Pesticides and Childhood Cancer, California, USA

In 1995, a group of McFarland residents, a poor Hispanic community, petitioned the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Region 9 (EPA) for assistance in evaluating the community’s environment. After the first case of childhood cancer in 1978, McFarland was deemed a cancer cluster by Kern County in 1985. In a 7 year span the town of 6,200 had 13 cases of childhood cancer. The concerns raised about cases of childhood cancer, were focused around exposure to pesticides and hazardous wastes, potentially contaminated drinking water, and other health problems. Kern County investigated four particular pesticides that were heavily used in farming practices where many of these migrant workers were employed. In 1988, 12 million pounds of pesticides were used on grapes alone in California; one-third of these pesticides are known to cause cancer.[1] Cesar Chavez went on a water-only "fast for life" hunger strike in 1988 partly as a result of the McFarland's cancer cluster and started a campaign to urge growers to stop the use of four pesticides which he believed cause cancer and birth defects. As part of that effort, the United Farm Workers started a grape boycott to force growers to agree to their demand. The hunger strike brought national attention to the McFarland problem and brought then presidential candidate Jesse Jackson and other celebrities to McFarland. The US EPA investigation spanned from 1997 to 2002, the EPA collected soil, drinking water, outdoor air, and indoor dust samples. The EPA ruled the area not eligible to be on Superfund National Priorities List and that the town is similar to other towns in California. A direct cause of this childhood cancer cluster remains officially undetermined. However, researchers and activist continue to search for answers.
Basic Data
NamePesticides and Childhood Cancer, California, USA
CountryUnited States of America
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture and Livestock Management)
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Chemical industries
Specific CommoditiesPesticides
Fruits and Vegetables
Project Details and Actors
Project Details
EPA collected 462 soil samples at 30 locations including schools, parks, residences and commercial/industrial areas and tested for more than 200 chemicals. The following chemicals were detected at elevated levels in very localized areas: arsenic, cadmium, lead and benzo(a)pyrene at a former service station; benzo(a)pyrene at a school and one home; dieldrin (a pesticide) at two commercial properties and a park; and dioxins/furans at a school athletic field.
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Project Area (in hectares) 691
Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected Population6,000- 7,500
Relevant government actorsUnited States Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersUnited Farmworkers
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingInformal workers
Trade unions
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of MobilizationArtistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Boycotts of companies-products
The community requested an EPA investigation, Cesar Chavez went on a hunger strike against pesticide use and its impacts on farmworkers, he also spear-headed a boycott against grapes in an effort to convince growers to offer collective bargaining and better environmental health for farmworkers in California
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Deaths, Other Health impacts, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Occupational disease and accidents
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseInstitutional changes
Development of AlternativesThe United Farm Workers aimed to negotiate labor contracts with growers that limited the use of DDT on certain crops.
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Despite several cases of childhood cancer there has not been an official conclusion by the EPA and outside investigations. Therefore, there has not been an remidation of this cancer cluster. Researchers continue to develop theories about the origin of McFarlands childhood cancer cluster.
Sources and Materials

Stanford Law School Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program
[click to view]

1988 Food and Justice Journal distributed by United Farm Workers
[click to view]


LA Times Article - EPA to study childhood cancer cases in rural McFarland, Calif.
[click to view]

United States Environmental Protection Agency - McFarland Study Area
[click to view]

United Farm Works - Transcript of Speech from Cesar Chavez
[click to view]

[1] The Grape Travesty
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorSara Orvis, University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, [email protected]
Last update27/10/2016