Thursday morning began as a regular work day for a Tanimura & Antle celery transplant crew. They showed up around 4:30am to begin working in a field off the corner of Abbott Street and Harris Road in South Salinas, but within an hour, workers began feeling dizzy and nauseous. One vomited.
By 7am, all 18 workers were in the emergency room at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, where medical staff called a "code triage," setting up a command center and a mobile decontamination shower trailer where workers were cleaned.
Bilingual staff members from the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner's Office went to the hospital and conducted interviews with all 18 workers, and also collected clothing samples to test for the presence of pesticides.
The ag commissioner's office has also begun an investigation into whether any pesticide application violations might have occurred.
"None are immediately obvious," says Bob Roach, assistant agricultural commissioner. He notes all workers were wearing rubber gloves, as instructed, and some wore cloth gloves as an extra layer of protection.
The Ag Commissioner's Office will submit its eventual findings to the California Department of Pesticide Control, which will make a determination as to whether the symptoms were likely connected to pesticide exposure or not.
"There's no obvious source of the exposure at this point," Roach says.
What he does know at this point: T&A—the agricultural company that employs all 18 workers—applied pesticides to two nearby fields at about 10pm the night before.
Just across the street, a tractor put four insecticides on a field of celery.
Those include Coragen, Movento and Pounce, Roach says; all three are Category 3 pesticides, meaning they come with "caution" labels.
The insecticide of most concern is Lannate, which contains the active ingredient methomyl, which is a Category 1 product, labeled "danger."
"Methomyl is extremely toxic if ingested and moderately toxic if inhaled," according to a U.S. EPA information page about methomyl.
A little further from the celery crew, Lannate, Coragen and two Category 3 fungicides, Revus and Previcur Flex were applied.
Roach and his staff will also look at the celery transplants themselves, but the work is largely mechanized, he notes. "A machine puts [the plants] in, then [workers] fix skips," he says. "There's not a lot of contact."
It's too soon to say how long the investigation will take, but it could be several months. Roach says T&A has been cooperative in the investigation, and filed proper paperwork in advance of its insecticide applications.
Meanwhile, 17 members of the 18-person crew were back at work Friday morning, except for the one woman who vomited and is out today, say T&A spokesperson Samantha Cabaluna.