César Chávez: Farmworker advocate, health champion

UPDATE: A related article, Disease Cluster Mystery, ran in the April 13, 2011 edition of Vida en el Valle. A related video, Cancer Village, can be seen here.

César Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers, was a community health champion more than 20 years ago.

In July and August of 1988, Chávez embarked on a 36-day unconditional, water-only fast to bring attention to the unsafe use of pesticides in the fields, and their dangerous health impacts on farmworkers, as well as consumers.

After the fast, in a March 1989 speech at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., Chávez highlighted the risks of pesticides by telling the moving story of the Rodríguez family of McFarland: The wife, Elia, worked in the table grape vineyards around Delano until she was eight-months pregnant. Her son, Johnnie, had cancer and died when he was five years old.

At that time, McFarland suffered from a childhood cancer rate three to four times higher than normal, according to a recent report from the National Resources Defense Council and the National Disease Clusters Alliance.

In his speech, Chávez said:

Farmworkers and their families are exposed to pesticides from the crops they work. The soil the crops are grown in. Drift from sprays applied to adjoining fields, and often the very field where they are working.

Pregnant women labor in the fields to help support their families. Toxic exposure begins at a very young age – often in the womb.

The fields that surround their homes are heavily and repeatedly sprayed. Pesticides pollute irrigation water and groundwater.

Children are still a big part of the labor force. Or they are taken to the fields by their parents because there is no childcare.

In the speech, he challenged whether there can be an “acceptable” level of exposure to pesticides.

There is no acceptable level of exposure to any chemical that causes cancer. There can be no toleration of any toxic that causes miscarriages, still births and deformed babies.

Then why do we allow workers to carry the burden of pesticides on their shoulders?

Risk is associated with any level of exposure. And any level of exposure is too much.

Isn’t that the protection you would ask for your family and your children? Isn’t that the standard of protection you would demand for yourself?

Then why do we allow farmworkers to carry the burden of pesticides on their shoulders?


  • Learn more about César Chávez in this week’s edition of Vida. Read more about disease clusters in an upcoming edition of Vida.
  • For more information about pesticides in the San Joaquín Valley, check out this video by non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice:

Top photo from www.tucsoncitizen.com

Remembering the infants of Kettleman City

UPDATE: The story, ‘Kettleman City campaign continues,’ can be found here.

Last night I attended a vigil in commemoration of the three babies who died of birth defects in Kettleman City in recent years.

The vigil was at times spiritual, at times a community bonding event, and at times a press conference. (Read about the press conference in next week’s edition of Vida.)

And at times, the vigil was very emotional.

Toward the end of the night, two members of the youth group Kids Protecting Our Planet presented a slide show of photos of the three infants who passed away, set to emotional Spanish-language music. The slide show captured the very human tragedy that occurred in this farmworker community.

Here are some scenes from the vigil:

From left, Linda MacKay, of the Tri-County Watchdogs, Valerie Gorospe, of the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, and Lupe Martínez, also of CRPE, show their support for the people of Kettleman City.

Magdalena Romero (left) and María Saucedo (right) release doves in honor of their babies who were born with birth defects and later died. Each of them wear T-shirts in honor of their deceased infants. María’s reads: Madre en la lucha/mother in the struggle.

Daría Hernández plays with her 2-year-old son, Ivan Rodríguez, and allows him to blow out – over and over – the candle lit as part of the vigil. Daría is wearing a T-shirt featuring a picture of Ivan, who was born with birth defects. He has had two surgeries and - except for a small scar near his upper lip – is now perfect.

  • Read more about the vigil in next week’s edition of Vida. Click here to read past blogs about Kettleman City.

Could bio-monitoring solve the mystery in Kettleman?

On Monday, the state Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Public Health released a draft report of their investigation into the birth defects in Kettleman City between 2007 and March 2010.

Their conclusion: There is no common cause for the birth defects found in 11 babies from this impoverished farmworker community of about 1,500 people. (Read the full story here.)

That news didn’t sit well with Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a community activist with the local organization El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio/People for Clean Air and Water.

“I feel that they need to continue the investigation, and it needs to be more thorough,” Mares-Alatorre told me. “They need to find out actually why the birth defects happen, so people can continue to have babies without fear.”

Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, suggests a solution for how state agenices could determine the exact cause of the birth defects in Kettleman City: Bio-monitoring.

In a phone interview, she said the state agencies could test Kettleman City residents’ blood, urine, or mothers’ breast milk to determine what chemicals are in people’s bodies, and then compare their level of chemical exposure to the national average.

It’s a tool that’s proved effective in other cases, she said.

She said bio-monitoring helped solve a devastating childhood cancer cluster mystery in Fallon, Nevada. There, bio-monitoring discovered a link between tungsten and acute lymphocytic leukemia. (Read an excellent story about that case, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, here.)

“These tools are being used more and more,” said Williams, who grew up in Rosamond, the site of another childhood cancer cluster. “Most of the last clusters investigations have used bio-monitoring to try to identify the exposure.”

“Why wouldn’t you use every available tool that you have to find out what the cause of the problem is?” Williams said. “The investigation would not be complete without doing bio-monitoring.”

Al Lundeen, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said bio-monitoring can be an effective tool in public health investigations. But, he said, the state investigation indicated that Kettleman City families didn’t have enough exposure to chemicals or pesticides to warrant using bio-monitoring.

“Bio-monitoring would really pinpoint a chemical, but our investigation did not find that there appeared to be an exposure to chemicals that could be of a significant level to result in birth defects,” Lundeen said.

“It’s clearly a tool in the toolbox, but it didn’t seem to be a tool that would tell us more than we had already learned.”