Siskiyou Land Conservancy
Protecting California’s Wild North Coast and Rivers Since 2004

Del Norte is California’s Least Healthy County

That is, at least according to big med’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is apparently ranking counties throughout the country. It’s a business venture for the Foundation, but it provides fodder for contemplation.

Recently Del Norte was down to one physician for the entire county, which figures into the RWJ ranking for access to health care. The survey also looked at obesity, smoking, exercise levels and the teen birth rate.

In addition to the effects of poverty caused primarily by cut-and-run timber liquidation and the decimation of California’s fishing industry, Del Norte’s overall health took an unfortunate dive in 1989 with the opening of Pelican Bay State Prison. Aside from the osmotic impacts of plopping such a horrific example of human cruelty into the middle of a tiny population, the families of some prisoners, and some guards, brought to Del Norte County particularly challenging home and neighborhood impacts that Social Services — and of course the families themselves — have been struggling to overcome ever since.

The bitter irony lies in the abject cleanliness of much of Del Norte County, which correlates with the region’s beauty, sparse population and isolation. But it’s not all milk and honey in our northwesternmost county. To wit:

2001: A spray rig douses lily bulbs during a high wind in the town of Smith River, Del Norte County. Blowing directly into the Smith River Elementary School (background) are the carcinogenic fungicides copper hydroxide and chlorothalonil. Each year bulb growers spray more than 200,000 pounds of pesticides on some 1,500 acres of lily fields that surround the town. Photo by Greg King.


The town of Smith River surrounded by lily bulb fields. Above, the Smith River itself runs toward what is left of the river's estuary after levees and ditches drained the region for agriculture. Photo by Greg King.


Specifically, the RWJ survey stated:

“Poorly ranked counties often had multiple challenges to overcome, including:
  • Two- and three-fold higher rates of premature death, often from preventable conditions.
  • High smoking rates that lead to cancer, heart disease, bronchitis and emphysema.
  • High rates of obesity which can put people at risk for diabetes, disability and heart disease.
  • High unemployment and poverty rates.
  • High numbers of liquor stores and fast-food outlets but few places to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Humboldt County ranked 42nd healthiest out of California’s 56 counties. The survey ranked Siskiyou County second unhealtiest (55th), and Trinity County was fourth unhealthiest. One gets the feeling that, like Del Norte, there are some pretty healthy people in these counties, which see some enviable fitness levels and a rich availability of clean water, air and food.

The North Fork Smith River meets the Middle Fork Smith River at the Del Norte County town of Gasquet (far right). The Siskiyou Mountains are at back-left. Photo by Greg King

7 comments… add one
  • Ali O. Lee Feb 22, 2010, 7:01 pm

    The LightHouse of the North Coast is a non-profit, providing solutions for living with vision loss, in both Del Norte and Humboldt counties.

    For the past nine years, we have provided vision rehabilitation services to people who are adjusting to uncorrectable vision loss that is significant enough to impair daily living. Although we are based in Eureka, CA, we travel to Del Norte regularly to provide vision rehabilitation and public education regarding blindness and low vision.

    We have been looking forward to increased collaborations with the Del Norte medical and social services communities to provide vision rehabilitation services to people who are blind, have low vision, or are visually impaired. We are poised to be part of the social services solution to address the long-tern effects of poverty, in Del Norte.

    We have witnessed the combined effects of poverty, lack of access to healthcare, and geographical isolation first-hand during home visits to individuals who are home-bound or have transportation issues.

    The Area 1 Agency on Aging has helped stretch our transportation dollars by sharing their van to go north for services from where we are based, in Eureka. Both the Addie Meedom House and the Del Norte Senior Center has provided meeting places for the peer-supported, Crescent City Low Vision Support Group facilitated by Roger Eakin. Resident John Maxson services on our local advisory board. United Indian Health Services has referred individuals with vision loss to us who have lived in the Crescent City and Smith River communities of Del Norte County.

    More recently, we have been receiving Veterans Administration referrals from White City, Oregon, to people with vision loss who are unserved in Del Norte. These cross-border services appear to be common among residents in Del Norte who report traveling to Brookings and Ashland, Oregon, regularly for health care.

    We have witnessed, also, the beauty of the land and the people in Del Norte. It is a place full of history, full of potential to move-up the ranks from being one of California’s least healthy counties by, firstly, addressing systemic diabetes–the long term and unmanaged affects which often lead to vision loss due to diabetic retinopathy.

    Diabetic retinopathy is one of the four, age-related eye diseases that are the leading causes of vision loss among people ages 45 and older. The incidence increases with each decade of age.

