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Farm town gets a chemical analysis

California has begun in-depth testing for contaminants in a farm town where people rely on chemicals but also want to protect their health.
Paul Martinez, a second grade teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Parlier, Calif., says he carries inhalers with him on field trips because several children are asthmatic.Gary Kazanjian / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With crop dusters buzzing the skies above, spray rigs stalking the fields and the occasional pesticide drift that hospitalizes scores of people, airborne chemicals are a fact of life in the little farm towns of the San Joaquin Valley.

But no one knows what chemicals linger in the notoriously polluted air and whether long-term exposure could lead to increased rates of asthma, cancer or neurological problems.

To find out, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation began a yearlong air monitoring program last month to gauge levels of 40 airborne chemicals for the first time.

While some farmers worry the results could prompt stiffer regulations, doctors and school officials who deal with chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma said it’s about time someone found out what rural residents are breathing.

“If there’s something we can do to decrease these numbers, we need to move in that direction,” said Dr. Rogelio Fernandez, who has seen increases in respiratory diseases in 15 years. “And the first step is to find out if there is something in the air.”

The department has measured pesticides for shorter periods, but the $1 million project is part of a comprehensive push to ensure the chemicals needed to protect crops from weeds, insects and fungi don’t harm the families that tend them, state officials said.

Cars and cows contribute
Pesticides are only one component of the noxious chemical soup that makes this valley — the nation’s most productive farm region — also one the nation’s most polluted air basins. Car exhaust, soot from fireplaces, even gases rising from cow manure also contribute.

No state or federal agency has spelled out how much of the chemicals are safe to breathe. Determining what is in the air is the first step.

The agency, with help from the state’s Air Resources Board, installed pumps that draw in air around three schools in Parlier, gauging levels of chemicals such as methyl bromide that are either harmful to human health or contribute to air pollution.

Parlier, a largely Hispanic town of about 12,000 about 20 miles southeast of Fresno, is the kind of place often overlooked by policymakers in the state capital — and that’s precisely why it was chosen, officials said.

“We want to ensure that our environmental laws provide a fair measure of protection for everyone who lives and works in our state,” said Mary-Ann Warmerdam, the department’s director. “We are particularly concerned about the health and welfare of children.”

The economy here relies on farming and in winter when there’s nothing to plant or harvest, a third of adults don’t work, making it one of the state’s poorest towns.

Inhalers for field trips
At Cesar Chavez Elementary School, one of the monitoring sites, even second graders are aware that the air they breathe can be harmful.

“They know the stuff that’s hurting them isn’t always natural, that sometimes it’s introduced by us,” said second-grade teacher Paul Martinez.

With three or four children out of 20 with asthma in his class every year, Martinez has gotten used to bringing inhalers on field trips in case a child has an asthma attack.

Even some farmers, still chafing from recent air quality rules meant to curb their contribution to the region’s dirty air, see the need for more testing.

“If we can find out if there are things we can do different, or better, it’s very important,” said Harold McClarty, whose family has grown peaches, plums, nectarines and citrus around Parlier for four generations. He has two children in local schools — one has asthma.

“It’s our livelihood,” he said, “but it’s also our land, and our families.”