Following a Saturday evening presentation at the Bread Box Recreation Center in East Salinas in April, people greet Celina Trujillo like an old friend, catching up over cookies and lemonade. Though she’s just presented sobering findings that pesticide exposure may have long-term impacts on children’s IQ, morale is high. Trujillo gives concrete recommendations to an audience of about two dozen farmworkers on how to minimize exposure. Tips like taking off shoes before going into the house or washing hands after fieldwork are met with nods; only the suggestion that farmworkers should shower or change before hugging their children garners murmurs of dissent.
Since 2004, Trujillo, 29, has been conducting community meetings like this one in the Salinas Valley, reaching an estimated 10,000 farmworkers. As coordinator of the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS), Trujillo acts as a liaison between scientists researching the effects of pesticides and the farmworker community.
“She’s a scientist, an educator. She brings the research to the people, to make people understand the research that we do,” says Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and the lead scientist on the study. “It’s unique to find someone who understands both the science and the community and can translate in both directions.”
CHAMACOS, Berkeley’s partnership with Natividad Medical Center and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, is designed to fill this translator role.
Managing a nine-person team out of a small Monterey County Health Department trailer that doubles as an office and lab, Trujillo keeps tabs on the 329 Salinas-area families that have been participating in the study since it began in 1999. She receives Christmas cards and invitations to first communions from participants, and says some even seem to look forward to routine visits to provide blood and urine samples.
“A lot of women just want to unload. Sometimes our interviewers provide the role of a therapist,” she says.
Trujillo started out as a phlebotomist for the project, and after graduating from UC Berkeley, started managing community outreach. She envisions a collaborative future for the agriculture industry and public health.
“We’re certainly not proposing to ban pesticides,” she says. They advocate instead for farm operators to switch to less persistent chemicals, and train field workers with simple risk-reduction strategies.
Just this month, CHAMACOS became certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lead safety trainings for agricultural workers, so Trujillo hopes to expand from after-work community centers to the fields.
Seeing a need for a clinical health care provider on site, Trujillo is applying to graduate school to become a nurse practitioner. Study participants – most of whom do not regularly see a doctor – expect answers to all of their health-related questions. And she views CHAMACOS as just the bare minimum for farmworker health.
“Public health is so hard to look at in a vacuum, without looking at other factors,” She says. If she had all the policy tools at her disposal, her proposed fix: “We really need to work on our education system. Those who have a better education tend to have a better health outcome.”