The following two chapters are excerpted from my novel, The Fruit of the Devil.
Teachers at the school where I worked in 1998 were forbidden to have any contact or dialogue with the strawberry growers whose fields surrounded our school, even though students and teachers were ill, and it was highly probable that the cancer, miscarriages, neurological and respiratory illnesses prevalent among adults and children were attributable to pesticide poisoning.
Eventually, we were advised to file a formal challenge of pesticide use permits with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. The following chapters faithfully portray the experience of the two teachers who wrote the permit challenges. Thirteen acutely toxic chemicals were used on the fields surrounding the school. In this excerpt, the chemicals are listed and their effects accurately documented.
People have told me that this information is too technical to include in a novel. However, it’s the reason I wrote the novel – to let people know about these pesticides being used near people’s homes and schools, and on their food.
What do you think? Should these chapters be cut, or included in the final draft of my novel? Your opinion is valued. Please comment.
“Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”
Chapter 50. Friday, November 18, 1998.
It was pitch dark outside the classroom. She stood at the door and looked out toward the empty fields that seemed to suck in energy like a black hole. It was too dark to see, but she knew there were clouds. Not a star in the sky. It felt like being far at sea, looking out over the mysterious, vast black.
She shivered, pulled the door closed, and locked it. Turning her back on the night, Aurora walked toward Katie, seated at the computer. She stepped carefully around the papers and books spread all over the floor and precariously stacked on the desks.
“What’s next?” Aurora asked, rubbing her forehead.
“Um, let’s see.” Katie shuffled through the pages of a stapled document. “Sevin.”
“OK.” Aurora picked up a thick hardbound book, marked as the property of the University of California Library. “Here it is. Ready?”
“Yep. Shoot.” Katie’s fingers hovered over the keyboard.
“Sevin. Trade name for Carbaryl. Highly toxic to birds, fish, crustaceans, aquatic insects and bees. Reduces sex hormones. Affects reproduction. Highly toxic when ingested or inhaled. Symptoms of Carbaryl exposure in humans are malaise, muscle weakness, dizziness, hypersensitivity, sweating, headaches, abnormal salivation, nausea, diarrhea, incoordination, and slurred speech. Documented Chronic Health effects: Behavioral and neurological problems. Anemia. Causes respiratory, blood, liver, kidney, spleen and bone marrow damage. A mutagen. Suspected viral enhancer. Known to decrease the effectiveness of the immune system. Its ability to drift over seven miles has been documented.”
“Meaning it causes mutations in cells, like cancer.”
“Is that it?” Aurora rubbed her forehead again and looked at the clock on the wall above the chalkboard. Nine o’clock. It felt like they’d been here in this room for a hundred years.
“Nope. There’s one more. This one’s listed on all three permits. Sec 18 myclobut.”
Aurora shuffled through the stack of papers on the floor at her feet. “Here it is. I knew I’d just seen it. This is from the information we got straight from the agricultural commissioner’s office. It’s also on this list that Pesticide Action Network sent. Looks like the information on both lists is identical. ‘Sec 18 myclobut. Known to be dangerous to pregnant women. Can cause reproductive damage and birth defects.’ “
“OK.” Katie finished typing, then peered more closely at the small illuminated square of the computer monitor, scrolling to the top of the document in progress. “So here’s the list. 13 different Class 1 Acutely Toxic chemicals, being applied right next to our school. Choate’s permit has all of them. Garritt’s has all but Sevin, and Mr. Cowley’s has all but Methomyl.” Katie’s face glowed green in the light of the monitor as she recited the list of pesticides being used in the fields surrounding the school.
“Methyl bromide, chloropicrin, paraquat, sevin, guthion, aluminum phosphide, avitrol, monitor, disyston, trigard, metasystos-r, sec 18 myclobut, and methomyl.”
Aurora could not suppress a groan.
“Look! There he is again.” Katie pointed to a little grey mouse, whiskers quivering, poised like a toy under the bookshelf by the wall. The mouse’s shiny dark eyes, like glass beads, looked straight at the two teachers. It raised itself on its hind legs, rubbing its front paws together under its chin.
