California’s farmers do amazing work. Though small in number, they produce food in abundance that is consumed by people around the world.
Yet their production can have seriously negative impacts when it comes to the chemicals they use to kill pests, weeds and diseases. Necessary tools that are legal to use, pesticides nonetheless become a big problem whenever they leave the farm and sicken people nearby.
Such was the problem this summer in pesticide drift cases in Tulare and Fresno counties. In both instances, pesticides were applied while farmworkers were in neighboring properties. The result: dozens of sickened workers.
One laborer told The Fresno Bee that his health continues to be adversely affected. Mardonio Solorio says he woke up several nights this summer “coughing blood and gasping for air,” according to a story by Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado. Solorio’s doctor said the ongoing problems stem from pesticide exposure.
The vast number of pesticide applications in California’s orchards, vineyards and fields are done properly every year without mishap. But the incidents highlighted in The Fresno Bee’s report are a reminder that one drift case is one too many. No farming chemical should ever leave a field and poison people working nearby.
Drift cases explained
In June, a crew of workers was in a peach orchard near Kerman in Fresno County when a tractor began driving around the perimeter of an adjoining almond orchard. The applicator on the tractor was spraying an oil to control mites. The chemical is rated by the state as a caution pesticide, meaning precautions must be taken to safely apply it, but its danger to people is at the lowest level.
The applicator did not see the workers in the orchard, and the pesticide drifted over to them. The result was 70 people afflicted with headaches, and irritated eyes and throats.
Now the Fresno County agricultural commissioner is considering whether to criminally charge the almond farmer for creating an illegal exposure to the pesticide.
A week before, a group of 60 farmworkers in a vineyard near Dinuba, in Tulare County, got exposed to a pesticide when the applicator did not know they were there.
The applicator was treating peaches and was in the adjoining orchard before workers had arrived in the vineyard. The wind shifted, blowing the chemical toward the laborers. One of the workers began to vomit, resulting in a 911 emergency call. About 10 people sought medical attention.
The Tulare County agricultural commissioner investigated and found the farm to have violated regulations regarding drift. Two labor contractors were also cited for improper worker training and emergency medical care. The case has been forwarded to the district attorney for review and the ag commissioner is also considering levying a fine.
According to state officials, these cases are outliers: On average, there are 3 million pesticide applications in California each year. Workers get exposed to drift on average about 35 times a year. In 2016, the latest data reported by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, there were 86 episodes of pesticide exposure to workers from drift and other means.
Zero tolerance for pesticide drift
The public’s expectation when it comes to pesticide use is simple: no exposure off the farm. Mistakes happen, people are human – but growers must do more to keep farm chemicals from sickening field workers or blowing into neighborhoods.
Every farmer has a responsibility to make sure each employee understands that goal and abides by it when applications are being made. The pressure to get a chemical applied – be it because pests are multiplying or there is a window of good weather – cannot overrule proper judgment. If pesticides cannot be used properly, don’t apply them.
Regulations currently in place make it clear that pesticide drift is completely unacceptable. The question is whether those responsible for following the regulations take them seriously enough.
Training staff on how to properly apply pesticides is key. No one should be able to drive a tractor and apply farm chemicals without a full understanding of the rules and required safety practices. Those charged with applying these chemicals must also have the courage to tell the boss “not today” if conditions change plans.
To that end, California Farm Bureau offices around the state are hosting “Spray Safe” workshops to provide such training. Kern County Farm Bureau has a workshop coming up in January, and the Fresno County Farm Bureau is planning one sometime this winter as well. The sessions will be in English and Spanish.
For those who refuse to embrace the training and follow the regulations, punishment and enforcement are key. The state gives county ag commissioners up to two years to complete investigations. By then, a bad actor has moved on to treating and harvesting a new crop. State officials must act to shorten the timeline and expedite punishment for offenders.
In 2018, California agriculture earned $50 billion in gross sales. With such earnings, there must be a way to achieve a no-fail process for farmers to safely and efficiently use pesticides.
When it comes to protecting the health and safety of farmworkers, California’s agriculture sector must adopt a policy of zero tolerance for pesticide drift.