The Nation
Monday, December 29, 2003
Volume 277; Issue 22

Fields of poison:

While farmworkers are sickened by pesticides, industry writes the rules.

 
By Rebecca Clarren

Sunnyside, Washington   Each summer as the grapes clinging to their vines turn
the purple of a deep bruise, Juan Rios feels like he is being poisoned. His
head aches, he feels dizzy and nauseous, and his nose won't stop running. A
farmworker who moved to this agricultural valley from Mexico, Rios sprays
pesticides at a winery from 3 am to 3:30 pm, five days a week. The pesticides
protect the grapes from insects, but Rios suspects that these chemicals are
making him sick. "I remember the first time I worked with the pesticides, I
was wearing a full mask while we were spraying, but my nose, it wouldn't stop
bleeding. I was worried," says Rios, 39, sitting beneath a portrait of Cesar
Chavez and a Mexican flag that hang proudly here in the United Farm Workers
union local. "I went to the doctor but he didn't do anything; he just told me
to stop working with the pesticides."

For a while he worked in the fields picking instead, but he soon returned to
his old job. As a pesticide handler at a unionized winery, Rios, the father
of two young girls, makes $10 an hour, $3 more than the average Washington
farmworker who picks asparagus or thins apples. Plus, he says with a shrug,
as long as he works in agriculture, he is exposed to the chemicals. "I know that
the only way things will change is if I stop working in the fields," says
Rios, "but agriculture is a huge force here--there really are no other
options." Rios is not alone. As many as 300,000 farmworkers are injured
annually by pesticides, and of these as many as 1,000 die, according to the
most recent available estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While relatively little has been done to study the long-term effects of
pesticides, the research that does exist suggests that farmworkers and their
children are vulnerable to a painful array of illnesses. California farmworkers
have elevated levels of leukemia and stomach, uterine and brain cancer,
according to a study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine
in 2001. Four-to-five-year-old children in Mexico who were exposed to
pesticides suffer giant lags in development--they had more trouble catching a
ball, drawing pictures of people or performing simple tasks involving memory
and neuromuscular skills, according to research by Elizabeth Guillette, now a
University of Florida anthropologist. Other studies link pesticide exposure
to infertility, neurological disorders and birth defects.

But most farmworkers have few options for other employment. The vast majority
are recent, non-English speaking immigrants. Since more than half are
undocumented, and a slim slice are unionized, relatively few complain to state
or federal agencies for fear of losing their job or being deported, according
to a 2000 General Accounting Office report. Furthermore, many such workers are

more concerned with such immediate problems as finding adequate housing,
feeding their families and providing health insurance and education for their
children.

Even if they were speaking up about pesticide exposure, fighting for protection
is an uphill battle. In 1939 there were thirty-two pesticide products registered in the United States;

there are now more than 20,000, and farmers use an estimated 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides annually.

This industry is big business with large political clout: Agricultural chemical companies made more than $1.6 million

in campaign contributions in 2001-02. The average farmworker made $8,750 in 1999-2000.

This disparity of wealth and power helps explain why the federal government
has long ignored the plight of farmworkers, creating what has been called one of
the more shameful environmental-health stories in this country's history.
"Despite the fact that farmworkers do extremely hard work and conduct utterly
essential tasks, they are the most ignored, exploited and vulnerable population
in this country. Their health needs are entirely subordinated by the
government's need to make money for big companies," says Shelley Davis, co-
executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, a Washington, DC-based
nonprofit. "When you compare the political power of industry with the power
of farmworkers there's no contest."

The waiting room at the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic in Toppenish,
Washington, is packed with dark-haired children who spill out of chairs to play
on the floor, young men reading Spanish-only newspapers next to an old woman
adorned with dark Jackie O. sunglasses and a fuchsia scarf around her head.
Everyone wears the same tired and impatient look reserved for hospital waiting
rooms. In a back hall of the three-building complex, past a series of bilingual
signs, Dr. Paul Monahan talks about the challenges of diagnosing and treating
pesticide poisoning.

The symptoms are vague. Most farmworkers aren't told what chemicals they are
exposed to, or about the long-term health effects. That means nine out of ten
sick farmworkers won't even mention pesticide exposure as a concern, says
Monahan, an internist for more than thirty years at the clinic. Furthermore,
the medical community and the government have done a poor job of studying the
problem. "There's not much in the textbooks about pesticide exposure in
farmworkers; it's not in the medical journals, and there are no diagnostic tests. Few people are studying this

because there's not a lot of money in it. If you were going to give a lecture on the world of pesticides, there would

be a lot of blank slides," he says. "It's the perfect Catch-22: If you can't find it, it must not be there."