“I think he knows what we’re doing,” said Aurora. “I think he wants to help us.”
“Me too.” Tears welled up in Katie’s eyes.
“OK,” said Aurora, “so Jenny Merritt said to write each of the three permit challenges just the way the Revilla Drive neighborhood did in this sample, right? I think we’ve got the Choate letter pretty much done, then. We can use the exact same wording for the other two, just making sure we’ve listed the correct chemicals on each letter, and have referenced the relevant restricted materials permit number.”
“Right. Let’s read what we’ve got. The whole thing,” said Katie.
“It’s long. Do you think the Ag Commissioner will really read these?”
“Probably not,” said Katie. “But maybe someone will. I’m pretty sure all the teachers here at Prudenciana will, and everybody in Farm without Harm.”
“ Well, even if the Ag Commissioner doesn’t read our permit challenges, he’s still legally required to respond.” Aurora tapped a yellow pencil on the school desk, covered with papers, where she leaned her arm. “Hopefully, all this work is going to do some good. At least, this information will go into the public record. Maybe the Department of Pesticide Regulation will require a public hearing.”
“I hope so. If people knew what was actually going on here …. It’s chemical warfare. We’re waging chemical warfare on our own people. Women, children, the people who grow our food, the earth, all living beings … We’re poisoning ourselves, for God’s sake.”
The little mouse ran around in circles under the bookshelf like a wind-up toy, then picked up a kernel of dried Indian corn that had fallen to the floor and began nibbling contentedly.
“Well, go ahead and read it outloud. If it sounds OK, we can print it, and then go home.”
“Right.” said Katie. “Here it goes. ‘Dear Commissioner Gammon, we are writing to request that you review your action in issuing the Restricted Materials permit #44-97-440482A of – ’
“Just a minute, Katie. Did you hear something? I thought I heard a noise outside.”
“Nope. Didn’t hear anything.”
“OK. Still, I kind of have the creeps tonight, for some reason. I wish we had a phone in the classroom. Oh, well. Keep going.”
“Pursuant to Food and Agricultural Code #14009, we request that you revoke this permit, discontinuing the use of the above mentioned restricted materials, and all known carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, and reproductive toxins, on the aforementioned fields . . .
A plastic math cube tumbled off the bookshelf. Both teachers jumped.
“What was that?”
“Oh, look. There.” Katie pointed.
The field mouse was up on the bookshelf, holding a new kernel of yellow and red Indian corn in his paws. He sat up on his hind legs like a little person, taking dainty bites.
Aurora laughed. “Oh no. He found another one. I guess my kids didn’t clean up as well as I thought when we strung our Thanksgiving Indian corn necklaces.”
“I saw some of your kids wearing those necklaces around school today. They’re beautiful.”
“I made an extra one. Just a sec.” Aurora got up and rummaged around in her desk drawer.
“Here, my friend. A gift for you. May I?”
“Thank you.” Katie bowed her head and Aurora slipped the strand of multicolored corn kernels around her neck
“It’s an honor to be your friend, Katie.”
“I feel the same way. Like it’s destiny, or something, the way we ended up working together.” The women hugged. Aurora felt like she’d been infused with a strong heart-fortifying tonic.
“OK then. Let’s keep going. Read.”
“ . . . experience irrefutable symptoms of pesticide poisoning, including headaches, nausea, numbness of extremities, burning and tearing eyes, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, sore throats, joint pain, inner ear complaints, nosebleeds, itching and burning skin, changes in the taste of food, and cognitive and behavioral abnormalities such as lethargy, agitation, and disorientation. Teachers and parents have reported these complaints to the Agricultural Commissioner’s office.”
“Yeah, we reported to the Ag Commissioner, just like the County Health Cmmissioner at the pesticide assembly told us to, and then he complained to the principal that we were harassing him,” Aurora interjected. “Can you believe it? We’re afraid for our health and for the safety of our students and our unborn children. We’re asking him to do his job and protect us, and he calls that harassment? And he actually gets the principal to tell us we can’t call him anymore.”
