How Awareness Can Help Solve the Air Pollution Problem in the Imperial Valley
By A. Medina Sr.
An Agricultural Burn in Imperial County photo by Alondra Gil
When the governor visited the Master before beginning his campaign in the region, he begged for advice that could help him during his journey. "But I don't have time for long speeches so keep it as short as possible," he instructed. "Of course, Your Lordship, and it can be done in a single word." “Let’s hear that unusual word " replied the governor. The Master took paper and pencil and wrote the word “Awareness." But since the governor still did not understand the Master wrote again "Awareness means Awareness.”
Some of the most dangerous days for the health of residents in the Mexicali and Imperial Valleys are those when the wind blows. Like tiny dots on a map, the cities of the Imperial Valley are completely surrounded by a sea of agricultural fields whose land has accumulated tons of chemicals left by decades of industrial agriculture. These chemicals are harmful to the health of all living things, and according to research by Dr. Calderas of Econciencia y Salud and Mr. Patrick De Feo of Flight Pattern Kids, they are directly associated with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. It is the wind that brings these chemicals into the air that we breathe.
These chemicals do not disappear. Rather, they adhere to the cells of foods grown in this region, hence the preference of many consumers for "organic" foods. These chemicals seep into the aquifers and contaminate them. They also stick to dust particles, and when these are stirred up by wind or industrial farming processes, they rise into the air and we breathe them. In a similar way, an agricultural burn is equivalent to a chemical bomb that quickly spreads throughout the environment, suffocating neighboring communities. The hazard is especially acute when those burns go wrong – which they do all too often.
Imagine the immune system of a three-year-old child exposed to a highly polluted environment like that of the Imperial Valley where approximately 300 agricultural burns are authorized per year, with multiple accidental hay fires (sometimes entire warehouses burn for days). Thousands of tractors are tilling the land and sending dust in all directions, applying manure and fertilizer and pesticides day and night. Eventually, this developing immune system will tire of eliminating these toxins and will succumb to asthma or any other air pollution-related illness. Of course, not all children are the same, but in these marginalized communities where generational poverty plagues a large part of the population, children are the first to suffer the consequences. Each new generation of students that arrive in the classroom where I teach will have more illnesses closely related to the impacts of air pollution than the previous one. It is easier to raise healthy children in a healthy community.
It is important to point out some of the reasons why a problem as harmful to health as air pollution continues to plague our communities. Part of the responsibility falls on the agencies in charge of implementing the Clean Air Act such as the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), the California Air Resource Board (CARB), and the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District (ICAPCD). These agencies have sufficient funds and access to the most important academic institutions on the planet, and yet they have utterly failed to reduce pollution levels or implement sustainable and effective agricultural practices that benefit our communities. Their failure to take responsibility has placed the burden of advocating against the harmful actions of a powerful industry on the shoulders of the residents in these underserved communities.
Air pollution is not limited to the Imperial Valley since we share a common border with the city of Mexicali where industry also pollutes. It would be as serious to minimize the pollution generated by industry in Mexicali as it would be to ignore the activities of industrial agriculture in the Imperial Valley. Both sources harm the health of residents on both sides of the border. A major problem is that for decades the United States agencies have blamed Mexicali for the pollution while securing tax-payer funds for inefficient projects in the U.S. At the same time, they use regulatory monitoring where data is averaged every eight, twelve, or twenty-four hours (depending on the pollutant) and then declare that the Imperial Valley has met the required standards for particulate matter to avoid being sanctioned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It should be obvious that half an hour of extreme air pollution is quite capable of sending susceptible persons to the hospital without significantly affecting the twelve or twenty-four hour average that is used for reporting purposes.
These practices misinform the residents of our communities exposing them to unknown levels of air pollution and, in turn, promote the idea that it is safe to raise a healthy family in this toxic environment. Neglecting the needs of marginalized communities will continue as long as residents do not construct a satisfactory response to the question: How am I contributing to the deterioration of my own health?
