Training the Trainers:
An Afternoon with the Pesticide Action Network

Gar Smith /
May 8, 2007

Gustavo Aguirre (left) and Lupe Martinez (far right) practice using a Drift Catcher under the supervision of PAN scientist Karl Tupper. Credit: Photo by Stephenie Hendricks
A sunny summer day had descended on San Francisco after a spate of mid-February rain and chilly nights. The air seemed particularly warm, as it washed over the Marin Headlands where the Pesticide Action Network/North America (PANNA) was hosting a three-day "Train the Trainers" retreat to prep more than 20 participants on how to operate PAN's "Drift Catchers," the inexpensive air-sampling tools that are revolutionizing pesticide monitoring. Activists from around the world were on hand at the Point Bonita YMCA, located inside a reconditioned military barracks perched on a hill halfway between an abandoned missile base and the remains of massive gun emplacements dug into the Headland's hills.

The former military site (now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area) is undergoing a "Berlin Wall" transformation. The gray slabs of cement have been covered with layers of spray-painted graffiti. Nicknames, home-tags, pledge-hearts, art-riffs and slogans now decorate the walls. Graffiti artists have even squeezed through the iron-barred windows, splashing vibrant swaths of color across the former fort's inner walls. One spray-painted slogan offers a pithy rationale for anti-authoritarian vandalism: "Damned if you do. Bored if you don't."

With its gun emplacements and buried bunkers, the landscape is a testament to the same military mind-set that underlies the pesticide industry. "It's all just chemical warfare," PANNA founder Monica Moore notes. Insects, pests and other natural blights are described as an "enemy" to be eradicated at whatever cost. Co-existence is not an option. No negotiations; no accommodations: Total victory is the goal. And total victory (in war or in gardening) is, of course, impossible.

Outside the conference room, a life-sized portrait of a gray whale has been painted on the pavement. Inside the YMCA, a large ring of chairs faces a wall with a whiteboard and a pull-down screen. On three sides, windows open to views of hills covered with grass, sunshine and gun turrets. Far to the south, the Golden Gate Bridge rises from a fogbank, its cables tracing the route to San Francisco.

"Potlluck rules!" PANNA's Interim Executive Director Kathryn Gilje announces. The goal of the meeting is to provide a bounty of viewpoints -- but in modest servings. So there are guidelines: Don't hog the discussion; Respect all perspectives; Step forward and step back.

From Manila to Minnesota: A Meeting of Activists
The afternoon begins with introductions as the participants speak about their work and the incidents that brought them to this meeting. Many stories elicit nods of recognition. Other tales evoke laughter. Some recollections will trigger gasps of outrage and a few tears.

Gilje speaks of her experience growing up on a farm in Minnesota and co-founding Centro Campesino, a membership organization for migrant workers in southern Minnesota. She worked with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy before coming to PAN. Along the way, she became fluent in Spanish.

Dr. Romy Quijano from PAN Philippines & Asia Pacific (PANAP) is currently mounting a campaign against aerial spraying but, he points out, human rights and environmental work can be dangerous in a country with an active insurrection movement. Quijano is also concerned about open pit mining operations promoted by foreign multinationals.

John Shirnek and Ron Chilton are representing Minnesota's White Earth Land Recovery Project. Shirnek wears a smile and a black baseball cap embroidered with an eagle and the words "Native American." The reservation not only grows rice and corn Shirnek says, it also operates "Minnesota's largest renewable energy nonprofit." The reservation's windpower towers offer a far better choice than coal, he says. Profits from harvesting the soil and the wind are being set aside to buy back title to the lands that were taken from the native people.

White Earth cultivates 107 gardens to sustain five communities, taking special care to provide healthy salads and organic produce for the reservation's elders. Shirnek is pleased to be visiting the West Coast but he has a complaint. "California rice is being sent to our state so it can be repackaged as 'wild' rice from Minnesota!" This "rice-laundering" is doubly deceiving because much of the Golden State's rice is grown on massive farms where it is harvested mechanically, not by hand.

Heather Spalding flew cross-country to represent the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association ( Each year MOFGA hosts the Common Ground Fair, where it manages to serve an array of quality organic food to more than 50,000 people. The association, which has been fighting pesticides for 36 years, is currently campaigning to phase-out organophosphates and pressing the state to promote the use of safer alternatives for the region's blueberry crop. Spalding, who is MOFGA's Associate Director, recalls how difficult it is for her to watch hungry children attracted to dangling blueberries. "They look enticing," she concedes, but they may be a dusted with hidden doses of pesticides.