    According to the National Eye Institute, of the National Institute on Health, the incidence of age-related eye diseases are project to rise from Census 2000 numbers until the year 2030 due to increasing life-spans, aging Baby Boomers in unprecedented humbers, and increased incidences of diabetes.

    LightHouse of the North Coast (not affiliated with any religion or physical lighthouse on the coast that were used for warning ships) is only part of the solution; we look forward to being part of a more comprehensive, community solution to address health care and social services by working with the Robert Wood Johnson and Del Norte Community to collectively rasie Del Norte from the California county ranks to which it has been assigned.

  • Charlaine M. Jun 9, 2010, 4:13 pm

    Just one fact correction. Even at the height of its recent health care provider shortage, Del Norte County was never down to only one physician for the entire county.

    • siskiyouland Jun 9, 2010, 5:39 pm

      I believe it was one family physician.

      In any case Charlaine, we appreciate the comment.

      That said, it’s also important to point out that in the entire 365-page draft Crescent City/Del Norte County Hazard Mitigation Plan (April 2010), not one mention is made of “pesticides.” This despite the fact that a spill involving pesticides in the county — whether in the bulb fields or on one of the winding highways, edging along pristine rivers, that are used to transport the chemicals — is among the most likely disasters to hit the county.

      The plan says, “Technological hazards (e.g. hazardous material incidents) and man-made hazards (e.g. terrorism) are not addressed in this plan. The DMA 2000 regulations do not require consideration of such hazards, and due to limited funding, the planning partners chose not to include them in this plan.”

      Nonetheless, one would hope that one of the most likely catastrophic events to hit Del Norte County — a pesticide spill — in fact would be addressed in the plan. I notice that you contributed to this draft plan as a representative of the Smith River Community Services District and the Smith River Fire Protection District, Smith River being the very community most likely to be affected by a pesticide spill. Perhaps you will be able to include this potential catastrophe in the final version of the report.

      Greg King
      Siskiyou Land Conservancy

  • m blackburn Jun 27, 2010, 1:52 am

    I guess if one wants to make a specific point, one can “search” for information a number of ways. I support Charlaine M. – Del Norte County was never down to one physician.

    As you stated, you believed it was “one family physician.” In fact, the practitioner listed is not an MD. She is an excellent FNP – Family Nurse Practitioner. However, if one searches for “Physicians,” there are no less than 20 with specialites including family practice, internal medicine, obstetrics, and gynecoloyg, pediatrics, allergy, surgery, orthopedics, chiropractic, opthamology, urology, and more – not including the Del Norte Community Health Center, Sutter Coast Community Clinic, Sutter Coast Health Center Walk-in Clinic and Sutter Coast Hospital. And, like many rural counties, there are additional specialists within a short drive – 30 miles to Brookings, OR and within 80 miles to Medford, OR and Eureka, CA.

    Report your facts. Please make certain that you report all the facts. Some people actually read what you say and they might believe that it is all true.

    • siskiyouland Jun 27, 2010, 3:53 am

      Thank you for that clarification. We very much appreciate it.

      We also appreciate locals speaking to the pesticide issue. Have you looked into that at all?

      • hollymz Dec 1, 2010, 12:35 am

        I know our Office of Emergency Services had an exercise last year in order to prepare for just such an incident. The scenario involved a terrorist act of a plane that crashed with two containers of serin gas on board. All the counties emergency programs were able to practice what they should do in such an incident, and learn how to use special equipment that would be involved including emergency transportation of anti-toxins from the nearest city that has them. The hospital was also able to practice being inundated with patients.

        You can read about it here:

        I believe the new California Endowment, Building Healthy Communities Initiative will also make great strides in increasing Del Norte Counties next health grade.

        Though we do not have the best access to quality medical care, and we may need to travel for some services, we are in no short supply of fresh air, clean water and exercise here in Del Norte County. As someone raised here, I can attest to it. 🙂

        • siskiyouland Dec 1, 2010, 2:38 am

          Holly, many thanks for your comments. I know that many people in Del Norte do care about the safety of their communities and the nature of materials being distributed there. And we’re certainly in agreement about the benefits of “clean living” available in Del Norte, as we both noted.

          What we continue to seek is some sort of acknowledgement by county officials regarding the dangers of pesticide use on lands surrounding the Smith River Estuary, and on timberlands, a danger that is magnified exponentially by transportation of the pesticides along the Smith River. This is much different than a scenario involving terrorists and sarin, in that a pesticide spill is much more likely to occur in Del Norte County. We would like to see the use and transportation of pesticides — some 350,000 pounds annually in Del Norte County alone — be addressed in local emergency plans. It is one of the greatest concrete threats facing the people and wildlife of Del Norte County.

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