Fields of Poison

Fields of Poison

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


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.”

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