Friday, March 25, 2011

Down to the Roots

In rural Mississippi during the 50s, the Roberson family -- which consisted of my mom, 10 brothers and sisters and their parents -- lived and worked off the land as sharecroppers, mainly picking cotton, and sometimes corn.
The boys did the planting and also helped the girls chop and weed the cotton, which often left blisters on their hands.
“The cotton bowls had ‘"burrs’ on them when they dried and it would prick your hands, especially around your fingernails when you pulled the cotton out,” my mom remembers.
Probably the most harmful to my mom’s family, however, were the fertilizers and insect sprays used for crops and vegetable gardens. Both of my mom’s parents (fondly remembered as mamaw and papaw), as well as her eldest brother have since passed away from different forms of cancer. One of my mom’s sisters is a breast cancer survivor, while another is a uterine cancer surivor  Did all that exposure to pesticides contribute to the family’s cancer? It’s highly likely.
The use of pesticides -- the "elixirs of death” that descended from World War II chemical warfare experiments -- is still highly prevalent around the United States today, despite the work of the late great American farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez and others. (By the way, happy birthday to the late Cesar Chavez!)
I searched for stats on pesticide use in the United States and this is some of the information I found: The United States accounts for more than one third of the $33.5 billion in global pesticide sales, the vast majority for farming, according to 2005 statistics.
Besides seeping into crops and into our bodies, pesticides also make their way into rivers, lakes, wells and the ocean. Since the late 1970s, studies have found more than 139 different pesticide residues in groundwater in the Untied States, most frequently in corn- and soybean-growing regions. Roughly 85 percent of all cropland in America relies on herbicides.
Here in California, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently opened a 30-day public comment period on the controversial strawberry pesticide methyl iodide.
Methyl iodide is included in California’s Proposition 65’s (The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986) list of chemicals known to cause cancer. The pesticide poses the most direct risks to farm workers and neighboring communities. The use of this pesticide could reach 6-to-10 million pounds a year in California alone.
Methyl iodide is intended to replace methyl bromide, which is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol because it damages the ozone layer. California’s strawberry growers, who would be the state’s primary consumers of methyl iodide, contend that the chemical is crucial to their $2 billion industry.
But scientists say methyl iodide is too toxic for agricultural use because it poses serious health risks, including late term miscarriages, groundwater contamination and possibly brain damage. It is so carcinogenic that it’s used to create cancer cells in laboratories.
This is another possible case of economics ruling out the environment. If approved for use, this pesticide may give strawberry farmers a much needed economic boost, but the costs of doctor bills associated with the deadly risks, not too mention headaches and anguish, aren’t worth it if you ask me.
I may not live to see a pesticide-free world, but I hope that my 9-year-old son does. That’s why I try to buy organic foods and products as much as I can. Sure, organics may cost more, but the ultimate cost could be our health. To buy green we have to shovel out more “green.” But the more demands we as consumers make for organic- and chemical- free foods, the more will be available, which, in turn, will eventually lower the costs.
For me and my family, it’s a fundamental step in leading a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

*Special thanks to my beautiful mom for sharing her rural Mississippi living stories with me (stay tuned for more future blog posts about her life in the deep south). I admire and respect her deeply, along with the rest of her family. I will always remember my roots, and have started some of my own--organic ones.

Below are some photos of my mom and her family. The first photo shows my mom (on the right siting on her mom's lap)  with mamaw and papaw, two of her sisters and one of her brothers. The second photo was taken of my mom (in the front with my then- toddler son) and five of her six sisters. Her sister-in-law is on the far right. You can see the striking resemblence of the Roberson gals. They all flew out to California a few years ago to see us. One of them, aunt Jean, had never been on a plane.


  1. Despite the achingly hard work and exposure to pesticides my mom and her family had some good times living the simple farming life. As a "treat" the 10 kids got to go to the cotton gin(where the raw
    cotton was milled to remove the seeds from the fiber part of the cotton). When they got enough cotton picked for selling a big load, they got to take turns riding on the big wagon load of soft cotton.
    On Saturday nights the family would get cozy in bed and listen to the Grand Ole Opry on a big battery powered radio. Now that's entertainment!

  2. Is there a link between pesticides and breast cancer?

    Yes. Pesticides have been associated with a higher rate of breast cancer. Pesticides are fat-soluble and tend to remain in the fatty tissue of humans, other mammals, birds, and fish. Studies have shown a higher level of pesticides in women with breast cancer than in women with benign breast disease. A 1993 study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) found that some women with breast cancer had high levels of the chemical DDE, a compound derived from DDT, the infamous organochloride used in chemical pesticides and electrical components.

    Consider the results of a 1990 study of breast cancer and pesticides in Israel. In the 1970’s, Israeli women had one of the highest rates of mortality from breast cancer in the world. Prior to a 1976 ban on several organochlorine-type pesticides in Israel, some dairy products in Israel had pesticide residues as high as 500% above U.S. levels, and residues in breast milk in Israeli women were 800 times the level measured in breast milk of women in the U.S. In the 10 years that followed the ban of the particular pesticides in Israel, the incidence of breast cancer declined 20% in Israel, while the incidence of breast cancer increased in other industrialized nations. (

  3. Good job for a city slicker (like me).....Aunt Jean is a uterine cancer surivor from 1972. I am approaching my 10th anniversary of cancer free Easter! Yay! :)

  4. Aunt Linda you are an inspiration!!! Thank you!!! I added aunt Jean's survivor info to the blog. Thanks for the info!! Congrats on being cancer free for 10 years! You should celebrate by heading out west again to visit us!!! Do it!