Farmworkers during lettuce harvest

Farmworkers pick lettuce during the 2020 harvest season in the Salinas Valley. 

Exposure to pesticides used in agriculture was linked to illness and injury in 104 people in Monterey County in 2017, the second-highest number among all counties in California, according to a new report from the state Department of Pesticide Regulation

The latest available data comes from 2017 because the department releases its “Illnesses and Injuries Related to Pesticide Exposure“ report annually with a delay of three years. The 2020 numbers will be available in 2023.

The tally of cases comes from hospitals and health clinics, which are required by law to notify state authorities of illnesses that are related to pesticide exposure. Farmworkers and others who get sick typically suffer from an onset of dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. But the real number of cases could be much higher since not all pesticides-related illnesses are reported as such or at all.

At 150 cases, only Kern County had more people falling ill than Monterey County but it also applied more three times the amount of pesticide

Several factors likely contribute to Monterey County’s high rate, according to the advocacy group Californians for Pesticide Reform: the prevalence of strawberry fields which use “highly drift-prone fumigant pesticides,” the common use of “aerial and air-blast applications” and the settlement pattern in Salinas Valley, which features many neighborhoods situated near fields. One exposure event in 2017 saw 18 workers rushed to the hospital at once, representing 17% of the county’s total cases for that year. 

Pesticide-related illness is a separate threat from long term exposure, which is being studied by scientists and may cause serious health problems. These occupational hazards add to the mounting wildfire smoke inhalation and coronavirus infections

“Low-wage farmworkers continue to risk their lives to put food on our tables,” Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, said in a statement. “They face the greatest risk from Covid and from the fires now raging around them, often in extreme heat and without the proper protections, and they don’t have the luxury of choosing not to work. Farmworkers continue to bear the brunt of racist policies that diminish their humanity and deny them their basic rights.”

Pesticide reform advocates are calling on state and county officials to craft regulations to require more transparency and notice about when, where, and how, agricultural companies plan to apply pesticides. 

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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