“Weird. I mean, the Ag Commissioner is obviously one of the pesticide ‘old boys’. It’s not weird that he defends them. But it’s weird that he can get away with it, pretending to be looking out for public safety.”
“Yeah, and it’s even weirder how the school administration backs him up. I honestly don’t get it, Katie. Why is the school administration so completely aligned with corporate chemical agricultural interests?”
“Oh, come on, Aurora. Duh. Cha-ching. Follow the money. What I don’t understand is why everyone trusts these men, and just assumes that everything is fine because they say so.”
“Oh well. Keep reading,” said Aurora.
“As teachers, we are legally mandated to report any situation we suspect may be endangering our students.”
“Wait, Katie. Do you think we should put that sentence in bold? The part about being legally mandated to report … You know, we keep hearing how we shouldn’t be getting involved in this whole thing because we’re teachers. We should just shut up and teach. Don’t they realize that we’re legally required to report any situation that may be endangering the health or safety of our kids. It’s our job. Our responsibility, as teachers, to make sure our school is a safe and healthy place to learn.”
“No. Don’t put it in bold. I think, even if we did, the point would be missed. I’m sure the ag commissioner is never going to read this. It’s just going to get filed somewhere, then thrown out after a few years.”
“Then why are we even doing this?”
“You can quit now, if you want to, Aurora. But I just have to keep going. It’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to try to make things right. I just have to try. Even with Mr. Medina constantly getting me called to the principal’s office, and writing nasty, op ed pieces for the newspaper about what a terrible teacher I am. All that just makes me madder, more determined to stand up for truth, and justice.”
“You’ve put so much on the line for this, Katie. You don’t have tenure. They can fire you anytime they want. They’ve already made it very clear they don’t want you involved in this.”
“What am I supposed to do? Just bow my head and ignore the poison drifting into my classroom, making my kids and me sick? Just teach boring, rote repetitive tasks without question, training my students to be good little obedient automatons, willing to take their places, when the time comes, as alienated and dehumanized consumers and wage slaves, living for the good of the economy? Eating whatever shit, breathing whatever poison the corporations dish out? I can’t do it, Aurora. I just can’t.”
“I know. Me either,” said Aurora. “I certainly didn’t start out wanting to be an activist. All I really wanted to be was a good teacher. But this whole situation is transforming me. It’s compelling me to be someone more than I thought I was. Stronger. More courageous.”
“I’m just angrier. Keep reading?”
“According to Dr. Anna Escobar, a pediatric specialist, children are the most vulnerable to pesticide exposure. Their small bodies are still developing. Children’s body cells are rapidly growing, but their livers and other enzyme systems are not mature. This means that they don’t detoxify chemicals as well as adults. Their immune systems are also less mature . . . ”
Katie stopped to take a sip of tea.
“What a mess,” said Aurora. “I mean, I think the letter is OK, but the situation is simply a nightmare.”
“Well, we’re going to fix it.”
“Do you really think so? It feels so huge. So hopeless.”
“The next part is about what each of the pesticides does. Should I keep going?”
Aurora looked at the clock. Nine-thirty. Once they finally left school for the night, it would still be at least an hour before she could be home, in bed. They had skipped dinner. She felt slightly nauseous. She took a sip of her herbal tea. The tea was cold. She shivered.
“Did you hear that?”
Aurora and Katie both looked toward the door, each unaware of holding her breath.
“Definitely sounds like something’s outside. Maybe an animal. A raccoon in the trash can or something.”
“I’ll go look.” Aurora stood and stretched, and peered out the door.
An owl screeched.
Aurora closed the door, relocked it, and went back to her seat by the computer.
“Nothing there. But it’s really dark outside. I think the night custodian’s already gone. Didn’t see any lights on over by the kindergarten. I have a really creepy feeling.”
“Me too.” Katie shuddered. “Let’s wrap up for the night. I want to go home.”
