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
Fieldworkers are obviously at the greatest risk of pesticide poisoning, but so to some extent are we all. The poisons applied in the fields have a bad habit of not staying there: They drift away on the breeze, they trickle down into groundwater, they float off into surface water, and they stick to the plants on which they have been sprayed. Even if you eat only organic produce, chances are good that at least at some point you will be drinking and breathing in pesticides.
In 1999, 21 people had to be hospitalized, vomiting and aflame with rashes, after fumes of metam-sodium, a pre-planting fumigant used to kill weeds and nematodes, drifted from a potato field into the California town of Earlimart. Metam-sodium, which is also a suspected carcinogen, is widely used throughout the state; nearly a quarter of a million pounds of the stuff were dumped on California’s leaf lettuces in 2000. Several studies have found traces of other toxic pesticides in air samples around the state. Most of those have come from areas close to agricultural zones — but thanks to urban sprawl, that’s a lot of the state by now. According to another Californians for Pesticide Reform study, nearly 800,000 people in Los Angeles and Orange counties live within half a mile of areas where pesticides are heavily used. “Pesticides aren’t something just used way out in the sticks,” says Bill Walker, director of the Environmental Working Group, another anti-pesticide outfit. “They’re in the suburbs.”
Dozens of pesticides have also turned up in recent years in drinking-water sources throughout the state — including Los Angeles and Orange counties. These toxins can stay in the water for years. The fumigant DBCP was banned in the U.S. in the late 1970s because it can cause sterility, but was still showing up almost 20 years later in wells throughout California, forcing authorities to close dozens of municipal drinking-water wells.
Then there’s the produce itself. In 2001, one-fifth of lettuce heads the Department of Pesticide Resources sampled from random supermarkets carried traces of various pesticides. And if deliberately applied pesticides weren’t enough to worry about, the Environmental Working Group announced in late April that their tests found perchlorate, a highly toxic rocket-fuel ingredient, in a substantial number of winter lettuce heads pulled from San Francisco grocery store shelves. The heads had evidently absorbed the toxin from Colorado River irrigation water, which is polluted with perchlorate leaking from a disused Nevada military facility.
If there is any residue of diazinon, tralomethrin or anything else on my salad, it’s probably a very small amount. Almost all of the pesticides that turn up in the air, the water and on lettuce do so in quantities officially considered too small to be dangerous.
But what if the government standards for safety are simply wrong? DDT is only the best-known example of a chemical we thought was safe to spray all over our food that turned out to be harmful. And even if the levels of an individual pesticide ingested in a single instance are safe, who knows what damage might be caused by the gradual accumulation of small amounts of them in our bodies, or by different pesticides combining in the body?
No one, as it turns out. As the 2000 General Accounting Office report puts it, when it comes to “information on the chronic (long-term) effects of pesticide exposure . . . the studies that have been conducted to date have been limited, inconsistent, and inconclusive . . . Even less is known about the combined effects of human exposure to different pesticides.”
What research has been done is hardly cheering. Studies have found links between chronic exposure to various pesticides and early-onset Parkinson’s disease; neurological damage in children; elevated risks for a whole range of cancers; stillbirths and neonatal deaths; and shrunken limbs in babies. Partly as a result, since 1996 the EPA has been re-evaluating thousands of pesticide safety levels to take into account the possible effects of cumulative exposure, and children’s greater sensitivity to them. As a result, hundreds of pesticides are being phased out.
“Time and again the chemical industry has produced things they’ve said are safe which turn out to cause harm or death and have to be taken off the market,” says Walker. “They’re basically conducting chemical experiments on our bodies.”
But back to my head of romaine. Packed into a carton straight from the sun-warmed earth in Salinas, it was most likely trucked to a giant refrigerating chamber in the D’Arrigo Bros. cooling facility in nearby Castroville. In this sprawling industrial compound, 840 cartons at a time are loaded up on pallets and run through the chambers, which suck almost all the air out of the cartons and chill what’s left down to just above freezing. (Actually freezing lettuce turns it black.)
Once cooled for transport, the pallet containing the carton containing my romaine head was forklifted into a cavernous warehouse building known as a “cold box,” where the temperature is also just above freezing. Lettuce will keep at this temperature for a couple of weeks, but the company doesn’t keep heads there longer than three days. “We want to get in the back door and out the front, so it stays fresh,” explains Robert Tostado, the receiving supervisor.
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