SAN FRANCISCO – More than 32 million pounds of toxic pesticides, including many linked to cancer and respiratory and developmental problems, have been used on Ventura County farm fields from 2015 to 2020, including near schools and homes, according to a groundbreaking analysis of California pesticide data by the Environmental Working Group.
These exposures threaten hundreds of thousands and put farmworkers and their families at the greatest health risk.
Almost 70 percent of all homes in Ventura are within 2.5 miles of an agricultural operation where pesticides are regularly sprayed, with more than one in four homes located within a half-mile of farm fields. From Ojai to Oxnard, increased exposure levels and risks are found almost everywhere, affecting the vast majority of people either living in or visiting the county on a daily basis.
Especially alarmingly, 33 public elementary schools in the county are located within a quarter-mile of farming operations where pesticides are sprayed. Several pesticides used in Ventura are linked to serious health problems, including harm to children’s development.
“Agriculture is a billion-dollar industry for Ventura County and a rich part of the county’s history. But today, the county’s bucolic vistas are marred by pesticide-intensive farming that exposes tens of thousands of residents and farmworkers to the risk of regularly inhaling toxic chemicals,” said EWG President Ken Cook.
“Our findings show why state and federal policymakers must act to better safeguard workers and residents from dangerous exposure to pesticide drift,” Cook said.
EWG scientists mapped pesticide use data from the Ventura Agricultural Commissioner’s Office throughout the county. They then analyzed the combined health risks for those pesticides for farmworkers, children and people of all ages living and working near agricultural fields.
Some pesticides can drift long distances, potentially miles from the fields, even in a light breeze, into nearby neighborhoods, schools and playgrounds, sometimes forcing residents into their homes and students into their classrooms until the pesticides dissipate.
A team of EWG toxicologists and geospatial experts scoured reams of data, including more than 760,000 records on Ventura County pesticide use from 2015 to 2020 and 265,000 property tax records, to produce two interactive maps. These maps inform people living, working and going to school in the county about their proximity to pesticide use and the potential health risks from regular exposure to these toxic chemicals.
The maps provide the first-ever assessment of the outsize health concern for farmworkers and many Ventura residents based on their proximity to pesticide-sprayed fields, as well as the amount and toxicity of pesticides applied to those fields. Anyone can enter a work, school or residence street address and instantly get extensive information about pesticides used near the location over a six-year period and their potential health effects.
Early symptoms of acute exposure to a single dose of a pesticide, which is a real risk for farmworkers, can include nausea, dizziness, headaches, vomiting, eye, skin, nose and throat irritation and nervousness, among other issues.
“The health effects of pesticides are assessed one chemical at a time, but that is not a real-world scenario when it comes to pesticide use, exposure and potential harm,” said EWG Toxicologist Alexis Temkin, Ph.D. “These maps help people visualize the staggering amount of chemicals, many of which have similar toxicities and may be acting together to cause harm.”
Farmworkers experience higher exposures to pesticides, compared to the general public, because they’re working in the fields where the toxic chemicals are used. Recent studies, including by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show farmworkers are most exposed to pesticide drift and have the highest rate of pesticide poisoning from drift.
The Ventura-based nonprofit House Farmworkers estimates there are approximately 40,000 farmworkers in Ventura County. According to a report by California Research Bureau, 92 percent of farmworkers in California are Latino. They experience a disparate burden from pesticide exposure, poor working and living conditions, much lower incomes, and language and social barriers, making this an issue of environmental justice.
In producing this pesticide mapping project, EWG’s scientists consulted closely with farmworker advocates in the county and elsewhere in the state – including Californians for Pesticide Reform and Pesticide Action Network of North America – to better understand the real-life, daily impacts pesticides have on these frontline communities.
“This tool confirms what we have long suspected – that here in Ventura County we are being exposed on a daily basis to a vast and unregulated mixture of hazardous chemicals,” said Teresa Gomez, coordinator of Oxnard-based Ventura County Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety, part of the statewide Californians for Pesticide Reform coalition.
“Worst of all, residents are not told about pesticide use in advance so that we can protect ourselves. That must change. As a matter of public safety and simple justice, California must make pesticide applications public in advance,” Gomez said.
“This map, which combines state data on pesticide use with health impact information, is an important tool in the landscape of our shared work toward a California food and farming system free of the dangerous pesticides that jeopardize farmworker and community health,” said Pesticide Action Network Senior Scientist Margaret Reeves.
She added, “This is the kind of information residents and workers need in their own hands to advocate for the protection of their families and communities, and we look forward to seeing these types of grassroots science-supporting initiatives replicated across the state in the future.”
No state or federal limits restrict the amount of agricultural pesticides allowed in air. California does conduct some seasonal air monitoring of pesticides in certain high-use areas, but the infrequency of these tests and relatively small number of test locations mean there is no complete picture of the heavy agricultural use of pesticides in Ventura County or the rest of the state.
“The situation in Ventura, with big agriculture exposing farmworkers, families and school children to a constant mix of dangerous pesticides, is unfolding across California,” said EWG’s Cook. “Our analysis shows, house by house and field by field, the direct threat pesticides pose to many communities, and it underscores the need to improve pesticide monitoring and spray notification to protect workers and residents.”
Although the pesticide mapping project for Ventura County is the first conducted in California and breaks important new ground, it won’t be the last. EWG and the network of farmworker advocacy and pesticide watchdog groups will likely replicate the initiative in other agriculture-intensive counties in the state in the coming year.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.