Field workers are still exposed to dangerous chemicals, 20 years after a landmark field-posting victory.
Thursday, July 17, 2003
Photos by Randy Tunnell.
Danger! Do not enter. Peligro! No entrar. The small cardboard sign stands at the roadside edge of a lettuce field in East Salinas. The postings, each tagged with red skull and crossbones, surround the field, warning farm workers that the field has been sprayed with pesticides. Despite the warning, two workers lay out irrigation pipe in the middle of the contaminated field.
"It doesn''t surprise me," says Jesus Lopez of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a nonprofit firm that advocates for farm workers'' rights.
We drive on, past workers packaging strawberries into cardboard boxes, past empty greenhouses with translucent siding. In a little more than a mile, we see four fields that have been sprayed. Workers are out in all but one of them. None of the postings indicate what pesticide was applied or when it was treated.
We slowly drive by San Jerardo Community, a labor camp of 100 or so units surrounded by lettuce fields. Beyond the camp is a dry field filled with rows of lettuce shoots.
Lopez pulls onto the side of Old Stage Road and says, "see the crew and see the sign right there," pointing to the lettuce field, where 16 farm workers, dressed in hooded sweatshirts and jeans, use hoes to cultivate the soil. Some of the workers use their shirts to cover their mouths from the dust floating up. The crew works fast in the heat, moving between the beady eyes of the skull and crossbones at each corner of the field.
"This was sprayed last night," Lopez says, "how do you like that?"
Lopez asks one of the workers if he knows what pesticide was sprayed or when it was sprayed. The young man doesn''t know. "A little potion isn''t going to kill me," he says, continuing to work the dirt.
Word spreads to Jose Luiz, the crew''s foreman, and he walks over to the edge of the field, wipes the sweat off his brow and leans on his hoe. "I don''t know what pesticide it is," he says in Spanish. "Si, es peligroso. (Yes, it''s dangerous.)"
Luiz says that some other company sprayed the field but he doesn''t know when. He doesn''t give the name of his boss.
"Don''t worry about it. I''m going to throw that sign away," he says with a smile. Luiz lifts the sign out of the soil and tosses it face down. He then grabs his hoe and hustles back to join his crew at the opposite end of the field.
"That''s their solution," Lopez says. "Now nobody knows if it has been sprayed or not."
We move back to the car as the crew continues its work. "Now you have a good idea of what''s going on in the fields," Lopez says. "You see exactly the reality of what I see everyday."
As we head back into town we pass another contaminated field and the bitter, chemical smell envelops us. "Do you want to get poisoned?" Lopez asks. He turns the car around to go back for another whiff. We pull up right next to the field and the smell is strong enough to make me want to keep driving. I look back to San Jerardo and then to the poisoned field before me.
"This is the farm workers'' life," Lopez says.
Every year, Monterey County growers apply nearly 8 million pounds of pesticides to protect their crops. Many of these are organophosphates, which attack the central nervous system of insects. Organophosphates have served the agriculture industry well because pests aren''t likely to develop resistance to their effects. But their use is controversial, since pests aren''t the only ones exposed to them. Pesticides also poison humans.
Tearing of the eyes, tremors, sweating, dry mouth and vomiting--these are some the signs of pesticide poisoning that Dr. Valerie Bengal, a physician at Natividad Medical Center, sees regularly. From 1997-2000, Monterey County reported 178 pesticide-related illnesses. In 2002, the agricultural commissioner''s office investigated 21 illnesses and has looked into 11 so far this year.
But these numbers may be misleading.
In 2000, a crew of about 150 lettuce harvesters was working dangerously close to a field being gassed by methyl bromide and chloropicrin, two toxic fumigants. Some of them experienced shortness of breath, headaches and nausea, causing two of them to faint. All of them wound up in the hospital.
Bengal says it is not unusual for doctors in the area to encounter pesticide-related illnesses.
"Almost anyone who treats farm workers sees it; they just don''t recognize it as such," she says.
Most doctors agree, however, that dramatic pesticide poisonings (twitching eyes, convulsions and loss of consciousness) have reduced significantly in the past 10 years. Dr. Max Cuevas, CEO of Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, a nonprofit health clinic, says his clinic doesn''t see many of the acute disorders anymore.
"People come in with skin irritations and rashes but it has been quite a while since anyone has come in with major illnesses," Cuevas says.
The reduction in exposure is largely due to legislation that was passed 20 years ago last month. The law requires signs like the one on Old Stage Road to be placed at all fields sprayed with pesticides during the time that contact poses dangers for workers.
Eric Lauritzen, Monterey County''s agricultural commissioner, says field posting has virtually eliminated serious exposure problems.
"Each application has a potential for an incident," Lauritzen says. "Due to our posting requirement, we have a rare exception when workers enter the field before the re-entry interval has passed."
Lauritzen says he was unaware of the workers in the sprayed field on Old Stage Road, since no illnesses or violations have resulted from the incident. He seemed to believe that the field had not really been recently sprayed.
