PALM BEACH POST

June 20, 2005

 

Woman details ordeal of coping with cancer she ties to pesticides

 

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Migdalia Morales was playing basketball with her nieces one day in 1997 when an errant pass hit her in the chest.

"I suddenly felt a tremendous pain," she remembers. "It knocked me down, left me without breath and I couldn't get up. That's when I started to think I had something in there."

What was in there turned out to be a cancerous tumor 4 inches wide. Morales, then 30, says she had no history of cancer in her family. It took many months before a specialist at Duke University in North Carolina confirmed the cause of her near-fatal illness.

"He said it was the chemicals I used at work," recalls Morales, who was forced to undergo a blood stem-cell transplant, later won a $400,000 workers compensation claim and is now on disability payments, living in West Palm Beach.

Morales, a native of Puerto Rico, was a pesticide sprayer for Aquatic Vegetation Control in Riviera Beach, a company that holds government contracts for the eradication of unwanted vegetation, including a $3.1 million U.S. Interior Department pact it signed in October.

No investigation was ever done of her case by state investigators responsible for monitoring pesticide-related injuries or illnesses, according to both Morales and the president of the company, David Burney.

Recently, another pesticide sprayer for the company, Mexican migrant Ciro Diaz, filed a workers compensation claim alleging the same dangerous work conditions Morales said she had endured. Those conditions included carrying on his back tanks of toxic pesticides that leaked and ran all over his body, being covered with mist from errant pesticide spray and being issued inadequate protective gear.

Diaz is suffering from severe skin burns over his face, neck, shoulders and arms and part of his chest. It is not clear what other, internal conditions he might have because he has not been examined fully, said his attorneys.

In Diaz's case, an investigation was instigated after the Farmworker Association of Florida filed a complaint with the state. According to Burney, state pesticide inspectors who recently visited AVC in response to the Diaz case have not issued him a fine, despite indications of the same dangerous work conditions eight years after the Morales case occurred.

"We have a good relationship with those folks," Burney says of the inspectors. He says his company has never been fined for violation of pesticide regulations.

Departments duel over records

Just how the latest investigation of AVC will turn out isn't clear. Dale Dubberly, pesticide inspection chief for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told The Palm Beach Post, "The case is still open."

Dubberly also indicated to The Post that he had no knowledge of the previous case involving Morales.

How could that be, given that the previous case involved a serious pesticide-induced illness at the same company and a state workers compensation settlement? State pesticide inspectors say they have been denied access to workers compensation data by another state entity, the Florida Department of Financial Services, which oversees compensation claims.

"We have no access to that information," Dubberly said.

Omar Shafey, an epidemiologist and former head of the Florida Department of Health pesticide exposure program, says he fought a running battle for the two years he worked for the state, 1998-2000, trying to obtain workers compensation information to trace pesticide illness and injuries.

California, which has the best pesticide surveillance program in the country, collects the great majority of its information on such illnesses and injuries from workers compensation data.

But Shafey says state officials blocked his access to the data, claiming that allowing him to view the reports would violate the privacy of the compensation recipients. Shafey says even after he proposed ways to avoid those violations of privacy concerns, his superiors refused to solve the problem.

"I got nowhere," Shafey says. "They stonewalled. I was told outright by my superiors at the health department that they had to worry about the harm that information might do to the agriculture industry."

Advocates for farmworkers say that, given changes in state record keeping with computer technology, Dubberly and his investigators now could access that public data if they wanted but simply don't do so.

"Nobody does more than they have to," says Tania Galloni, an attorney formerly of the Migrant Farm Worker Justice Project of Lake Worth, speaking of state employees.

Blurry picture of safety measures

In the case of AVC and its sprayers, the state's policy keeps from inspectors a true picture of a company's adherence to safety regulations. Morales says she worked for AVC from 1993 to 1997, spraying chemicals that killed nuisance vegetation, such as algae in waterways, duckweed, bladderwort and grasses. She worked on golf courses, often in boats, but also from trucks along major highways, such as Interstate 95, killing undergrowth on medians and along fences.

"They gave us short-sleeved shirts to use, and a lot of the time I just worked in shorts," Morales says. She also was given plastic gloves and a simple paper face mask, she says.

She stopped working June 5, 1997, when a CAT scan revealed the tumor. By that time, her discomfort had worsened.

"I would wake up at 3 a.m., screaming with the pain," Morales says. "I would just roll up in a ball."

She received radiation treatments, chemotherapy and then the stem-cell transplant, which involved removing all of her blood from her body and removing some of her stem cells, which were frozen for a time before the cells were returned to her body. The procedure was done at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"At one point, they told my sister, 'Get the funeral ready because she probably won't make it,' " Morales says. But she did.

Her lawyers eventually won a workers compensation settlement of $400,000 for medical expenses, attorneys fees and disability. She gets only $430 a month from that settlement and lives also from Social Security and support payments for her one child, Morales says.

"The company argued at first that the chemicals didn't cause her condition," says attorney Gerald Rosenthal, who represented Morales. "They said the cancer she had, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, was a condition that was known to occur in young women."

But Rosenthal sent Morales to Dr. Woodhall Stopford of Duke University, a toxicologist and nationally recognized expert on such work-related illnesses.

"It was when he saw that one of the chemicals I had used was 2,4-D that he said how I'd gotten sick," Morales says. "I should have known it was bad because, if it got on you, it really burned. We used to carry vinegar to put on ourselves to stop the burning."

The chemical 2,4-D was one of the two ingredients in Agent Orange, the defoliant U.S. forces used during the Vietnam War, which has been linked to illnesses, including various kinds of cancer, in Vietnam veterans.

Intensity of exposure key, attorney says

Ciro Diaz, the Mexican worker, filled the same job as Morales at AVC, that of pesticide sprayer, seven years later. He worked there from August 2004 to January of this year, a much shorter time than Morales.

But duration of employment is not the crucial factor, Rosenthal says. "I'm told it isn't the length of the exposure, but the strength of the exposure that matters," he says.

Diaz, like Morales, said his clothes often were soaked with the chemicals he used. Patrick Folan, an investigator for Diaz's attorneys, said when he first met the young man, the outline of the pesticide tank was visible on his back, surrounded by "suppurating" lesions from the chemicals.

According to both Morales and Diaz, the chemicals ate away at the rubber seals around the lids of the tanks, and that is what caused the leaking as the workers bent over to get under vines and made other brusque movements.

"They know that the backpacks do that," Morales says. "They already saw what they went through with me. They should tell them, if it spills take it off."

Burney admits the backpacks leak. He says his company has upgraded the brand of backpacks it uses, but the problem has persisted.

"This has been problem not just with us but throughout the industry," he says.

But Burney says he had never been fined for it and doesn't know anyone else in his business who has. The firm still uses 2,4-D but less than it did before because it is no longer approved for aquatic organisms, only for use on land, he says.

Burney also says other experts disagree with Stopford and do not believe that the 2,4-D could have caused Morales' cancer. He calls the decision to settle the case "more of a business decision than a moral decision."

Morales disagrees. She believes her cancer was caused by the chemicals she sprayed and nothing else.

"Maybe he doesn't have anything inside," she says of Diaz, tapping her own chest. "I worked there a lot longer than he did, but the tumor was also in there a long time before they found it. I hope no one else gets it. I went through a nightmare."