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Pregnancy And Pesticides: A Study As Old As Its Subjects Reveals Health Concerns

Angela Johnston
Maritza Flores has been part of a study her entire life that measures early life exposures to pesticides.

In Salinas, if you make a run to the grocery store to pick up a bag of kale, you’ll probably pass rows and rows of the leafy green.

Click the play button to listen to this audio story.

There’s one store, Food For Less, where the fields are literally right next to the parking lot. Nineteen year old Maritza Flores and her mom shop at one there all the time. And a lot of the time, when she’s there, she notices this smell.

“Yeah it’s sometimes so strong that your nose hurts,” Maritza says. She tells me it makes it hard to breathe.”It's like thick, thick oxygen you know, it's hard to like, smell.”

And instantly she knows, someone has just sprayed pesticides. She’s used to it. Nearly60% of the land in her county is agricultural. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of things like strawberry, lettuce, broccoli . And many people in Maritza’s neighborhood, East Salinas, work in those fields. Maritza’s mom works as a supervisor in the strawberry fields. Maritza even worked there this summer alongside her, there aren’t many other job options right now for a recent high school grad during a pandemic.

Same Routine, Over And Over

On a warm day last November, I meet up with Maritza in person. We go out to the fields together with her mom. Even in the winter, there are dozens of people crouched over, quickly moving up and down rows, picking strawberries as fast as they can and placing them into plastic containers. 

“Same routine over and over until 4:00 p.m., 5:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m. Just bend, and go fast because … you get paid for how many boxes you make per day. So the more boxes you do, the more money you’re going to have,” Maritza describes as we walk through the rows.

Workers hang portable radios from their hips and wrap them in colorful bandanas to shield them from the dust. The women in the fields also wrap bandanas around their noses and mouths as a way to protect themselves from breathing in harmful toxins. The bandanas now double as masks during the pandemic. Not far from the pickers is another field of strawberry plants, covered with black tarp. In front there’s a sign that says ‘pesticides’ with a skull and crossbones, ‘do not enter.’ Maritza and her mom, Maria Núnez explain.

“We have to wait until like 84 hours, or like a week, we have to wait until the signs are taken off.” 

Research has shown that working this closely to pesticides can be dangerous. There are cases where tarps have blown off strawberry fields, or they get holes, and the direct exposure to literally tons of fumigants underneath can send farmworkers to the hospital. And often pesticides can drift in the wind, from one supposedly-safe field with no workers to another filled with people. Now, imagine if a farmworker is pregnant. 

'Because Women Actually Do That'

It’s hard to get numbers but Maria says she sees many pregnant women in the fields. Some of them even work with her now. She tells me she knows of one worker who is about to give birth any day now, but she’s still picking.

“Because women actually do that. They still go to work in the fields — pregnant, sick, or whatever. They still go ‘cause everybody has payments to pay. And so my mom, she worked until she was like I think eight months [pregnant]. I don't know how my mom did this. I don't know how she worked while she was pregnant with two girls,” Maritza says, talking about her birth mother. She had to go back to Mexico, when Maritza and her twin sister were six. While she was in Salinas, she worked long hours during her pregnancy. Almost two decades later scientists are just starting to learn what that means for Maritza.

“I don't know if I have asthma because of my mom working in the fields,” Maritza says. But, it crosses her mind. 

Pesticide exposure is extremely hard to study. Researchers can’t just inject someone with pesticides to measure their effect. And tracking them naturally is difficult: Chemicals stay in the body for a very short period of time.Plus, proving it, like saying Maritza definitely has asthma because her mom worked in the fields is equally challenging. We are exposed to many different toxins everyday, cleaning products, wildfire smoke, even makeup — so it’s difficult to point to a single source, especially if the exposure is slow, over the course of years. But, there’s a group of scientists making progress. And, actually, Maritza is an essential part of that work. Work that takes place in a tiny portable trailer tucked in the back parking lot of a Salinas hospital.


Maritza tells me about her first memory there.

“There was a study that they were doing, they had to check my body. Like every single part of my body, and they just wanted to check if something's different. There was a bed like the ones in the doctor, when you go to the doctor, like those kinds of beds,” she says. “I was kind of embarrassed, like, I'm not going to forget this.

Out front, the grass is overgrown, and there’s a tiny sign with an arrow pointing to the door. When Maritza takes me into this building, we pass a few kids toys, and a giant fridge, filled with urine and blood samples. 

“Since I was born, I used to come [here] every single year to do some studies,” Maritza says.

Where researchers measured her and checked her body. Ask her to spit in tubes and pee in cups. They drew blood and asked questions. And no matter how awkward, she and hundreds of other kids keep coming back.

The most recent study she took part in was in last February, just after she turned 18.

“They put something on my head. It was like a wig basically,” she says. It was like a swim cap with wires. They measured her brain activity as she played video games. Researchers have been studying her, and hundreds of other young adults in the Salinas Valley, since before they were born, trying to see what happens when farmworker’s kids are exposed to pesticides very early on in their lives. The study is named after the spanish word for kid: CHAMACOS. It stands for the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas. It’s the first, and now the longest of its kind. 

“We initially enrolled 600 or so pregnant women,” says Brenda Eskenazi, the center and study’s director. In 1999, she and her team started taking samples and data from the moms before they gave birth. And they were there to test children like Maritza and her sister basically as soon as they came out of the womb. And then again when they were six months old, again at one year, and then all throughout their childhood, until they turned 18. 

