Studying pesticide exposure in Ventura County farmworker communities

PhD student wins award for research on pesticide application in farmworker communities.

In Ventura County, some neighborhoods back up to hillsides of oak trees and scrub. Residents of other neighborhoods, however, aren’t so fortunate, with homes next to farm fields sprayed with heavy doses of pesticides.

It’s possible to limit that pesticide application, but stakeholders are often constrained in their efforts to do so. Kaitlyn Alvarez Noli, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Planning, Policy and Design, is seeking to uncover the inner workings of why – and was recently awarded a $20,000 Haynes Lindley Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship to support her work.

Alvarez Noli first realized the disparity between places like her childhood neighborhood near Wildwood Canyon Park and others adjacent to farm fields when she was an undergraduate student in International Studies at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. By the time she graduated, she was recruiting people from farmworker communities in the Oxnard area for surveys and helping with community-academic collaborations.

As a Master’s student in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Alvarez Noli continued her work in Oxnard. Now, in the fourth year of her doctoral program at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Social Ecology, she is conducting her dissertation research on pesticide use in Ventura County. Her advisors are Assistant Professor Maria Rendon and Professor Martha Feldman.

She’s conducting participant observations and in-depth qualitative interviews with regulators, farm workers, growers, advocates and community organizers to see how their perceptions about pesticides shape their actions. And she’s seeking to uncover the mechanisms that enable or constrain actions to protect health.

Alvarez Noli’s research focuses in particular on the attitudes and everyday practices of government regulators, who must ensure both the health of farm workers and the business viability of growers.

The two priorities can sometimes seem to compete, and regulators have to strike a balance between the two sides. “There are very, very polarized views of whether pesticide use or exposure is even a public health concern,” said Alvarez Noli, who plans to graduate in 2019.

Growers, for instance, frequently say there’s not enough evidence to determine whether pesticides are harmful.  Workers, on the other hand, say they are already affected by pesticides.

“A lot of farm workers are concerned about pesticide use or exposure, and think they have symptoms. But very few have contacted government officials,” Alvarez Noli said. “There’s always this push for more evidence. People say we need more evidence to take action.”

But little funding is available for research on the health effects of pesticides, making better data and evidence elusive. That leaves farm workers in limbo.

Alvarez Noli’s research will help uncover the reasons why protective actions stall – and lead to a better understanding of how regulators can be most effective.

“There’s an opportunity to do something there, and to learn something,” Alvarez Noli said. “Local regulators have an opportunity and a responsibility to do something.”

-May 23, 2017