"Whoever did the application didn''t take the sign down," he says.
According to the crew''s foreman, a separate company did the application, and he wasn''t aware when the field had been sprayed.
"The fact that you came around one of those is very unique," Lauritzen says.
Records show that violations and major illnesses have resulted from workers being sent into fields before they were safe. Two years ago, 20 workers entered a vineyard that had been treated with sulfur and experienced inflammation of the skin and eye irritation. But "those kinds of violations have depleted off to nothing," Lauritzen says.
Activists for pesticide reform argue that pesticide poisonings occur frequently, even if they don''t end up on the commissioner''s desk.
Mike Meuter, attorney for CRLA, says that many pesticide-related illnesses go unreported.
"Workers are afraid to make complaints because of losing their job, and afraid that even if they do complain nothing will change for the better," Meuter says. "So few of the complaints actually make it to the agricultural commission."
Since violations result in large fines, he says, workers know that keeping their mouths shut can mean keeping their jobs--not to mention dodging the risk of deportation.
"We do find [minor] violations all the time," Lauritzen says. Three investigations this year, for example, resulted in $800 fines.
"In our view they ought to be doing a lot more," Meuter says. "The agricultural commissioner should aggressively issue the highest level of fines that are available to send the message that these types of violations are taken seriously and need to stop."
In addition, the agricultural commissioner''s office is only dealing with acute exposure, Meuter says. What is often overlooked, he says, is ongoing exposure to chemicals--classified as chronic exposure. This, he says, "is just a black hole and a tremendous problem for everyone in agricultural areas."
Boxes of children''s toys sit on the floor and a television plays cartoon videotapes at the entrance of the Center for Health Analysis for Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS). The place looks more like a day care center than a medical research facility.
"Fifty percent of the job is babysitting," says Selene Jaramillo, director of the CHAMACOS project at Natividad. The other half of the time, CHAMACOS is doing groundbreaking research into the effects of pesticides on women and children in farm communities.
One study involves monitoring pesticide levels in 600 pregnant women and their offspring until the children are two and-a-half years old. Hence the daycare.
Because they crawl on the floor and put everything in their mouths, children are more prone to chemical exposure, Jaramillo says. Children are also sensitive to chemical exposure.
"If you have anything that will complicate your health at that time, you will have health consequences later on," Jaramillo says.
Farm workers and rural residents are exposed to pesticides day after day and month after month, to the point that it shows up in their bloodstream. CHAMACOS is trying to determine whether the presence of these chemicals is linked to any abnormalities. Birth defects, Attention Deficit Disorder, autism, asthma and allergies are among the suspected long-term effects, but nothing is proven yet.
"It is very difficult to establish a causal link," Jaramillo says.
Jaramillo likens pesticide poisoning to lead poisoning. It wasn''t discovered until the ''90s that lead exposure lowered the IQ of children. Now, everyone knows that lead is dangerous because of loads of medical research.
"For chronic pesticide exposure there is no such research--and it may have similar effects," Jaramillo says.
CHAMACOS will be wrapping up its study in the fall. This research "is a very small step in a direction that we need to go much, much further," Jaramillo says.
In the meantime, CHAMACOS is trying different approaches to reducing pesticide exposure to children.
Farm workers often carry residue and dust from pesticides on their clothes and boots. If they don''t change their clothes or take a shower before handling their children, the kids are likely to be exposed, Jaramillo says.
CHAMACOS recommends that the workers launder their clothes separately from their children''s clothes, and shower before handling their kids. CHAMACOS also issues work uniforms to field workers so that the dust won''t end up on the youngsters.
CRLA also works with this issue. Lopez says making a safe home, however, is difficult for some families. "It''s an economic issue," Lopez says. "They don''t have any options sometimes" because workers who are only making $6.75 an hour "don''t want to pay for another load of laundry."
It is also an issue of time. Lopez related a story from one of his pesticide workshops in which a mother was in tears because she agreed with his advice but could not act on it.
"When do I have time to take a shower?" she asked. She then went through every facet of her day from getting up at 3:30 in morning, working 10 hours in the field and coming home to cook dinner.
The battle over pesticide regulations in Monterey County has been painful. It wasn''t until after several group poisonings that things started to change.
In July of 1980, 19 immigrant workers were taken into a cauliflower field sprayed with pesticides the night before. The crew suffered from convulsions, twitching eyes and nausea.
Bill Monning, former attorney for CRLA, and other activists called for the county to adopt field-posting laws. The Monterey County Pesticide Coalition was formed, with rural residents joining members of CRLA and the United Farm Workers union.
The coalition drew closer to its goal after another poisoning case in April of 1981, involving 41 workers who had to receive emergency decontamination.
Field posting was broadly opposed by the agricultural commissioner and most growers.
"The growers and applicators did not like the idea of skulls and crossbones on the edge of fields for tourists and consumers to see," Monning says. Nor did the agricultural industry want to pay the extra costs associated with posting.
