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By Dick Meister

Decisive action is needed -- and needed now -- to protect California's farmworkers from the often severe effects of pesticide poisoning that they've faced for far too many years.

That was made evident yet again in a recent report from a coalition of three worker advocacy and environmental groups -- Californians for Pesticide Reform -- that followed up several largely ignored earlier studies.

Sure, there are state laws that are supposed to protect farmworkers. But, as the report and the previous studies showed, the laws are not nearly strong enough and are in any case only barely enforced.

Many workers are almost routinely exposed to dangers, most by pesticides that drift from nearby fields where they are being applied or by pesticide residue on fruits, vegetables and the soil in the fields where they work.

Uncontrollable trembling, blackouts, pounding headaches, nausea, swollen lips and tongues, vomiting, fatigue, unusual muscle pain, numbness in the extremities -- all are among the immediate results of such exposure.

Long term results can be devastating: cancer, serious damage to the brain and nervous system, birth defects in the worker's children.

It's impossible to say just how many of the state's 700,000 farmworkers have suffered from pesticide poisoning. But it is clear that most of them have at least been exposed to the danger, given the widespread use of pesticides and the woefully lax enforcement of the laws that are supposed to guarantee that they are used safely.

What's more, many workers do not report violations for fear that they could be fired for complaining -- an illegal but common farm employer tactic. Many fear even to seek medical attention -- or can't afford to.

California's Department of Pesticide Regulation did report that violations were found in nearly one-third of the inspections conducted between 1997 and 2001. Other studies indicated that violations regularly occur on more than 40 percent of California farms.

Yet authorities rarely levy fines or take even such mild enforcement action as issuing official warnings -- not even in cases of clearly proved pesticide poisoning.

The new report found that in the most recent fiscal year, for instance, fines were levied in fewer than 20 percent of the cases where violations were proved. And most of the fines were less than $400.

More is needed, however, than simply enforcing current laws. The report noted that nearly 40 percent of the recent cases of pesticide poisoning occurred even though no laws were found to have been violated.

"We need consistent, stiff penalties to send a message to the applicating companies and the farms that unsafe pesticide practices won't be tolerated," noted one of the report's authors, Anne Katten of California Rural Legal Assistance.

She and others in the coalition that issued the report are demanding outright prohibition of pesticides found to be hazardous to humans, longer waiting periods between the spraying of pesticides and re-entry into the fields that have been sprayed, significantly raising and consistently levying fines for violations, improving farmworkers' access to pesticide information and medical treatment and other vital steps.

As Katten said, it's time for the state "to move from counting poisonings and violations to making the fields safe for workers."

Copyright 2002 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist, who's co-author of "A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers" (Macmillan).

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