When you arrive at Teresa De Anda’s house on the edge of Earlimart, you might think the biggest health threat here is her pack of dogs. But from De Anda’s perspective, the almond orchard directly across the street, and the nearby vineyards and fields, are much more dangerous.
“It’s nice not having neighbors across the street, but it’s not nice having all the spraying and the tilling and the dirt and the bees,” De Anda says.
De Anda is 53, the mother of seven kids and a grandmother to eight. She’s lived in the house most of her life, and has long been concerned about the chemicals used nearby. But she didn’t think she could do anything about them.
That changed in 1999, after what she calls, “The Big Accident.”
“In November, that’s when a big cloud of pesticides came into town and got a lot of people sick,” she recalls.
That big cloud was caused when the soil fumigant metam sodium was injected into to a field about a quarter-mile from Earlimart, but was not sealed properly with water. The sickest people were taken to a nearby school. They were told to remove their clothing and were hosed down, she recalls.
“They were poisoned, and they were having to be decontaminated,” she says. “It was ridiculous, and inhumane. It was terrible that it happened in 1999. People were being treated like cattle.”
De Anda was scared for her family’s health, and downright angry. She has a high school degree, and had worked as a caretaker. She had no background knowledge of pesticides, but that didn’t stop her from raising awareness about them.
She started studying, organizing residents in her Tulare County farmworker community, and attending advocacy meetings with the United Farm Workers and other groups.
The Earlimart incident, and De Anda’s reaction, helped put the pesticide drift problem on the front burner. That’s according to Jill Harrison, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the author of ‘Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice.’
“The Earlimart incident really helped to put pesticide drift on the map, partially because there was media coverage of the way that people were treated after the incident, and real concerns about how effective the emergency response system was at that time,” Harrison says.
But the problem didn’t start - or end - in Earlimart. In 2002, De Anda heard about another metam sodium accident – this time in Arvin, another farmworker community. She went door-to-door, gathering more information about the incident.
“Their stories sounded just like Earlimart’s stories,” she recalls. “It was crazy. They said they’d been vomiting, and throwing kids in the bathtub. It smelled terrible. Their eyes were watering, and burning as if they had chili in their eyes. All the same symptoms as Earlimart, the Arvin people experienced.”
It became clear that pesticide drift could be disastrous for a community, but there were no established plans in place to deal with it.
“They know what to do when there are floods, they know what to do when there are fires, they know what to do when there are earthquakes,” she says. “There are protocols, but for pesticide accidents there are not.”
De Anda tackled this problem with her Earlimart community group, and other advocacy groups. The result of their work was Senate Bill 391, carried by then-State Senator Dean Florez. Enacted in 2005, it was intended to improve the state’s response to major pesticide drift incidents, by ensuring victims get appropriate medical care and attention.
“My committee, they were so proud of themselves,” she says. “They were housewives, farmworkers, they didn’t speak English, and here they were, directly passing a bill. We passed a bill – it was great!”
By then, De Anda was also the Central Valley coordinator for Californians for Pesticide Reform. With that group, she fought for tighter pesticide buffer zones – which regulate the use of pesticides near schools, residential areas, and farm labor camps. She also helped launch programs in Kern and Fresno counties that make it easier for residents to report environmental problems, and get them resolved.
Her advocacy is guided by her conviction that pesticides are a necessity of agriculture, but they’re also dangerous.
“I don’t like the ones that cause cancer, the ones that cause reproductive damage, or neurologic damage,” she says. “Those should not be used where they can get on people. I think that’s wrong.”
De Anda might never know if the pesticides she’s been exposed to were the cause of her illness. In March of 2012, she learned she had liver cancer.
“When I heard I had cancer, I thought, ‘that’s a cruel irony,’” she recalls. “But I can’t prove it.”
“I used to go out to every pesticide accident that I could. When they would call me, I would be out there. It probably wasn’t smart, but I thought, ‘it will never happen. I won’t get cancer.’”
She spent almost a year in Florida, waiting for a liver transplant. She finally got it, in April.
Fresno Metro Ministry is honoring De Anda tonight for her advocacy with the community group the Committee for the Wellbeing of Earlimart.
It’s a well-deserved recognition, says Kevin Hamilton, who’s the chief program officer at Clinica Sierra Vista. He said she’s an inspiration, especially to women who are concerned about their family’s health.
“She continues to be an example for people everywhere that anyone can be an advocate, that anyone can speak truth to power, than anyone can drive change,” Hamilton says.
De Anda’s work is on hold right now, while she recovers. But her passion for educating people about pesticides is still evident.
“The main thing is to not take it. Don’t accept the drift, don’t accept the dust being kicked up in the lot next door,” she says. “You should always do something. Don’t just let it go, because it will keep on happening.”
And she might have found a new cause, too. Now, she says, she’s also a big advocate for organ donation, too.