Fighting Pesticides in the Central Valley
Marcos Crisantos from the Farm Worker Association of Florida adjusts the flow rate on a PAN Drift Catcher. Credit: Photo by Stephenie Hendricks
Lupe Martinez of the Delano-based Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE) works with the Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR). Martinez spent years working as a California farm laborer before joining the United Farmworkers Union (UFW). He recalls how he and other workers were never told they were spraying pesticides: they were told they were spraying "medicinas."

He mentioned Felipe, a young boy from a farmworker family, who was born without arms or legs. "I was one of those applying the pesticides," he says, his voice breaking.

"Every April or May, [the spraying] comes around," Martinez recalls. "Now you find cancer clusters in McFarland, Fowler, Rosemont -- children, babies! with cancer. That's something that's always been emotional for me," he explains as he chokes up, tears forming in his eyes.

In addition to the struggle against chemical poisons, Martinez and his neighbors face an uncertain future because Tulare County's general plan (dating from the 1970s) would "erase" his town -- along with 16 other poor, farmworker communities.

Gustavo Aquirre, also with CRPE, spent 20 years in the UFW. During his time as a farmworker, he says, "16 of my friends in the fields have passed away from lung cancer. What a coincidence." He explains that "Tulare County uses 17 million pounds of pesticide each year -- the third highest in the state. We were exposed for 12-13 hours a day." He was not surprised when PAN brought one of its Drift Catchers to the town of Lindsay and captured evidence that local pesticide levels were dangerously high. "The job that PANNA is doing is important to me as an organizer," he testifies. "It's a huge help. They have the numbers and they came in for a small price."

Two Women on the Front Lines
Silvia Berrones, a union organizer with Liderés Campesinas, which represents farmworkers in California's Central Valley, asks to speak in Spanish in order to make her points clearly. (The meeting is bilingual. Although half the Anglos present are conversant in Spanish, a translator is on hand to restate testimony as needed.) Berrones begins with an acknowledgement of the work of Lupe and Gustavo, "my colleagues in struggle," but her next statement brings a sudden, sharp focus to the meeting.

"George W. Bush killed my son in Iraq," she says angrily. After her son's death, Silvia relates, "I withdrew [from organizing work]. But I finally realized that you can't just sit at home with your arms folded." She has since returned to work campaigning against pesticides and against violence to women and other "women's issues, including equal pay and working conditions." Silvia is looking forward to the Drift Catcher training session. "I'm here because I need to learn," she says.

Silvia's colleague, Francis Anguis, was born in Mexico, raised in Arizona and has worked in the fields for 44 years. "Our community is a small town and we have pesticides all over," Francis relates, "especially at night, when you are trying to sleep, you can hear the pesticide planes laying chemicals on us. I have grandkids and they all go to school there."

Tests conducted by the California for Pesticide Reform ( found the water in Francis's community was contaminated by agricultural chemicals. According to CPR, ag-chem runoff "has resulted in over 635 miles of pesticide-polluted waters in the Central Valley." Francis now wants to learn how to use Drirft Catchers so she can test the local air for traces of pesticides.

Bill Von Felton is a chemistry teacher who works with the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (, a 75,000 square-foot research facility for 11th- and 12th-grade students from California's Clovis and Fresno counties. "The kids understand that there's a reason to get involved in your community," he says, adding, "I really enjoy working with PANNA."

Pesticides in Florida
Toxics Watchdog Denny Larson, a pioneer of the air-monitoring Bucket Brigades, shared his expertise with the attendees at the PAN training session. Credit: Photo by Gar Smith
Jeannie Economos is the Lake Apopka project coordinator for the Farm Worker Association of Florida. FWAF is a 24-year-old organization serving more than 6,300 farmworker families who grow and harvest citrus, vegetables, ferns and mushrooms across southern Florida. One of FWAF's major concerns is "pesticides and health" and they work hard to assure that their members have safe workplaces and clean accommodations. Protection standards submitted to the Department of Agriculture allow FWAF to check on compliance. "It's a good tool," Economos says, "but we run up against a lot of obstacles."

FWAF has recently begun providing healthcare advisors with the training needed to spot pesticide symptoms early-on -- by asking proactive questions such as: "Have you been exposed to pesticides?"

