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Poisoning Workers at the Bottom of the Food Chain

Pesticides sicken more than 10,000 farm laborers annually. What's being sprayed is often a mystery. And complaining can mean getting fired or deported.

| Mon Jun. 25, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Laboring in the blackberry fields of central Arkansas, the 18-year-old Mexican immigrant suddenly turned ill. Her nose began to bleed, her skin developed a rash, and she vomited.

The doctor told her it was most likely flu or bacterial infection, but farmworker Tania Banda-Rodriguez suspected pesticides. Under federal law, growers must promptly report the chemicals they spray.

It took the worker, and a Tennessee legal services lawyer helping her, six months to learn precisely what chemical doused those blackberry fields. The company ignored her requests for the information. The Arkansas State Plant Board initially refused to provide records to her lawyer, saying it didn't respond to out-of-state requests. An Arkansas inspector, dispatched after the complaint, didn't initially discern what pesticides were used the day the worker became ill, records show.

When answers finally arrived—the fungicide was Switch 62.5WG, a chemical that can irritate the eyes and skin—Banda-Rodriguez had already left Arkansas to follow the season to Virginia and ultimately returned to Mexico. She never learned whether the pesticide sickened her.

The episode is as telling a snapshot today as it was six years ago for one of America's most grueling and lowest-paying vocations. Pesticides can endanger farmworkers, but thin layers of government protect them and no one knows the full scope of the environmental perils in the fields.

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The Environmental Protection Agency administers a Worker Protection Standard meant to regulate pesticides and protect workers and handlers. Yet the agency maintains no comprehensive database to track pesticide exposure incidents nationwide.

In 1993, the Government Accountability Office (then called the General Accounting Office) warned that the lack of data could lead to a "significant underestimation of both the frequency and the severity of pesticide illnesses."

Nearly 20 years later, the EPA can still only guess at the scope of pesticide-related ailments in an industry where many workers, toiling in the shadows, are reluctant to speak up. The EPA often hands enforcement of pesticide regulations to states, which receive and investigate few formal complaints each year, federal records show.

"The system in place to address pesticide exposure is horrible. It's dysfunctional. It just doesn't work at all."

"The system in place to address pesticide exposure is horrible. It's dysfunctional," said Caitlin Berberich, an attorney with Southern Migrant Legal Services, a Nashville nonprofit that provides free legal services to farmworkers in six Southern states. "It just doesn't work at all."

Some top state regulators agree the full toll of pesticides on farmworkers is not documented. Yet reforms requiring more complete disclosure of pesticide use have been caught up in EPA red tape. The EPA did not respond to repeated requests for comment and written questions, sent by the Center for Public Integrity over the last month, about its pesticide oversight. The EPA "estimates that 10,000-20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur each year among the approximately 2 million US agricultural workers," federal records show.

Yet when workers do complain—as in the case in Arkansas—securing hard information can be daunting. Sometimes, workers say, they pay a price for speaking up. When pesticides were sprayed near them in 2010 in the tomato fields outside the city of Newport, in a patch of east Tennessee where the mountains touch the clouds and road signs warn of falling rock, the migrant farmworkers complained to state regulators. When it happened again, they say, they snapped videos with their cellphones.

The tomato farm's response, the workers say in an ongoing federal lawsuit: to fire them on the spot, pile them on a bus and route them back to Mexico. The company denies any wrongdoing or retaliation. In Florida in late 2009, farmworker Jovita Alfau, working in an open-air plant nursery in a rural swath of south Miami-Dade County, said she became dizzy and weak, with numbness in her mouth, and vomited. Alfau said she had been told to tend to hibiscus plants at the Homestead nursery less than 24 hours after they had been sprayed with the pesticide endosulfan. The grower sent workers out too soon after the spraying, Alfau said in a lawsuit, violating the Worker Protection Standard, and did not tell her when pesticides were applied, provide protective gear, or tell her how to protect herself.

Endosulfan is so toxic that, by summer 2010, the EPA banned its use, saying the pesticide "poses unacceptable risks to agricultural workers and wildlife."

Pesticide warning labels are not required to be in Spanish, though 8 of every 10 farmworkers are foreign born and most of the nation's agricultural workforce comes from Mexico.

Several days after falling ill, Alfau went to the doctor but was not asked about pesticides, said her lawyer, Karla Martinez of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. Alfau, a legal US resident and Mexican native, said she has been unable to work regularly since.

Power Bloom Farms and Growers denies wrongdoing, but agreed this month to settle Alfau's case for $100,000, Martinez said. The company did not respond to an interview request.

Farmworkers who have spent decades in the fields say one constant remains: Workers have little voice when it comes to pesticides.

"We have to run to the cars and close the windows because the plane is putting pesticides in the fields. After that happens, people feel sick," said Yolanda Gomez, who began picking Florida oranges when she was nine and spent more than 30 years following the harvest from Florida to Washington state. "When you go to the field you go clean, and when you come out of the field you can see your eyes are very red."

Pesticide warning labels are not required to be in Spanish, though 8 of every 10 farmworkers are foreign born and most of the nation's agricultural workforce comes from Mexico.

