By C.J. Barbre
We have all heard of Cesar Chavez but the name Jessica Govea Thorbourne is not one you hear bandied about when the history of the United Farm Workers is discussed.
Govea Thorbourne made the adverse effects of pesticide exposure a central issue in building support for UFW boycotts in the 1960s.
An obituary in the Feb. 2 Los Angeles Times chronicled her achievements. The Porterville native died of breast cancer this past Jan. 23, at age 58. She was at the time a resident of New Jersey.
Govea Thorbourne went to work in the fields with her parents at the tender age of 4. She continued every summer until the age of 15, picking fruit and clipping bunches of grapes from row after row of vines. She recalled her skin itching and burning, not from the heat, but from the pesticides on the fruit that she picked everyday.
After graduating high school, Govea Thorbourne joined the newly formed UFW. She became a caseworker helping union families when several women came to her with complaints about rashes, headaches and dizzy spells which she attributed to pesticide poisoning. She continued with a long career in union worker education. According to the Times, "Although she could not prove the connection, she believed that her cancer, which was diagnosed in 1993, was caused by her exposure to pesticides as a youth worker in the fields."
Pesticide use increases
According to a release from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation on Jan. 26, pesticide use jumped 4% in 2003 compared to the previous year with the most intense applications in the San Joaquin Valley. The top four counties were Fresno with 27.9 million pounds up from 27.2; Kern with 22.9, up from 22.0; Tulare with 13.3, up from 12.2 and San Joaquin with 10.2, up from 9.4. Madera and Merced counties also made the top 10.
According to the state analysis, the use of chemicals classified as reproductive toxins increased 2% or 480,000 pounds from 2002-2003. Applications of suspected carcinogens increased 1.9 million pounds or 7%.
Environmental activists sue DPR
A lawsuit filed in Sacramento Superior Court on Jan. 19 alleges that for two decades the state has failed to fully investigate toxic pesticides. More than 900 pesticides are registered in California. Almost one-third of pesticides used in California are linked to serious health ailments such as asthma, cancer, Parkinson's Disease, sterility and birth defects according to the plaintiffs. The Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) has completed reviews on only four pesticides currently in use.
The plaintiffs include seven groups led by the Pesticide Action Network North America and the Californians for Pesticide Reform. One of the groups is the Association of Irritated Residents of the San Joaquin Valley.
From 1997 through 2002, almost 2,500 poisonings from pesticide drift were reported through DPR's Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program. More than 700 of the poisonings took place in four major incidents, three of which occurred in the Valley. In 1999, more than 40 people needed medical attention after a fumigant drifted during a field spraying in Earlimart. In May 2004, 19 field workers near Arvin in Kern County fell ill after being inadvertently sprayed with pesticide. Thirteen were hospitalized. Pesticides contain inert chemicals that the body cannot process and they remain in the body for years.
Last week the DPR announced a pilot project to monitor the air for pesticides in the rural farm community of Parlier in Fresno County.
"People who live and work closest to agriculture deserve the same high standard of environmental protection as other Calfornians," said DPR Director Mary-Ann Warmerdam. "High environmental standards well help assure cleaner air and water, better health for our children, and a sustainable future for our agricultural economy."
DPR is upping their screening to about two dozen pesticides during a 12-month period beginning this summer.
DPR makes pesticide safety information comprehensible to workers