FIELDS OF POISON
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
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
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).