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Smoke from ag burning contributes to long-term health effects for Valley Latino residents

Norma Vargas holds asthma medications.
Monica Vaughan
Norma Vargas uses multiple medications to manage her severe asthma, which she developed while growing up in a San Joaquin Valley ag town with poor air quality.

Long-term exposure to the particulate matter released by open agricultural burning has been associated with a suite of health problems, and the communities most affected are majority-Latino.

This is part of the series When the Smoke Clears, produced with the support of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund. 

Norma Vargas spends a lot of time thinking about breathing. At age 27, she manages chronic lung disease by juggling multiple medications, routine visits with doctors and by limiting physical activity.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of young people aren’t really thinking about their air intake and how the air quality will affect said air intake,” Vargas said. If she can’t get to her refrigerated medication on a bad air day, symptoms of asthma “would probably land me somewhere in the emergency room.”

She’s a lifelong resident of the San Joaquin Valley and grew up in Lindsay, a majority-Latino community surrounded by the orange groves of Tulare County. It was common for farmers to burn piles of old trees that were no longer productive. She remembers seeing slash piles just down the road go up in smoke, contributing to the poor air quality that made her cough.

Vargas was 8 years old in the fall of 2003 when she was hospitalized for two weeks with bronchitis. That same year, state legislators passed a law to prohibit agricultural burning in the Valley, part of a larger effort to reign in agricultural emissions in the name of public health.

“This package of legislation has passed because the people of the San Joaquin Valley are sick of air that’s easier to see than it is to breathe,” Gov. Gray Davis said in a statement at the time. “Cleaner air in the valley will better protect the health of the more than 3 million people living there, especially the children who have some of the nation’s highest asthma rates.”

But that state law contained a critical loophole that enabled air regulators to issue sweeping exemptions, claiming alternatives to burning weren’t economically feasible for farmers. The deadline to phase out ag burning came and went.

Nearly 20 years later, state and local regulators continue to issue farmers permits to burn tons of agricultural debris in the Valley — and community members are paying the cost.

While agricultural burning contributes a portion of the pollution emitted in the Valley, it more directly impacts neighboring residents, primarily in rural farm communities that are majority Latino. And unlike wildfire smoke, it is a source that regulators have the authority to control.

When smoke gets in your lungs

The San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air quality in the nation and is severely out of compliance with several federal health standards. One of the main concerns is harmful particulate matter known as PM 2.5. These particles, which are smaller than the width of a human hair, can travel deep into the lungs or bloodstream and cause harm.

No one can say whether a particular case of asthma is caused by a source of pollution. But it is clear that repeated exposure to elevated levels of PM 2.5 from smoke or other sources is linked to premature death, non-fatal heart attacks, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function and higher rates of low birthweight babies.

An average of 1,200 people died prematurely each year in the San Joaquin Valley due to PM 2.5 pollution between 2014 and 2016, according to the California Air Resources Board.

The American Lung Association recently published a State of the Air report that ranks the most polluted cities in the country. The top three cities listed as the worst for year-round particle pollution were in San Joaquin Valley: Bakersfield, Fresno and Madera.

Smoke from open agricultural burning is responsible for about 4% of all PM 2.5 released in the Valley, according to Michael Benjamin, chief of the Air Quality Planning and Science Division for the California Air Resources Board. Some years it's more. When farmers burned 900,000 tons in 2017 during drought, the smoke accounted for 13% of the region’s PM 2.5 emissions.

Smoke travels and can affect residents valleywide, but “with something like agricultural burning, people who are living closest to those fields that are being burned are going to be the most impacted. There's no doubt about that,” Benjamin said.

Rural, majority-Latino communities are disproportionately burdened. Areas in south Madera County and south Fresno County, for example, faced an average of more than 70 tons of PM 2.5 emitted a year from agricultural burning from 2017 to 2019, according to a map by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The area including the predominantly white community of Clovis, however, experiences an average of one ton a year.

Coughing in La Vina

Bertha Garcia lives in the unincorporated community of La Vina, a small cluster of houses in Madera County. It was settled as a farmworker community among vineyards and is now surrounded by almond orchards. Everyone who lives there is Latino or Hispanic. Seventy-six percent live below the poverty line, according to recent Census data. Home air filters or air conditioning are not common here.

Ag burning is part of the landscape. In the last year, records show the air district issued numerous burn permits to farmers for vineyard removal or the clearing of almond and pistachio tree branches within a dozen miles of La Vina homes.

Regulators with the air district say they only allow burning on days with favorable weather conditions that reduce the health and air quality impacts of smoke. Public data show agricultural burning released an average of 79 tons of PM 2.5 emissions in the area where La Vina is located. Residents say they see and feel the effects.

Neighbors like Garcia typically aren’t notified when a farmer lights a fire, despite advocates asking for a notification system. When a burn ignites, residents who are sensitive to smoke often stay indoors with doors and windows closed.

“We can just see the billows of smoke, so we can see how close it is. Even when it’s in the area of Fresno or Madera, we can see the smoke so we just see how it’s coming into our community,” Garcia said in Spanish through an interpreter. “For me, when I go outside, if it’s smokey outside, my vision just hurts and my eyes start watering and I start coughing a lot too.”

That same community is also overburdened by other pollutants like pesticides, increased particulate matter from trash burning and dust from mechanized almond harvesting.

Garcia’s son developed allergies as a child when they moved to the area. He was eventually diagnosed with asthma and doctors prescribed inhalers for him to use in case of an emergency.

Even now, at 26 years old, “when he goes outside and the air is contaminated, then he has to come back inside and he’ll be coughing and coughing and his chest hurts. He just can’t get enough air,” she said. “That’s why we really need some control on the burning.”

‘Ag depends on us’

Norma Vargas, who also developed lung damage and asthma as a child, said her family’s livelihood is dependent on the agricultural industry — her mom works in packing houses and her dad picks fruit in the fields. Both her parents have asthma now too, which she blames on exposures to multiple sources of pollution like ag burning, dust from fields and proximity to pesticides.

She doesn’t think they should have to pay for their jobs with their health.

“Our lives did depend on ag. But you know, ag also depends on us,” Vargas said. “What about the working hands that are taking a substantial toll, healthwise? …The disposability of their lives is something that is being normalized through these practices.”

When told that the air district now plans to phase out nearly all ag burning by 2025, Vargas’s response wasn’t particularly optimistic.

“It’s not that it’s too late, because it’s never too late,” Vargas said. “But I have concerns as to why the State of California tends to marginalize a particular group of people…(and) to why it took this long when this has been an issue here in this area for a long time.”

She said she feels resentment and dissatisfaction with local air regulators who have the power to make change.

“Why did it take so long if you are indeed serving the Central Valley? What’s stopped you? What were these outside factors that contributed to you not making the effort for the people you serve?”

Monica Vaughan can be reached at monicalvaughan@gmail.com or on Twitter @MonicaLVaughan. Kerry Klein can be reached at kerry@kvpr.org or on Twitter @EineKleineKerry.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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