Gasping for Breath in California

In 1988, Kathy Elkins moved to Lompoc, a pleasant small town on the central Californian coast, with her husband and infant daughter. She thought she had found herself a little slice of paradise. That is, until she got sick.

Within six months, she was finding it hard to breathe. Over time, her hair started falling out, and so did her daughter’s. They both got bronchitis, then pneumonia.
In 1994, Elkins was diagnosed with a pulmonary tumor and had the bottom half of her right lung removed. By that time she had noticed that some people in town shared her symptoms, while others complained of migraines, severe eczema and skin rashes, dizziness and an apparent inability to conceive.

They were in no doubt about the cause of their misery—the pesticides being sprayed on the vegetable fields that stretch out between the town and the ocean a few miles away. “I could smell the pesticides wafting in,” Elkins says. “Every morning, the wind would get up and the dust from the fields would begin to swirl around.”

Thanks to the persistence of George Rauh, a local teacher with recurrent bronchitis, the state has commissioned two reports which have noted a high rate of cancer, thyroid disease and respiratory ailments, even if they do not offer definitive evidence linking the diseases to airborne pesticides.

“Okay, there’s a health problem, but who’s to say the pesticides are to blame?” asks Steve Jordan, co-owner of the largest farming concern in Lompoc. “We’ve done everything we can to lessen the impact of spraying, preferring ‘soft’ pesticides to the [nerve gas-related] organophosphates, but to these fanatics we’re still cigar-chomping, children-killing evil agriculturalists.”

“We’re well aware of the statistical difficulties in proving our case, but the evidence on the ground is overwhelming,” counters Rauh. According to official statistics, pesticide use in Lompoc went up from 70,000 pounds per year in 1991 to 120,000 pounds in 1998—a symptom of the intensive farming of lettuce, cauliflower, asparagus and other high-yield vegetables. No fewer than three elementary schools abut the fields on the western end of town, as does the Willows mobile home estate, which has the town’s single highest incidence of health problems.

In the last decade, Lompoc farmers could count on a sympathetic Republican-led leadership in Sacramento, but that changed last January, with the election of Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat. Still, there is talk of further studies, which could delay legislative action for several years. There’s nothing unique about Lompoc, since highly toxic pesticides are sprayed throughout the United States. “The only thing that makes us exceptional is that we have spoken out,” Rauh says.