In fact, he says, pesticide poisoning is a big problem--pesticides are the only
things besides war gases that we intentionally put into the environment to harm
things--but because of regulatory failures, exposure continues unabated. When
the EPA registers new pesticide products it balances safety and health concerns
with economics. Yet without the studies that determine cancer and other risks,
critics say, the assessment easily errs on the side of economics. Plus, in the
past several years, the Agricultural Re-entry Task Force, a group formed by
chemical companies, developed new methodologies for determining the health
risks. Even though these methodologies, which systematically underestimate the
amount of worker exposure, were not vetted by the EPA's scientific advisory
panel, and a panel of scientists selected and paid by industry conducted the
peer review, the EPA has begun to use them to evaluate risks.

"This process allows industry more control than usual," says Richard Fenske, a
professor of health sciences at the University of Washington who served on the
industry panel. "It's a mixture of science and politics."  The reason for this cozy relationship between the

EPA and industry, say critics, is that many top agency officials once worked for agricultural or pesticide

companies. Prior to serving in the EPA's number two position, EPA Deputy Administrator Linda Fisher

lobbied for Monsanto, a top agrochemical company. Adam Sharp, associate assistant administrator

in the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, previously worked for the American
Farm Bureau Federation, where he criticized EPA efforts to assess pesticide risks, specifically the application of

an extra tenfold safety margin for children. Two-thirds of the highest-ranking officials since the OPPTS

was established in 1977 now receive at least part of their paycheck from pesticide interests, according to

a report by the Environmental Working Group.

"A pattern of a revolving door between industry and the government creates a
cloud of uncertainty in the public mind," says Gina Solomon, a senior scientist
at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Are the regulators protecting
farmworkers or are they protecting their associates and friends in the private
sector?"

To compound the problem of questionable federal regulations, the EPA has farmed out enforcement to state

governments, which are generally more subject to local
politics than are federal agencies. For example, in Oregon the legislature
recently eliminated funding for a state program that requires farmers to report
to the Department of Agriculture each time they spray pesticides. This would
create baseline data if poisonings or environmental problems should occur. "I
don't believe liabilities exist, because they would have been caught in the
incredibly complicated process of registration," says Jeff Kropf, an Oregon
State Representative and fifth-generation farmer, who fought to gut the
pesticide-tracking program. "We are already highly regulated. It needs to be
proven that uses of certain chemicals damage human beings before we go forward
with knee-jerk regulation."

Thanks to such political pressure, fewer than five states collect accurate,
detailed information about which pesticides are used, where, when and in what
amounts. The federal government has no clearinghouse for the information that
does exist and no specific policy to direct state efforts. Such limited
national oversight coupled with local political pressure means that state
agencies have little incentive to enforce the law. Of the 5,405 inspections of
pesticide poisoning conducted by state departments of agriculture in 2002, only
102 resulted in monetary fines.

"We're a police agency; we should be out looking for problems, but that doesn't
happen. We only conduct investigations when someone files a complaint," says
David Zamora, a pesticide specialist with the Washington State Department of
Agriculture. Local legislators and grower advocates recently pressured Zamora's
boss to fire him because, as one grower put it, he's "overzealous." Still
employed, Zamora worries his job may be on the line. "We shouldn't be listening
to politics [when] making these regulatory decisions, but I see it happening
again and again."

EPA officials insist they are striving to protect workers. The agency has
funded several long-term studies, is working to develop a better pesticide-
poisoning screening process for doctors and has started to compile state
investigations of pesticide exposure. "The program [regulating farmworker
exposure] seems to be working," says Jack Neylan, a Washington, DC-based EPA
branch chief. "This is not to say that it couldn't be improved and nobody
thinks we're there yet, but it's something we will continue to look at and work
on."

Still, farmworkers and their advocates say they have little faith left in the
EPA. Hope for change, say some advocates, lies with reforming immigration
policy to strengthen the political clout of migrant workers. In September,
Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Larry Craig of Idaho
proposed legislation that would give agricultural immigrants rights in federal
court and better access to labor unions. It would allow those who have been
working at least a year without documentation to apply for temporary legal
status and, after three to six more years, permanent residency. Advocates like
Davis say such a policy would enable workers to demand greater legal protection
from pesticides. Workers like Rios aren't placing bets on the government.
Instead, Rios says a safer environment for their children may begin with them.
"I want to own a vineyard someday," he says. Then he interrupts himself with
a laugh and adds, "an organic vineyard."