As a result of an unauthorized burn gone bad, where 100 inhabitants of this community had to be temporarily evacuated, a recent fire in Seeley, California, provides us with yet another opportunity to reflect on the need to eliminate agricultural burning throughout the region. The embers from the fire spread 1/2 mile into the surrounding area, scorching more than 330 acres, and seriously injuring a county firefighter who was rushed to the hospital.1 Fortunately, this disaster did not end in tragedy thanks to the timely intervention of firefighters. Though legal in Imperial County, it is immoral to expose residents to agricultural burning and to toxic levels of air pollution. The ICAPCD should issue a citation to whoever is responsible for this fire. To date they have deliberately dodged my questions.
Someone who understands the consequences of applying toxic chemicals to the food we eat and then burning the crop residues will conclude that eliminating agricultural burning is essential to reduce air pollution levels throughout this region. In the San Joaquin Valley environmental activists have already stepped forward in pressing CARB to take decisive steps to reduce agricultural burning.2 This legislation was authored by Senator Dean Florez in 2003 and it is only now that loopholes in implementation are being addressed.3 There are huge geographic, social, and economic differences between the two valleys and our communities cannot afford to wait two decades for positive change to arrive while a silent killer like air pollution continues to claim lives.
The problem of air pollution itself is abetted by lack of awareness on the part of all those involved, be they farmers, bureaucrats, politicians, or community representatives. Knowing is not the same as understanding in the same way that hearing is not the same as listening. Endless problems could be avoided if we learned to listen properly. Understanding is a deeper act that is acquired only by using all your senses without allowing a cloud to distract your attention. People involved in air pollution only know and hear but do not listen or understand and their actions are tainted by personal interest and not by the welfare of the communities around them.
To become aware of something is to see it in its entirety with all the implications that it entails. It is useless to sweep dust under the rug because becoming aware eliminates self-deception and leads to responsibility and action. However, becoming aware of something is not a simple thing. The first time I realized the impact of pollution on health was thanks to a corrosion study that Dr. Calderas was conducting for her doctoral degree at UABC, where she placed small copper and silver plates in the open air. The purpose was to measure the corrosion of the plates over two years but the plates were completely corroded in less than three months. I was shocked to realize that the deterioration caused by air pollution in metal could also do the same in my body and that of my children.
By this time, I had already seen thousands of agricultural burns since my arrival in the valley, and I still had not understood, so it is most likely that you do not understand either. The scientific literature from all parts of the world where the problem of air pollution is faced clearly indicates that annually about nine million people die due to their exposure to pollution.4 Countless articles have also been written about the impact of air pollution on the health of residents of this region.
More information is available on the websites for IV4Change,5 FPK,6 and in Econciencia y Salud7 where the harmful activities of industrial agriculture have been documented in detail. If you are still not convinced, do not worry but remember: in the same way that a child throws a stick into the sea cannot change the coming and going of the waves, prevent the sun from heating the waters, or prevent the silvery reflection of the moon from being reflected in them, you will not prevent this message from reaching your consciousness and, sooner or later, you will realize the impact that your actions have on others and you will simply modify them.
Since the 1980s, Arturo Medina Sr. has been advocating for community issues as well as farmworker issues. As a migrant worker during his youth, he knows the difficulties of working in the fields as he travels with his family across the state in search of seasonal work. His educational background includes degrees from UC Santa Cruz, UC Los Angeles, and San Diego State University, and he has worked as an educator for more than three decades.
1) Redfern, Redfern. “Seeley Spared From Intense River Bottom Fire”. Imperial Valley Press. 6/1/2022.
2) Isom, A. Roger. “The End of Ag Burning in the San Joaquin Valley”. West Coast Nut. July 15, 2021.
3) Curtis, L. Walker. “CA State Senator Dean Florez Urges Air Board Not To Extend Burn Ban”. California Newswire. Wednesday May 26th, 2010.
4) Fuller, Richard. “Pollution and Health: A Progress Update”. The Lancet Planetary Health. May 17, 2022.
5) IV4Change <https://www.facebook.com/10ccambiental/> is administered by
6) Flight Pattern Kids (FPK) is an environmental justice research group with data online.
7) Econciencia y Salud <https://www.facebook.com/Econciencia.Salud/> is a non-profit sponsored by Dr. Astrid Calderas.