Raised in a family of farmworkers, with a father who once carried signs for Cesar Chavez, Gomez is now a community organizer for the Farmworker Association of Florida, in Apopka near Orlando. Farmworkers frequently trek into the office complaining of pesticide-related illnesses, she said.

"When you tell them, 'Let's make this paper and put your name on it so we can make a difference,' they just won't do it," Gomez said. "'I don't have any papers. I have to work. This is the only way I can feed my family.' They don't see another way out of the system."

The system, she said, "should care about the human side of the worker."

Bottom of the food chain

The battle over pesticides is a microcosm of the larger struggle for laborers at the bottom rung of the economic food chain.

"There's this disenchantment," said attorney Adriane Busby, who focuses on pesticide safety policy for the nonprofit Farmworker Justice in Washington, DC. "They just don't believe anything will happen if they go above and beyond in reporting things. They don't believe in the system protecting them."

For farmworkers, just getting clear answers about pesticides is a struggle. No one, the EPA included, has a full picture of the problem.

An EPA slideshow report (PDF) in 2006, for instance, opened with a question: How many occupational pesticide incidents are there each year in the United States?

The slide listed multiple possibilities, from 1,300 to 300,000. Each number could be true, the report said—it just depends upon the source. One number came from the Poison Control Center, another from EPA estimates, and yet another from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.

This uncertainty, even the EPA admits, can carry real consequences. As its slide noted, the lack of accurate information "inhibits clear problem identification."

Advocates say the dearth of information triggers another problem: It's hard to hold government and industry accountable when there is no benchmark from which to judge.

In its 2006 report, the EPA set goals of gathering more complete information and creating a more consistent means of tracking incidents. Among its recommendations: To "prepare a report on occupational incidents."

Six years later, asked whether such a report has been prepared, the EPA did not respond.

Instead of maintaining its own database, the EPA depends on states to report complaints. But those annual reports list minuscule numbers. In 2011, for instance, North Carolina listed a total of five investigations based on complaints—for the entire state. South Carolina, another major agricultural producer, reported zero. Tennessee: three.

Florida, the nation's second-biggest agricultural state after California, reported 61 complaint-based investigations that year.

But Gregory Schell, managing attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth, near West Palm Beach, Florida, said just a fraction of the pesticide incidents are reported.

His guess: "One-tenth of 1 percent, in Florida."

In 2005, Schell surveyed laborers who worked for a grape tomato grower in northern Florida that season. Nearly 1 in 4 said they had been directly sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals. Just under half said they had encountered drift from nearby fields. Thirty-six percent said they had become sick or nauseous from pesticides, and more than 4 of 10 said they developed skin rashes or irritation.

Had those numbers been extrapolated out for a state with 200,000 farmworkers, there would have been thousands of complaints, not dozens.

"Workers view these exposures as an occupational hazard. Even when they do complain, there's an unwillingness to come forward…It is like pulling teeth for us to get people to file pesticide complaints."

"Workers view these exposures as an occupational hazard. Even when they do complain, there's an unwillingness to come forward," Schell said. "One [reason] is their immigration status. The other is the employer can and will fire them.

"It is like pulling teeth for us to get people to file pesticide complaints."

The official count doesn't reflect reality, agrees Andy Rackley, director of agricultural environmental services for Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "I would say we probably don't have a good handle on it," Rackley said. "It's probably not as big as some people say it is but it's probably bigger than what our complaint investigation files would indicate."

Rackley believes growers should be required to more fully disclose where farmworkers are when pesticides are being sprayed. "Where were the workers at the same time, were they harvesting in the same fields?" he asked. "That won't keep anybody who's intent on hiding something from doing something, but it certainly raises the stakes."

Growers log their pesticide use, and many track workers' activities—but there's no rule requiring one report tying the two, Rackley said. "EPA has been working on a rule to do that for at least eight years, maybe longer," he said, "but we still don't have it."

Language barriers add another hurdle.

Pesticide warning labels are not required to be in Spanish, though8  of every 10 farmworkers are foreign born and most of the nation's agricultural workforce comes from Mexico.

On average, according to the US Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, crop workers had not advanced beyond the seventh grade. Forty-four percent said they could not speak English and 53 percent could not read the language. When farmworkers can't read safety instructions, they face higher risks of exposure, say advocates who have pushed the EPA to require bilingual labeling.

With a scarcity of hard data, advocates are sometimes left to cite decades-old reports as proof of pesticide's perils. One report, from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, said farmworkers suffer the highest rate of chemical-related illness of any occupational group, at 5.5 per 1,000. The report date: 1987.

Florida's Rackley believes the EPA should more fully fund qualified advocacy groups to train workers on pesticide safety—empowering workers, giving growers a level of comfort, and building trust between the two. "Listen, the growers need the workers and the workers need the growers, that's the bottom line," he said. In recent years, records show, the EPA has provided funding from $25,000 to a nonprofit to help reduce farmworker pesticide exposures in New Jersey to up to $1.2 million over five years to help train clinicians working with farmworkers.

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