“Moreover the burden of proving that a practice is safe should not be placed on the public that could be harmed, but rather on the industry that stands to profit.” Naomi Klein
Chapter 52. Monday, November 21, 1998.
Aurora sat in front of the computer, squinting at the monitor.
“OK,” she said. “Next is the section detailing each one of the pesticides included in the permit challenge.”
“I really hope we can finish this thing up tonight,” said Katie, perched on top of a child’s desk. Her mittened hands were wrapped around a mug of tea. “We need to start gathering signatures over Thanksgiving break.”
“I’ll read what we’ve got.”
“Go for it.”
“Methyl bromide is classified by the US EPA as a Category One acute toxin, the most potent class of toxic chemicals. The effects of methyl bromide exposure include blurred vision, twitching and convulsions, numbness of extremities, seizures, psychosis and death . Chloropicrin, commonly know as ‘tear gas’, can cause a feeling of choking, disorientation and confusion, severe panic attack, and irreversible pulmonary damage. It is a suspected cell mutagen. Methyl bromide and chloropicrin are synergistic in killing soil-borne organisms, magnifying toxicity against humans as well. No health studies have been done on the two chemicals in combination, even though they are almost always used together.”
Katie stood up, startling the little mouse eating a cracker crumb under the bookshelf.
“This point about the synergistic effects is just crazy, Aurora. It’s mind boggling that there haven’t been any studies of the combined effects of these chemicals. The combinations have to be chaotically off the charts poisonous.”
“I haven’t heard anyone talk about this. Do you think it’s really true that the combinations haven’t been tested?”
“I just saw an article about that. Here it is. Listen to this. ‘The synergistic effects of these chemicals, when used in combination, is virtually unknown. However, in breast cancer studies conducted by scientists from Tulane University in 1996, when four pesticides were tested for their ability to disrupt the human hormone system, potentially leading to breast cancer and reproductive damage, the pesticides demonstrated small effect when tested individually. Yet, when the pesticides were combined, the chemicals in combination were up to 1,000 times more potent carcinogens.’ ”
“1,000 times more potent carcinogens? How could they just gloss over something so important?”
“Duh. Just keep reading.”
“Public exposure to these chemicals when they are applied in fields near houses, schools, hospitals and businesses is inevitable. In some cases, more than fifty percent of a pesticide application drifts from its intended target.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Methyl bromide does not drift into the school. Remember?” Aurora said. She frowned and pulled on her braid. “At least, that’s what Mr. Stark from Diecal claimed at the pesticide assembly. Does he really believe that, do you think? Or is he just a straight out cold-hearted liar?”
“Who knows. What we do know is, he’s wrong,” said Katie. “The pesticides are drifting into the school. For sure. We just need some way to prove it. We’ve got to find a way to independently monitor the drift. We should ask the people at Pesticide Action Network if there’s any way they can help us.”
“Great idea.” Aurora made a note on her yellow tablet to follow up on the drift monitoring question. “How about if you read for awhile.
Katie took the seat in front of the computer. Aurora sat cross-legged on top of a child’s desk, surrounded by reference materials, ready to verify the facts on each pesticide as it was read off.
“Pesticides listed as Category One toxins range in toxicity from substances which cause severe respiratory and nervous system reactions to substances which will kill a person with just one drop on the skin. We find it unacceptable that pesticides listed by the US EPA as the most potent class of pesticides are used near an elementary school.”
“It’s freezing in here,” said Katie, pulling a sweater on over her head.
“Yeah. Nothing we can do about it. The district office shuts off the heat in all the schools at 5 o’clock. Cost cutting measure.”
“Oh well, let’s get through this. Should I keep going?”
“Yes. Please.” Aurora stood and stretched. She zipped her down vest up over her sweater, pulled a knit cap over her ears, and wrapped her arms tight around her queasy empty stomach. They had skipped dinner again tonight to get this done. She hunched over, and began rocking herself, while Katie read.
“Paraquat. A dose of three to five grams, or less than a teaspoon, can result in death of an adult male. Used as an agent of chemical warfare. Implicated in Parkinson’s disease; a suspected cell mutagen, teratogen, and a neurotoxin.”
