Seventeen-year-old Avenal resident Rafael Cerda Calderon has always struggled with severe seizures, autism, and a developmental disability. He will likely need care for the rest of his life.

According to a lawsuit Cerda’s family recently filed in Kings County Superior Court, the multi-billion dollar agribusiness company Corteva, Inc., is to blame.

Cerda’s parents alleged that a widely banned pesticide and its more toxic, unregistered byproduct are responsible for their child’s neurological injuries. The municipalities of Huron and Avenal, where he was raised, have also been named as defendants in the lawsuit, as are pesticide applicators Woolf Farming Co. and Cottonwest, LLC.

Gregg M. Schmidt, a spokesman for Corteva, Inc., declined to comment on the case.

The complaint is the first of nearly 90 lawsuits a group of lawyers plan to file in the central San Joaquin Valley against the Deleware-based Corteva, Inc., and other local municipalities and pesticide applicators.

The attorney groups include Calwell Luce diTrapano PLLC of Charleston, West Virginia, and Bonnett, Fairbourn, Friedman & Balint P.C. of San Diego, and Phoenix.

“We are in the process of reviewing around 200-plus records. We probably got 87 that look like they’re provable cases,” said lead attorney Stuart Calwell.

Chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos oxon

Chlorpyrifos, the pesticide at the heart of the lawsuit, has been used in the San Joaquin Valley for decades to control insects that can attack almond orchards, cotton fields, and apricot trees, among other popular crops. It was developed by Dow Chemical, now Corteva, in the 1960s as an alternative to DDT and has been banned for residential use nationwide since 2001.

Scientists have documented the link between exposure to the pesticide and brain development, including in a prominent study by Columbia University.

In May 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom banned chlorpyrifos in the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the chemical in 2015, but its prohibition has since been reversed by the Trump Administration, according to The New York Times.

“We found the stuff in cars; it gets in the dashboard, it goes anywhere the wind goes. We even sampled a teddy bear and even found it there.”

stuart calwell, lead attorney

According to the lawsuit, the pesticide becomes a deadly neurotoxin when it comes into contact with water or sunshine or treated with chlorine, which is typically added to tap water. Chlorpyrifos oxon is 1,000 times more toxic than the original pesticide and was never registered with the EPA because it is so deadly.

Calwell likened chlorpyrifos oxon to the nerve agent Sarin, used in chemical warfare. The lawsuit alleges its makers knew this and provided no warning to regulators or customers.

“If you look at the toxicity, the chemical structures are very close to identical. It’s a first cousin. There’s no debate about how lethal it is,” Calwell said.

Calwell said the neurotoxin is especially dangerous once it enters a household because it can live for years. He and his team have spent years testing rural areas populated mostly by farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley.

“We found the stuff in cars; it gets in the dashboard, it goes anywhere the wind goes,” Calwell said. “We even sampled a teddy bear and even found it there. So for a child living there, with every breath he takes, he’s getting a little dose. It’s very insidious.”

Impact on farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley

Cerda, the plaintiff, was exposed to thousands of pounds of chlorpyrifos throughout his life, but especially in utero and during his infancy, the lawsuit alleges.

His mother, Alba Luz Calderon de Cerda, handled citrus fruits and lettuce sprayed with chlorpyrifos as a packing house worker during her pregnancy. His father, Rafael Cerda Martinez, was a pesticide sprayer in agricultural fields, who often brought the chemical home, the lawsuit alleges.

The child and his parents were also exposed to the chemicals through the air in their home, the fields and packing houses where they worked, as well as in the water they drank, which was “loaded with chlorpyrifos and chlorpyrifos oxon,” according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiff was exposed to thousands of pounds of chlorpyrifos throughout his life, but especially in utero and during his infancy.

Because of his exposure, Cerda was born premature, and by the time he was a year old, he had reduced muscle tone, gross motor delay, and severe cognitive issues, the lawsuit alleges. He suffered several seizures by the age of 2. He was later diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, autism, and developmental disability.

He still struggles with communication, personal hygiene, and “daily living,” the lawsuit says. “It is extremely unlikely that Rafael Jr. will ever be able to be gainfully employed or able to live independently, and he is reasonably certain to need some assistance and care for the rest of his natural life.”

The family is suing for general damages, compensatory damages due to Cerda’s loss in earning capacity, medical costs, and “punitive damages for the willful, reckless, and recklessly indifferent conduct of the Defendants,” according to the lawsuit.

Calwell said dozens more lawsuits would follow across the central San Joaquin valley as his team tracks the pesticides’ full environmental reach and impact.

“This needs to be dealt with on a macro basis. And it needs to be monetized. But the only way to get people’s attention is through these lawsuits,” Calwell said.

Manuela Tobias is a reporter with The Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Manuela is our former Housing Reporter whose stories focused on the political dynamics and economic and racial inequities that contribute to the housing crisis in California and its potential solutions....