Nancy and Bryan Lara, ages 10 and 8, for instance, saw a tractor surrounded by white clouds near their school bus stop in Caruthers on May 14. The children hid behind a row of grapevines, but they could taste the noxious blend of liquid sulfur, gibberellic acid, insecticide and fertilizer as the rig rolled past them, billowing out its chemical cargo.
Moments earlier, the mist had enveloped 17-year-old Carina at another stop about two blocks away.
"I felt it. It was wet. I was wet," said Carina, who asked that her last name not be used.
School bus driver Crystal Wells drove up in time to see Nancy and Bryan running for cover. She pulled her bus to the side of the road to avoid exposure. Her decision kept 50 children from being exposed.
The bus driver picked up the three children, called her supervisor and drove them to Caruthers High School, where they were met by firefighters, medics and investigators. Soon, the three began to suffer headaches, nausea, itchiness and breathing difficulties.
Erika Lara arrived to find her two children hooked up to oxygen.
"I cried because they had oxygen on," Lara said. "I wasn't expecting that."
The mother's first instinct was to hug her children. The chemicals on their clothing made her arm red and itchy, she said.
All three children were escorted to showers and told to change into clean clothes. But investigators never collected the contaminated clothing, saying the children's father refused to give them the samples. Francisco Lara said he was never asked for the clothes.
After showering, the children were taken to the hospital. They were released by late afternoon. But the family remains shaken.
Kryocide, the chemical that the children were sprayed with, is not an organophosphate. It is "slightly toxic if inhaled" and can damage a person's kidneys and bones if they are repeatedly exposed to it, according to a manufacturer's information sheet.
Despite regulations and laws to protect children, Fresno County authorities say school buses are still being exposed to pesticide clouds once or twice a year.
Fresno County has seen a decline in the number of children exposed to pesticides during the last decade, said Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Karen Francone, because of county efforts to teach bus drivers to pull over when they see rigs and to encourage growers to contact transportation authorities before they spray. But even armed with education, some growers still break the law.
On average, more than 30 million pounds of pesticides per year were applied to Fresno County fields alone from 2005 to 2007. The area is home to some of the worst air quality in the nation, in part because pesticides react with the air to form smog, some scientists say. About one in three children ages 5 to 17 in the county have asthma, according to a 2008 state analysis, reports Amy Littlefield for Los Angeles Times .
"It's in these small rural communities where it's occurring, where nobody is watching," said Daniela Simunovic, a community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. "These kids are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It's low-income communities of color that are bearing the brunt of a corporate agribusiness that has become so dependent on pesticides to make their profit."
Simunovic said there is a disconnect for supermarket shoppers in Los Angeles about the food they buy and its origins. But people who live near the orchards and fields are all too familiar with the human cost of cheap produce.
Nat DiBuduo, president of the Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, an association that represents about 600 California growers, said the incident in Caruthers was "rare and unacceptable."