“Teratogen. Meaning it causes birth defects, right?”
“Yep. And also miscarriages.” Katie’s face flushed with anger. With a determined set to her mouth, she continued reading.
“ ‘Sevin is an insecticide that is hazardous to bees.’ Aurora, they’re not going to care about the bees and our Lifelab garden.”
“Doesn’t matter. I care. They shouldn’t be using it. Leave it in. What’s next?”
“Carbaryl. Inhibits the action of an enzyme that is an essential component of the human nervous system . . . Behavioral as well as neurological problems. . . can decrease the effectiveness of the immune system, loss of nervous muscle control and ultimately death. . . . Methomyl. A nerve gas. Respiratory, liver and genetic damage. A known mutagen. Aluminum Phosphide. Dead gophers that have ingested this poison are typically eaten by endangered and threatened raptors – golden eagles and hawks – killing them and moving the poison up the food chain. Avitrol. A granular pesticide used to non-selectively poison all birds.
“Non-selectively poison all birds? Are you kidding me? These fields are on the Pacific flyway, the major migration route for most of our western migratory birds. Many of them endangered. How do they get away with that? Isn’t it a violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act?”
Katie looked at Aurora, rolled her eyes, and resumed reading.
“Monitor. A dangerous organophosphate. Exposure can cause hair loss and decreased fertility.”
“Hair loss?” Aurora interrupted again. “Remember, one of the teachers was talking about hair loss when we had that meeting with Mr. Choate?”
“It was Helen, wasn’t it? She said that she was losing her hair, but thought at first it was just menopause and now she’s wondering if maybe it could be pesticide exposure. Or maybe a combination of menopause making her more susceptible to the effects of the pesticides …”
“Exactly. And the decreased fertility. Niiko’s parents, from Japan, told me that there’s a growing concern in Japan about decreased fertility. Men’s sperm counts are much lower than normal. Have you heard about that? The people in Japan are blaming pesticides, so there’s a big movement for organic agriculture over there now. But sorting out cause and effect is so complex.”
“At least, now we finally see there might be something environmental causing all of these bizarre, seemingly disparate health issues everyone’s been experiencing,” said Katie.
“Right. Prudenciana teachers have just gone along blaming ourselves, for years. Telling ourselves it’s our fault we’re sick. That we just need to eat better, exercise more, get more sleep. Do a better job of managing our stress. Telling ourselves it’s just another virus going around. At least, thanks to you, Katie, now we’re aware of the pesticides on the other side of the fence.”
Aurora stood up and stretched.
Katie rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck. “It’s a revelation to realize that what’s underneath the plastic on those fields may be directly related to so many of our health problems.”
“I can’t believe how many years it took us to notice that when the plastic goes down on the fields, we start feeling dizzy and getting respiratory infections that won’t go away. What a relief to know that we’re not just weak, or crazy. But it’s so complex. How in the world do you begin to gather scientifically valid data demonstrating cause and effect – demonstrating with a high degree of statistical probability that the pesticides are making us sick?”
“Statistical probability bullshit,” said Katie. “How could anyone in their right mind honestly look at this information and have any doubt that the pesticides being used here are dangerous? Jesus Christ. Look at this list. Even using just one of these poisons near a school is insane. But all of them together, without considering the synergistic effects of combining them, it’s flippin’ insane. Who in their right mind could fail to see that?”
“But we have to be careful to maintain scientific objectivity, Katie. We have to be very careful what we say and how we say it, what we claim. We have to stick to the facts. You know that people are oh so ready to dismiss us as just a bunch of hysterical females. We can’t give them reason to say that. We have to have our statistical ducks in a row. We’ve got to do the science.”
