My Journey as a Student in Understanding and Assessing the Impacts of Pesticides

By Sonam Gill

Growing up I spent the occasional weekend with my parents and brothers on Interstate 99 driving down from the Bay Area to Selma and Visalia, Calif. to visit family.  While bickering with my older brothers in the backseat during what seemed like a never-ending car ride, all I could see to the left, right, and up ahead were agricultural fields.  But, I had not realized the extent of pesticide use across the San Joaquin Valley until I began my internship with the Environmental Justice Program at EPA’s Regional Office in San Francisco.

Throughout the Valley, which is home to nearly 700,000 residents, many communities have raised concerns about issues related to pesticide use. Pesticides are linked to a range of health affects, from no adverse health affects at all, to minor irritations of the skin and eyes, all the way up to long term effects from repeated exposure. To help better understand the intersection between pesticide use and environmental justice, I was tasked with  helping to identify vulnerable communities in the San Joaquin Valley, as measured by social vulnerability, environmental impacts, and health impacts, specifically focusing on pesticides.

San Joaquin Valley

My challenge was to use existing data to create a surrogate for determining potential exposure. I spent most of my time during the internship working collaboratively with our Pesticide Office to do just that. We refined pesticide use data for the Valley by creating a ranking approach for pesticides based on toxicity and mapped areas of high use in order to help the agency make better informed decisions regarding EPA programs and pesticide regulation.

My experience working on this project at EPA has not only enhanced my knowledge about pesticides and their use in California, but it has also provided me with an opportunity to work on a issue that I feel personally connected to because members of my immediate family live in areas of the San Joaquin Valley where pesticide use rates are some of the highest. Through our efforts on this project, incorporating community perspectives and defensible interpretations of existing data, I was able to gain valuable experience working to help provide information that is critical to informing decision-making about pesticides.

About the author: Sonam Gill joined EPA’s San Francisco Office in June 2011 as a STEP Intern, and for Fall 2011 as an Environmental Justice Eco Ambassador. She double majored at the University of California Santa Barbara in Black Studies (BA) and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (BS), and this academic year she is wrapping up a dual Master’s program (MS Environmental Management and MBA) at the University of San Francisco.  She is currently writing her Master’s thesis on the cost-effectiveness of alternatives to highly applied agricultural fumigant pesticides.