Pes­ti­cide ex­po­sures spark fear for state’s grow­ers and work­ers

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY CRESENCIO RO­DRIGUEZ-DEL­GADO cdel­[email protected]­nobee.com

Many nights this sum­mer Mar­do­nio Solorio woke up cough­ing blood and gasp­ing for air.

The 45-year-old Fresno man felt like his lungs were burn­ing.

Solorio’s wife fixed home reme­dies she learned how to pre­pare in their na­tive Mex­ico. She prayed. She lit can­dles and placed them at the foot of a Vir­gin Mary statue in their south­east Fresno apart­ment. Noth­ing worked. Fi­nally, af­ter days of pain, Solorio said a doc­tor told him his health prob­lems were caused by Solorio’s ex­po­sure to chem­i­cals found in pes­ti­cides.

Solorio, who now works a con­struc­tion job, was among dozens of work­ers at a Tu­lare County vine­yard on June 18 who were ex­posed to a chem­i­cal used in pes­ti­cides. The chem­i­cal was sprayed at a nearby peach

IT’S NO EX­AG­GER­A­TION TO SAY THAT PES­TI­CIDE REG­U­LA­TION IS A MAT­TER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

Greg Loarie, staff at­tor­ney for Earthjus­tice

or­chard owned by Peters Fruit Farms. Wind car­ried the chem­i­cal across the trees to the field where Solorio and oth­ers worked.

Ten out of about 54 work­ers sought med­i­cal at­ten­tion.

No penal­ties have been is­sued and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion now is in the hands of the Tu­lare County District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice. It’s the first such case re­ported this year in the county.

But the large-scale ex­po­sure, fol­lowed by an­other in Fresno County a week later, alarmed the farm com­mu­nity and opened old di­vi­sions over pes­ti­cide use and worker pro­tec­tions in the San Joaquin Val­ley.

WORK­ERS AT RISK

A week af­ter the ex­po­sure in June, the sec­ond sim­i­lar in­ci­dent was re­ported near Ker­man. That in­ci­dent – which ex­posed about 63 work­ers – re­mains un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Fresno County Agri­cul­tural Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice.

Al­to­gether, more than 100 farm­work­ers were ex­posed to pes­ti­cides be­tween both in­ci­dents. Some later re­ported ill­nesses.

Solorio said he plans to sue the com­pa­nies in­volved – his con­trac­tor Grape­man La­bor, Inc. and the com­pany re­spon­si­ble for the spray­ing, Peters Fruit Farms. A sec­ond con­trac­tor com­pany, Ro­jim, Inc., also em­ployed work­ers that were ex­posed.

A re­port from the Tu­lare County Agri­cul­tural Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice con­cluded both con­trac­tors at the Tu­lare County vine­yard vi­o­lated work­er­train­ing and emer­gency med­i­cal care rules. The com­mis­sioner’s of­fice said the com­pa­nies also failed to keep suf­fi­cient records and em­ploy­ees were not trained by qual­i­fied in­struc­tors.

The com­mis­sioner’s of­fice also said Peters Fruit Farms vi­o­lated spray­ing rules be­cause the pes­ti­cide was ap­plied when there was a pos­si­bil­ity to con­tam­i­nate ar­eas be­yond the peach farm. The work­ers say they weren’t given no­tice be­fore spray­ing.

Of­fi­cials for Grape­man La­bor, Inc. did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. An of­fi­cial with Peters Fruit Farms de­clined to com­ment, as did work­ers for Holland Farms, an­other com­pany tied to the Fresno County in­ci­dent. Ro­jim, Inc. the sec­ond con­trac­tor in Tu­lare County, could not be reached for com­ment.

‘VERY WOR­RY­ING’

When the wind pushed the pes­ti­cide to­ward the Tu­lare County vine­yard, pan­icked work­ers feared for their lives.

One woman vom­ited and said what she be­lieved were her fi­nal good­byes to fam­ily, ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses.

“What hap­pened is some­thing that is very wor­ry­ing,” Solorio said. “You get scared and think, ‘How many of us here will die?’”

Emer­gency re­spon­ders as­signed each worker a pa­per la­bel des­ig­nat­ing the pos­si­ble sever­ity of ex­po­sure each faced. Solorio and his daugh­ter were deemed mi­nor. A few were con­sid­ered in im­me­di­ate risk of in­jury and were rushed to nearby hospi­tals.

Months later, Solorio still uses the medicine pre­scribed by the com­pany doc­tor in Reed­ley. He said he feels bet­ter now but fears his in­juries are per­ma­nent.

“I was even more scared. When it’s pes­ti­cides, peo­ple say you won’t heal. You can get can­cer or other ill­nesses,” he said. “That’s when I be­came more scared.”

Greg Loarie, staff at­tor­ney for Earthjus­tice, a na­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal law ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, said worker anx­i­eties should be taken se­ri­ously.

“It’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that pes­ti­cide reg­u­la­tion is a mat­ter of life and death,” Loarie said. “It is ab­so­lutely un­ac­cept­able that farm­work­ers are ex­pected to ac­cept this risk.”

PES­TI­CIDES A LONG­TIME CON­CERN

In 2017, 32 mil­lion pounds of pes­ti­cides were un­loaded onto Fresno County crops and 19 mil­lion pounds were used in Tu­lare County. Fresno County uses the great­est amount of pes­ti­cide out of all Cal­i­for­nia coun­ties, ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tions.