Reams And Reams Of Data

The blood, spit, and urine tests measured the amount of pesticides in the kids’ bodies. Researchers then compared these pesticide levels to the kids cognitive and physical abilities. Think IQ tests, reflex tests, tests using caps with a bunch of wires. 

“We have hundreds of thousands of biological samples stored. We've collected reams and reams and reams of data,” Brenda says. 

And the findings are pretty revealing. If a pregnant woman had high exposure to pesticides there’s a chance her baby could have a lower IQ level  — almost 7 points lower, similar to lead poisoning. Researchers found links between pesticide exposure and respiratory illness, developmental disorders, and attention problems like ADHD. After all, these are toxins designed to shut down the nervous systems of insects. And researchers continuing to use that cohort of kids to study more connections — like how the fear of deportation can affect mental health.

“There's so many other things that I've had to consider that I never thought I was going to be seeing and sometimes I just get reduced to tears,” Brenda says.

Personal And Policy Changes

Where she puts her hope is in the power her research has to change lives. And over the past two decades, CHAMACOS research has informed lawmakers and influenced policy. For instance, farms do spray less now than when the study first started. California recently announced it would phase out chlorpyrifos, one of the many kinds of pesticides linked with health problems. And earlier this year a major manufacturer said they’d stop making it. In California, you can’t spray pesticides near schools during school hours, and as of last year,Monterey County made a new rule that schools near farms — there are a lot of them — need to get three days advance notice before pesticides were sprayed. But these changes aren’t enough to keep Maritza from worrying. There were still millions of pounds of pesticides  sprayed in Monterey County last year.

“I worry about my mom and all the people that work in the fields, not only my family,” Maritza says. 

Policy changes certainly amount to something, but they haven’t stopped exposure completely. People still need to work, and for many this is their only option for income. A concrete thing the study can offer its individual participants is this guy.

“I do frequently presentation in schools and sometimes they say, ‘Oh I know you, you’re Mr. CHAMACO.” 

José’s last name isn’t actually ‘CHAMACO’. It’s Camacho — pretty close. I met him last fall at a health festival in East Salinas, where the study has a booth right behind some Mexican folk dancing. 

José is CHAMACO’s outreach coordinator. He’s there explaining some of the study’s findings to people who wander up to the booth. 

He tells them that because dust from pesticides can travel on clothes, one of the easiest ways to protect your kids from toxic chemicals is to change and wash your clothes after working in the fields, and to avoid hugging your kids right away.

José was a farmworker himself just over 20 years ago, when he got a call from UC Berkeley asking him if he wanted a job. 

“I was very surprised. Yes. I was very very surprised,” he says. 

He didn’t speak any English at the time, but that’s what the team was looking for — someone who was part of the community. He goes to schools to give talks on the findings, he hands out doormats that say, "don’t bring pesticides into the house — wipe your feet and take off your shoes." The CHAMACOS team wishes they had enough money to hand those doormats out to every single farmworker in the Salinas Valley. 

“Imagine how effective that could be,” Brenda Eskenazi says. “I mean that doesn't change policy. You've got to work on both fronts, right. But if we could change habits and policy at the same time that could be really effective.”

Brenda says another way to protect those women and their children is to keep the study going. But it’s looking uncertain that they’ll get to do that. They only have funding to study pesticide exposure with the cohort for the next year or two, up until all the kids turn 18.

'Secret Science' And The Future Of CHAMACOS

This is a familiar story for a lot of researchers. We’ve probably heard it before, It’s hard to secure money. But, Brenda says it’s a bigger loss when you think about the decades of research and relationships that just suddenly come to a halt. But what’s even scarier, she says, is that this could be part of a larger problem across the country.

“There's been a lot of rhetoric, especially from the EPA that we shouldn't be using human studies to set policy,” she says.

When theTrump Administrationtook office, agricultural companies began lobbying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop making decisions on pesticide regulation based on longitudinal studies like CHAMACOS — that is, unless all the data was shared publicly. Former EPA director Scott Pruitt called these studies "secret science."

Critics of this so-called secret science rule say it’s really just a way to suppress studies that have led to tough regulations in the past, like air and water pollution rules. Brenda says she hasn’t been asked to share any of her data yet, but she has seen funding from the EPA dry up. So have researchers at UCLA. A study looking at pesticides in the Central Valley lost almost all funding to keep following agricultural workers with Parkinson's disease. The study’s director worked for free in between grants, because she said it would be devastating to stop studying the subjects, they continue to discover more as people age. The CHAMACOS study also has a lot to lose. 

“We already know of lots of pregnancies that have happened in our cohort. But think about how many of these kids will have children by the ages of 25,26. A large proportion of them. And what we're all learning is that early life exposures may have trans-generational effects. And in order to look at trans-generational effects you need to be able to follow up at least two or three generations,” Brenda says.

And if it all stops, she says, they’re going to lose those kids, Maritza’s kids — the grandchildren of the study’s original mothers. I ask Maritza if she’s even thought that far ahead. 

Well if I have ... my own kids, I don't want them to have health problems. I want them to be healthy,” she says.

Maritza is now taking courses online at the local community college. And while her time in the field this summer may have ended, she wants to build a future in her community, in Salinas, living right alongside the rows of strawberries and the women who pick them.

Thank you to Adriana Morga for translation help.

This story was produced with support from the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship.

Crosscurrents Pregnancy And Pesticides: Farmworker Health In The Salinas ValleyHealth
Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.