"It is the law in Florida to report all chemical exposures, but doctors and nurses have not been told." For years, Economos says, skin rashes that were most likely signs of toxic pesticide exposures were simply dismissed as "extreme dermatitis." Air monitoring for methyl bromide in South Florida revealed that the pesticide was drifting from tomato fields into nearby churches, schools and homes. A call for to require larger "buffer zones" around these fields has been ignored by state officials.

Marcos Crisantos, also from FWAF, explains how "different crops are grown in the south and the north. Where I come from, we grow ferns for floral displays. We're known as The Fern Capitol!" Crisantos recalls Alfredo Bahena, a veteran FWAF organizer who was killed in an auto accident in 2004. A new state law now bears his name. The Alfredo Bahena Act protects farmworkers from exploitation by employers, guarantees compensation to families of workers who die in the fields, and regulates exposure to deadly pesticides.

"I'm worried about this because we are working with a monster," Marcos says. "We have children with deformities but the government always challenges us with 'science,' saying we don't have the evidence to prove that the cancers were caused by a specific pesticide." That imbalance is finally starting to shift, he says, and "the Drift Catcher is one of the tools we can use."

How a Science Project became a Civics Lesson
Karen Ford, a biology instructor in charge of teaching environmental science at a high school in St. Augustine, Florida, introduces one of her students, Alex Lowe. "Alex and her friend ReAnna Green decided to do a science fair project using a Drift Catcher," she explains as Alex takes up the story: "Karl [PAN's Karl Tupper] flew out and trained us. We set it up at an elementary school surrounded on three sides by cabbage groves." The two girls tested the air for eight days and, when samples were analyzed, the lab detected diazanon, endosulfan, and trifloran "all above EPA levels."

Ford and her young students soon found their lives turned upside down when the local media got wind of the results. "The news stories went from objective to ridiculous," Ford recalled. Parents were understandably alarmed and the principal sent out a letter saying there was "nothing to worry about." The girls were criticized for causing a panic. As their teacher put it, "they've received some negative press."

School officials insisted on bringing in an outside company to test the air. "Naturally, my students are highly suspicious." Those suspicions seemed justified when the school district announced their tests detected no pesticides. Alex and ReAnne pointed out that they had tested for eight days while the school's "experts" only tested three days. PAN's scientists reviewed the new tests and concluded that they had been poorly designed. The students' Drift Catchers had actually been more effective at detecting airborne chemicals. (For the complete report, click here.)

David-and-Goliath stories like this typically end with an upbeat observation about the importance of standing up for the truth. In this case, however, Ford wonders if her young students haven't been emotionally wounded by the attacks directed against them.

Carol Dansereau from Washington State's Farm Worker Pesticide Project (FWPP) spoke about finding pesticide residues in kids' urine and wondering: "Seriously, is nothing happening to these children?" Some pesticides are neurotoxins and exposure is known to harm children's brains. "We have done Drift-catching," Dansereau says, and (like the young students from Florida) her organization has been attacked for publishing their findings. "It's the kill-the-messenger reaction that follows when you make the problem visible. That radical act of making it visible brings attacks -- even from people who you thought were your friends."

PAN's Karl Tupper introduces himself as "the guy in the lab analyzing your samples" and adds, with a chuckle, "though maybe not as quickly as you would like." Karl recounts the odd career path that brought him to PAN. He dropped out of grad school at UC Berkeley because he felt the need to be involved in real-world problem-solving. He spent several years with Sun, Light & Power, installing solar panels on Bay Area rooftops before joining PAN in 2006.

PAN's Dr. Susan Kegley recalled how a "small grant from the San Francisco Foundation permitted us to experiment." The result of those experiments led to the design and construction of the first Drift Catcher. For all its simplicity, she says, the contraption works exceedingly well. "It's not impossible to make mistakes -- but it's hard."

In it's first field-test, the Drift Catcher detected molinate, a powerful rice herbicide. Kegley spoke of the difficult struggle to tighten regulations at the federal level. Specifically of trying to get the EPA to address the dangers of molinate, a pesticide that was scheduled to be phased-out over a six-year period.

"We sent the EPA photos of kids in parks at birthday parties with piñatas overhead and rice fields in the background," Kegley noted. The EPA ignored the calls to speed-up the phase-out and opted to keep the six-year phase-out." But it could have been worse, Kegley notes. "At least, they didn't extend it."

Looking ahead to air-sampling work still underway in several other states, Kegley concluded: "Drift catching is never dull, so look forward to some exciting times."

Gar Smith, the Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and editor of The-Edge, recently joined PAN as editor and staff writer.

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