“I disagree. Complex bullshit. That’s just one of their tricks. They try to make people think that it’s all too complicated for the average person to grasp. Super hocus pocus big deal science, only the initiated can understand. They try to make us feel stupid, and completely dependent on the high priests of Science to tell us what to believe, even when it directly contradicts what our own senses tell us. They are the ones who should have the burden of proof. We shouldn’t have to prove that the poisons are harmful. They are poisons, for God’s sake. Class One Acute poisons. The poisoners should have to prove to the world, without doubt, that the pesticides they’re using on our soil and food, pouring into our air and water, are completely safe.”
“Whatever. Let’s keep going.”
“OK,” said Katie. “You read.”
“Disyston. Organophosphate. Reproductive toxin. Guthion. Neurotoxin; damages muscle tissue. Trigard. A suspected feto-toxin. Metasystox-r. Proven to be extremely dangerous to pregnant women and their fetuses. That’s it. All thirteen of them.”
“Jesus. We’re waging chemical warfare on our on people, on our women and children,” said Katie. “Some of these chemicals were literally developed for use in war. What kind of a society creates a food system that poisons its own people?”
“They can get away with this because the corporate chemical manufacturers are considered ‘persons’.”
“Exactly. So their chemicals are considered innocent until human members of the public can prove them guilty of causing harm.”
“And federal agencies usually rely on research conducted by or for the chemical manufacturers to make regulatory decisions.”
“The fox guarding the henhouse.”
“Stop. Did you hear something?”
Aurora cocked her head to listen. It sounded like something was moving around just outside the door.
“Maybe that raccoon raiding the trash can again.”
“Did you lock the door?”
“Don’t remember. I’d better check.” Aurora hurried to the door. With a shiver, she turned the dead bolt to the locked position.
“Almost done. I’ll read,” said Katie, taking the chair at the computer.
Both teachers were facing the computer monitor, with their backs to the door. Neither woman noticed the darkened face peering through the little window in the door.
“We do not want our staff, community members and students to be the guinea pigs who are harmed before more stringent regulation of these dangerous chemicals is finally implemented. We believe that we all have a right not to be poisoned while working or attending school.”
The women screamed.
Behind their backs, a crash. Tak a Tak a Tat Tat
An avalanche of colorful plastic math cubes was falling from the bookshelf.
Hugging each other, Katie and Aurora turned toward the noise.
The field mouse had tipped over a bucket of math cubes. He sat on the shelf, up on his hind legs, licking his paws with his little pink tongue, contentedly grooming his face and ears.
The teachers laughed and resumed their work.
“We recognize that Mr. Choate is already taking great and courageous strides in leading our agricultural community toward the transition to sustainable practices,” Katie read. “He has voluntarily increased his buffer zones, reduced the amount of methyl bromide he is using, and has begun researching less pesticide-intensive agricultural strategies. We value his leadership enormously. However, in all due respect, in order to prevent any further threat of hazardous exposure to the staff, children, and community of Prudenciana School, we are asking that you revoke the restricted materials use permit # 44-97-440482A issued to Mr. Choate for the chemicals listed above and eliminate the use of any restricted materials, as well as any known carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, and/or reproductive toxins on this parcel of land in perpetuity.”
Katie put her palms to her eyes. “That’s it. Once we get the necessary signatures and submit it, Cal EPA is required by law to respond in writing within ten days.
“Great. But Katie, I really don’t want to print all this now. We’ll be here all night. How about if I just save the three letters to my zip drive while you get all these papers together. I can print everything at home from the zip over the weekend. Jenny Merritt said she could swing by school Monday morning and pick up the letters, and take care of filing them with the Agricultural Commissioner and the State Department of Pesticide Regulation.”
Just as Aurora ejected the zip disk, there was another noise outside the door. Katie and Aurora looked at each other, wide eyed.
Aurora laughed again. “Raccoons in the trash cans.”
“Let’s get out of here,” said Katie. “I’ll help you straighten up the rest of this stuff on Monday morning.”
The teachers grabbed their bags. “Wait, Aurora. We should have our keys in our hands before we go out there. It’s really, really dark. We don’t want to be standing out in that parking lot in the dark trying to find our car keys.”
With a tight grip on their keys, the teachers burst out of the classroom door, shoulder to shoulder, pulling the door locked behind them.