In Cal­i­for­nia, safety pol­icy en­force­ment is left up to the coun­ties and an un­der­stand­ing ex­ists in writ­ing that the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health, the Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion and county agri­cul­ture com­mis­sions all have a level of re­spon­si­bil­ity in deal­ing with po­ten­tial ef­fects of pes­ti­cides.

The re­gional EPA of­fice con­firmed it is aware of the Val­ley in­ci­dents and said of­fi­cials are work­ing with the Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion. Lo­cal ag com­mis­sion­ers are dis­cussing step­ping up aware­ness for grow­ers and field work­ers fol­low­ing the in­ci­dents.

Since 2017, the Fresno County District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice has re­viewed, on av­er­age, about five pes­ti­cide-re­lated cases per year.

As­sis­tant District At­tor­ney Steve Wright said his of­fice is work­ing on im­prov­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Tu­lare County District At­tor­ney Stu­art An­der­son said the re­cent pes­ti­cide case was the only one re­ceived this year.

The Depart­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion in 2015 iden­ti­fied 1,187 cases in­volv­ing pes­ti­cide ex­po­sure statewide, a nearly 10% in­crease since 2014. Thirty-three per­cent of all cases were as­so­ci­ated with agri­cul­ture.

The depart­ment’s 2016 pes­ti­cide re­port has not yet been pub­lished.

ED­U­CA­TION VS. REG­U­LA­TION?

Tom Tucker, Tu­lare County ag com­mis­sioner, said farm­ers don’t want more reg­u­la­tions.

“When word like this gets out, ev­ery­body be­comes ex­tra aware,” Tucker said. “We can use that as a pos­i­tive mo­ti­va­tion for ev­ery­body to learn from. I am send­ing my staff and my su­per­vi­sors to meet­ings to use this as a frame of ref­er­ence or an ex­am­ple on how to pre­vent (pes­ti­cide drift).”

Tucker at­tended a meet­ing of of­fi­cials from mul­ti­ple coun­ties across the re­gion to discuss re­cent events.

Some farm­ing of­fi­cials plan to in­tro­duce the “Spray Safe” pro­gram in Fresno, Tu­lare and Kings coun­ties, an ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram that runs on a vol­un­teer ba­sis, ac­cord­ing to Ruthann An­der­son, pres­i­dent of Cal­i­for­nia As­so­ci­a­tion of Pest Con­trol Ad­vis­ers.

An­der­son said the pro­gram teaches work­ers how to spray re­spon­si­bly. Its roll­out is planned in the com­ing months. The pro­gram al­ready is in place in at least 16 coun­ties, An­der­son said.

Melissa Cre­gan, Fresno County ag com­mis­sioner, said pes­ti­cides are used thousands of times each year and rarely sicken work­ers. She said more en­force­ment isn’t the an­swer. She sup­ports the “Spray Safe” work­shop as an ed­u­ca­tional tool pro­mot­ing worker safety that re­minds grow­ers of the rules al­ready in place to pre­vent harm.

How­ever, the pro­gram has no en­force­ment mech­a­nism and runs on a vol­un­teer ba­sis.

Cre­gan said im­prov­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ed­u­ca­tion would be more ef­fec­tive than ad­di­tional gov­ern­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. She said the goal is to re­duce the num­ber of in­ci­dents.

“None of this changes how we do our jobs when an in­ci­dent oc­curs,” Cre­gan said. “We still have all of our re­quire­ments, man­dates and au­thor­i­ties.”

Laorie, the Earthjus­tice at­tor­ney, said the pro­gram has good in­ten­tions, but said it shouldn’t be a sub­sti­tute for stricter en­force­ment.

Agri­cul­ture of­fi­cials gen­er­ally push back against the idea of re­duc­ing pes­ti­cide use, say­ing the chem­i­cals are needed to keep food safe, but they say they do rec­og­nize the fears.

“There is al­ways go­ing to be risk when you have peo­ple and ac­tiv­i­ties that could be detri­men­tal to peo­ple,” Cre­gan said. “The world is a risk. All we can do is try to min­i­mize these risks.”

Laorie called Cre­gan’s re­marks “dis­mis­sive” and said farm­work­ers shouldn’t be forced to sim­ply ac­cept the risk of chem­i­cal ex­po­sure. “I agree that at some level there’s prob­a­bly no amount of train­ing and no amount of pro­tec­tive gear that is go­ing to work all the time,” he said. “The bottom line is that we know how to grow food with­out re­sort­ing to these chem­i­cals.”

But while in­ves­ti­ga­tions con­tinue and au­thor­i­ties hash out fu­ture solutions, Solorio said work­ers re­main vul­ner­a­ble.

He said he’s look­ing out for those who are afraid to speak out and has trav­eled with the United Farm­work­ers Union to Sacra­mento to share his con­cerns with law­mak­ers.

“We risk our lives,” Solorio said. “We wake up fine in the morn­ing to go to work, but we don’t know if we’ll make it back home alive.”

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA [email protected]­nobee.com

Mar­do­nio Solorio, left, and his daugh­ter Ad­di­lene Solorio hold bags con­tain­ing con­tam­i­nated cloth­ing from the day they were ex­posed to chem­i­cals near a vine­yard.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA [email protected]­nobee.com

Mar­do­nio Solorio, one of nearly 60 farm work­ers who were ex­posed to chem­i­cals near a vine­yard, holds a tag he wore out­lin­ing his de­gree of ex­po­sure for med­i­cal per­son­nel.

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