s simply far more cost-efficient to use such chemicals than it is to weed crops by hand, or risk losing them to an insect infestation.
These poisons are slathered on our fruits and vegetables in staggering quantities. California growers used 151 million pounds of pesticides in 2001, the most recent year for which the state Department of Pesticide Regulations has statistics. The nonprofit Californians for Pesticide Reform estimates that tens of millions more pounds are used every year without being reported.
There’s no question that this stuff is hazardous — after all, it’s designed expressly to kill living things. Probably the scariest thing about pesticides is how little we know about the harm they may be causing us. A 2000 report by the federal General Accounting Office cites an EPA estimate of the number of physician-diagnosed cases of pesticide poisoning at 10,000 to 20,000 per year; “however,” the report notes, “EPA recognize(s) that its estimate represents serious underreporting . . . comprehensive information on the occurrence of acute and chronic health effects due to pesticide exposure does not exist — whether for farm workers, farm children, or the population in general.” This is no small matter. Many pesticides are known or probable carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, neurotoxins and/or other kinds of human poisons. The effects of acute pesticide poisonings — that is, short-term, observable effects — can range from headaches and nausea to burns, paralysis and death.
D’Arrigo Bros., like any reputable grower, says they apply pesticides in accordance with state and federal regulations designed to keep farm workers and the general public safe. That’s probably true, but still not necessarily comforting — neither for farm workers nor the rest of us. According to the most recent data kept by the Monterey County Agriculture Commissioners Office, in 2001, D’Arrigo Bros. applied more than 10,000 pounds of the insecticide diazinon, among many other chemicals, to its romaine fields in that county alone. The EPA recently ordered the use of diazinon banned on home lawns and sharply curtailed in agricultural operations, declaring that “without mitigation, diazinon poses unacceptable risks to agricultural workers and to birds and other wildlife species.” If ingested by humans, it can cause nausea, dizziness, confusion and, at very high exposures, respiratory paralysis and death. Among many other chemicals, D’Arrigo’s romaine fields were also treated with heavy doses of tralomethrin, an insecticide which the state Department of Pesticide Resources ranks among the most dangerous and a specific hazard to fish, bees and “children/humans.”
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