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Meet the Tulare County mom leading the fight for pesticide regulation in her community

Maria Alejandra Reyes is an advocate for pesticide regulation in Orosi, a small community in Tulare County.
Madi Bolanos
Maria Alejandra Reyes is an advocate for pesticide regulation in Orosi, a small community in Tulare County.

Maria Alejandra Reyes worked as a farmworker in the Central Valley for 15 years. She worked until she gave birth to her son, Daniel. When he was about two years old, she says she noticed he wasn’t speaking or interacting like other kids his age. When she would take him to doctors in the area, she says they’d ask her about her exposure to pesticides.

“You ask yourself, ‘why is the doctor asking these questions?’” she says in Spanish.

A Spanish-speaking doctor later told her the questions were routine. Her son was eventually diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and a mild form of autism. She says she’ll always wonder if her son’s diagnosis was connected to pesticide exposure. That’s especially true as she learns more about the health impacts of pesticide particles.

A recent study from UCLA looked at the California Cancer Registry from 1998 to 2011. It found certain pesticides were linked to childhood cancer and tumors in children whose mothers lived within 2.5 miles of agricultural fields while pregnant.

Julia Heck, professor of epidemiology at UCLA and the co-author of the UCLA study, says Latino families are most impacted by pesticides because they tend to live and work near fields.

“So they may be exposed both residentially, but also maybe there's family members being exposed at work at the same time and they're bringing that home; it's on their clothes,” she says.

Some Tulare County residents call for pesticide notification program

Several years after Daniel's diagnosis, Reyes is still haunted by the doctors’ questions about her pesticide exposure. She connected with the Tulare County Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety, or CAPS, to learn more about the impacts of pesticide exposure. And soon, she started sharing what she’d learned with her neighbors.

As Reyes has become an advocate, she’s implemented changes in her own home. She says her husband, who still works in the fields, always changes out of his work clothes before entering the house.

“We have a table and a chair outside where he throws his clothes,” she says.

Angel Garcia, Organizing Director for the Tulare County chapter of CAPS, says residents like Reyes are becoming increasingly concerned about the health impacts associated with living, playing and learning so close to fields where pesticides are sprayed.

“Oftentimes, they see people in hazmat suits, spraying this stuff. And so their thinking is, ‘if they're wearing protective gear, to spray this stuff, what about us? What about our protective gear?’’ he says.

That’s why residents and advocates are calling for the state to immediately implement the pesticide notification system. The state Department of Pesticide Regulation says it plans to launch the system by 2024. But Reyes says their health can’t wait.

California officials in the process of developing pesticide notification system

On a warm day in late October, Reyes speaks at a press conference outside the local office of the Department of Pesticide Regulation. In her speech, Reyes calls on the agency to ban the pesticides linked to childhood cancer in the UCLA report and immediately provide advanced warning of pesticide usage.

“I live less than a mile away from fields but I don’t have any idea what they’re spraying, just that there is something in the air,” she says, as she stands before a group of reporters.

State officials say they are listening to these concerns. Earlier this month, the Department of Pesticide Regulation asked the public to provide input on the development of a pesticide notification system. But Acting Director Julie Henderson says it’s a long process.

“We're in the process of soliciting input on a variety of different elements of the system design, so we don't currently have a design of that system,” she says. The agency will work with local agricultural commissioners across the state on a pilot program to test the design before its 2024 launch, according to Henderson.

In the meantime, Reyes says there’s no way to know when pesticides are sprayed outside their home. Their house faces a large stretch of grass, and just beyond it are grape vineyards. She says she and her husband often wake up to the smell of chemicals.

“My husband gets up fast and closes all the windows, doors, everything,” she says. “And we know that it will take a while before we can go outside in the morning.”

Reyes says Orosi residents shouldn’t have to live this way. She says she is fighting to ensure her community has the information they need to protect themselves.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.