Residents on mission for clean air

EDITOR'S NOTE: Celina Romero, Irma Medellín and Timoteo Prado joined about 100 people for Clean Air Action Day in Sacramento last Tuesday.

SACRAMENTO -- Celina Romero is not an expert on air quality or pesticides, but she is all too familiar with their impacts on her sons' health.

Her sons -- Arturo, 15, and Ramses, 12 -- suffer from severe asthma and are forced to rely on nebulizers and inhalers to breathe more easily, she said. They are among more than 19 percent of kids in Merced County who suffer from asthma, according to

"I fear the winter, because that's when their asthma is the strongest," Romero, an unemployed cannery worker, said in Spanish. "They have to use the (nebulizer) three or four times per day."

Romero and her husband José Antonio believe the San Joaquín Valley environment is culpable for their sons' health problems, so they participated in the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition's annual Clean Air Action Day last Tuesday.

During the event, more than 100 people visited state legislators' offices to express their support for laws and policies that promote healthier environments.

As they walked toward the state Capitol, Romero said she would lobby legislators to ban the pesticide methyl iodide, and promote the use of less harmful agricultural chemicals.

Pesticides, she said, seems a logical explanation for her sons' health problems: Their home in the unincorporated Merced County community of Winton is located adjacent to a grove of almond trees, and the boys' school is next to strawberry fields.

They also live about 10 miles from Merced, home to the ninth worst ozone pollution in the country, according to the American Lung Association.

"We have been to México for vacation, and they don't have asthma there," said Romero, who is originally from Sahuayo, Michoacán, México. "As soon as we arrive in the airport here, they begin to cough, cough, cough."

Knowing the environment is making her sons sick, Romero said, makes her feel desperate and impotent. But during Clean Air Action Day, she found a way to channel those emotions.

Romero -- who, like most event participants, wore a cream-colored Central Valley Air Quality Coalition T-shirt -- picked up a bright green sign that read, 'Madres para comunidades sanas' (Mothers for healthy communities.) She smiled brightly as she held the sign throughout a rally against methyl iodide on the west steps of the Capitol.

After the rally, Irma Medellín and a small group of Tulare County women visited the office of Assemblymember Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville. There, Medellín, a resident of the Tulare County city of Lindsay -- home to the annual Orange Blossom Festival -- told a staff member about her recent experiences with pesticide drift.

A couple of weeks ago, she said, the orange trees near her home were fumigated over an entire weekend. The pesticide application left her 3-month-old grandson restless and in tears, and left Medellín angry.

Medellín said she attended Clean Air Action Day to call for the governor to restrict the use of dangerous pesticides. She also wanted to demand respect for her community -- "for those of us who live in these places," she said in Spanish.

"The environment should be healthy and fair for all people," she said.

That recent incident was not Medellín's first brush with the dangers of pesticides and unhealthy air quality.

One of her four daughters, Samantha, twice contracted Valley fever -- an infection caused by fungi that are commonly found in the soil in certain areas -- and was hospitalized for more than three months. Another of her daughters, Irma Isabel, had severe asthma as a child.

To Medellín, a community organizer for El Quinto Sol de América, a local group working for social and environmental justice, there is no reason her children and others in the Valley's disadvantaged communities should have to breathe unhealthy air or be sprayed by pesticides.

"It seems like being poor is a crime," Medellín said with conviction, showing no sign of the stroke she suffered less than two years ago.

"When I decided to come to the United States, I wanted a better life. But it is very difficult -- I'm not just going to sit here, waiting for someone to resolve my problems. I have to do something to make a better life for myself and my kids."

Medellín had the opportunity to do just that when she met with state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, on the floor of the Senate Tuesday afternoon, and told him about her recent experience with pesticide drift.

Then she took a photo with him. Smile!

After visiting various legislators' offices, Timoteo Prado gathered with 18 residents of the farmworker city of Arvin, in Kern County, under some shady trees on the lawn of the Capitol. It was a hot afternoon, but Prado, a community organizer for the Dolores Huerta Foundation, looked composed in a blue long-sleeved, collared shirt, topped with a Clean Air Action Day T-shirt.

Prado was confident the group's lobbying visits would make an impact.

"We brought a good message," Prado, a resident of the Kern County community of Weedpatch, said in Spanish. "Legislators don't know about everything going on in our communities."

In Arvin -- which is located about 30 minutes from Bakersfield, the city with the highest levels of short-term and year-round particle pollution in the country -- many children and older people have trouble breathing and many people contract Valley fever, Prado said.

"This mortifies me," Prado said of the health and environmental conditions in Arvin. "We are trying to make a change in our lives."

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