Aurelio Landa, a farmworker working in California, was pruning a peach orchard last week when a neighboring orchard was sprayed with pesticides. One crewmember signaled to the sprayer to stop, but the request was ignored. Landa and some of his coworkers felt nauseous, dizzy, and teary-eyed. Three hours later, they were taken to an office where a doctor checked Landa’s eyes, mouth, and pulse.
“I told him that my head hurt, my eyes burned and I felt nauseous,” Landa said, according to a United Farm Workers union petition. “Soon after [the doctor] told me that everything was fine since the pesticide that was sprayed was organic and that it wasn’t dangerous.”
Without being given a blood test or medication, Landa and his fellow crewmembers were told to go back to work.
The incident happened in late February at the Fresno-based Gerawan Farming, one of America’s largest grape and tree fruit growers. The brand sells grapes, peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots in grocery stores under its Prima label.
The local health officer should have referred Landa’s case to the county agricultural commissioner and three various state agencies within seven days. According to California state law, the failure to report a known or suspected pesticide-related illness is a citable offense and subject to a $250 civil penalty. But according to UFW, the last time a similar situation happened, “it took 15 months for the Fresno Ag Commissioner to investigate and rule Gerawan’s behavior was against the law.”
Landa’s experience is symptomatic of the types of issues that farmworkers often run into nationwide. In fact, up to 20,000 pesticide poisonings are reported by farmworkers every year.
“There are lots of cases that don’t make the news either because they’re not as severe or people don’t have to be hospitalized or seek doctor’s treatments, so they don’t get the attention,” Jeannie Economos, the project coordinator for Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health at the Farmworker Association of Florida, told ThinkProgress. “But it happens frequently enough that farmworkers come to us regularly that they’re exposed to pesticides and complain of headaches and nausea and skin rashes.”
Some farmworkers, the vast majority of whom are immigrants, are too scared to report their illnesses. In particular, undocumented farmworkers are often afraid to speak out because they’re worried about consequences based on their immigration status, Economos noted.
“We had farmworkers tell us outright that their contractors or their supervisors will tell them ‘if you complain, I’m going to turn you into immigration,'” Economos said. “Whether they would or they won’t isn’t the point, but it’s enough of an intimidation and threat to the farmworkers to not stand up for their rights.”
Virginia Ruiz, the director of Occupational and Environmental Health at the advocacy group Farmworker Justice, told ThinkProgress that being immigrants could put them in a “vulnerable position” where they can be “concerned about losing their only employment.”
“They have to make the choice and work for their next paycheck,” Ruiz said.
“There are things in nature that are poisonous that are natural — it depends on what the pesticides are,” Economos said. “It’s a wide variety — there are some synthetic pesticides that may be a little less harmful than some so-called organic pesticides so it depends on what it is.”
Regardless of whether organic farming appears to be less harmful, farmworkers are often exposed to concentrated forms of the pesticides, leaving them at greater risk of prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and skin cancer. And even the application of pesticides could affect the surrounding agricultural communities.
“Agricultural communities, including children and families, who live adjacent to the fields — they get exposed to sprays too,” Economos said. “Kids are playing there and it’s a threat to farmworkers and kids.”
According to a longitudinal study from the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) that examined chemicals and other factors in the environment and children’s health, pregnant women who were exposed to organophosphate (OP) pesticides during pregnancy were associated with shorter pregnancies; poorer neonatal reflexes; lower IQ; and increased risk of attention problems in children.
“They have made a connection between learning disabilities in kids and ADHD and exposure to organophosphate pesticides,” Economos said, adding that children could come into contact with pesticides from firsthand and secondhand exposure, like when their parents bring home pesticide residue on their clothes. “Because of their size, the concentration of pesticides that they receive is higher.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a major step last year when it stated that it would help mitigate pesticide exposure by updating a two-decade-old regulation known as the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). The regulation has not been phased in yet, but Ruiz is hopeful that better regulations could enforce safety measures out in the fields.
“The EPA took a long time to convene stakeholders and do studies because they wanted to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. It took a long time and probably longer than it should have,” Ruiz said.
At the moment, workers like Landa may have to continue working despite the constant risk of pesticide exposure.
“I don’t have medical insurance in case in the future I get sick due to the chemicals,” Landa said. “This is why I demand more respect and safety in the workplace… I hope the county takes action.”