But one company took a stand for field posting. The Bruce Church Company, a lettuce shipping corporation based in Salinas, started experimenting with field posting in Imperial County and decided to support the ordinance.
Soon after, the ag commissioner came on board, and the coalition won an emergency field posting ordinance in October of 1981.
"The ordinance was the first of its kind in California and the nation," Monning says. "It represented a kind of unique coming together at a time when there was strict divisions between United Farm Workers and the agricultural industry."
Even with the posting requirement, another tragic poisoning occurred, telling the coalition that its work was not over yet. The following year, more than 35 workers were poisoned when they were taken into a field before it was safe to enter. Maria Flores, who was in her first trimester of pregnancy, was among the poisoned crew. Flores gave birth to a baby, Mariana Flores, with birth defects including malformation of the brain stem and heart. Mariana died 10 days after birth.
CRLA sued Mobay, the manufacturer of the pesticides applied. In the course of the lawsuit, it was revealed that the pesticides caused similar birth defects in laboratory studies, and that the information was kept from the public.
The court settlement, amounting to $278,000, "represented the largest farm worker pesticide poisoning settlement in history," Monning says.
The coalition revised the posting ordinance in June of 1983.
"Since that time there has been a clear drop in reported crew poisonings," Monning says. "I believe the signs are symbolic of greater vigilance and communication among applicators, growers and farm labor contractors."
Monning wasn''t surprised, however, to hear about the workers I had seen on Old Stage Road: "Is a group of undocumented workers going to follow the sign or are they going to follow the labor contractor?
"While the fields are safer today as a result of field posting, the fields are still one of the most dangerous work places in America."
The coalition is no longer active, but pesticide regulation is still a hot issue as the gases from methyl bromide continue to settle near the playground of a Salinas school.
Methyl bromide is a potent neurotoxin that is injected into the soil before planting strawberries and other crops. Acute exposure to this chemical causes headaches and dizziness while long-term exposure is associated with birth defects and kidney damage.
In spite of recent reduction in use, methyl bromide was still the second most used pesticide in Monterey County in 2001, with over 1.5 million pounds applied.
La Joya Elementary School in Salinas and Pajaro Middle School in Watsonville, surrounded by fields of strawberries, were found to have dangerously high levels of methyl bromide in the ambient air in 2001.
Concentrations up to 3.8 parts per billion (ppb) were reported at La Joya and 7.7 ppb at Pajaro. The "safe" concentration level for child exposure is 1 ppb. "Any more than that is a danger zone," Meuter says.
This created a growing concern in the local community, but "the state was less concerned," Meuter says. Sergio Carillo, a Pajaro resident, then filed a lawsuit with CRLA to get state and county officials to take protective measures.
Against the wishes of the state agricultural commissioner, who said it would hurt the strawberry growers who depend on methyl bromide, Judge Robert O''Farrell issued a temporary restraining order increasing a buffer zone from 500 to 1,000 feet and lengthening the amount of time a plastic covering must be kept on treated strawberry plants.
Last summer, CRLA settled the case with the Agricultural Commission by agreeing on a temporary buffer zone of 1,500 feet during school hours and extending the plastic coverage to 10 days.
Meuter is still reluctant to claim victory in the methyl bromide battle. "There hasn''t been ongoing monitoring," he says. "And instead of regulation, the state is getting ready to change the standards."
A new study (paid for by the methyl bromide industry) indicates that contact with 9 ppb for children and 16 ppb for adults is safe. With the new data at hand, the state will determine whether to change the regulations by the end of the summer.
Opponents of the new regulations say the study poses an inherent conflict of interest.
"Our biggest concern is that the study was conducted by the methyl bromide industry in a lab owned by the methyl bromide industry," Meuter says.
Lopez pulls his blue Nissan Sentra into the road, occasionally glancing at the fields we pass. A large crew is picking strawberries next to a white school bus with two blue porta-potties and a wash station attached to the back.
"What happens in the fields right now," he says, "there is no way legally we are going to change that in 24 hours.
"It''s very important to provide information to protect the farm workers, because it''s not going to change."
Now in a commercial area, Lopez passes a liquor store and pulls into the CRLA parking lot on Williams Road in East Salinas. In his office Lopez shows me a slide show he gives to farm workers. The first slide depicts stick figures holding their heads, sweating, vomiting and scratching their skin--showing the symptoms of pesticide poisoning. In the next slide the stick figures are washing their hands, taking a shower, washing clothes separately and dusting the inside of cars.
Lopez then shows me a picture of a young man whose entire right arm is covered with a pink, fleshy rash. The man had laid down in a recently sprayed field to take a nap.
"This photo was taken two months after it happened," Lopez says. He says many companies are now bringing folding chairs into the fields. "It''s better than sitting on the ground, " he says.
He says that instances on Old Stage Road can only be prevented with better communication and strict monitoring. "The law is very clear. What we need is more enforcement," he says.
Even with more enforcement, Lopez says the workers won''t be entirely safe. "It will be safe when we eliminate the chemicals," he says. "It is the only way."